Oct 21, 2020 - Economy & Business

Why the stimulus delay isn't a crisis (yet)

Illustration of rolls of quarters as the dynamite in a timebomb
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If the impasse between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House on a new stimulus deal is supposed to be a crisis, you wouldn't know it from the stock market, where prices continue to rise.

  • That's been in no small part because U.S. economic data has held up remarkably well in recent months thanks to the $2 trillion CARES Act and Americans' unusual ability to save during the crisis.

By the numbers: The median jobless worker received unemployment benefits "equal to 145% of their pre-job loss wages, compared to 50% in normal times" thanks to the CARES Act's $600-per-week unemployment supplement, a report from the JPMorgan Chase & Co. Institute found.

  • Additionally, the creation of special pandemic unemployment programs allowed millions more out-of-work Americans to access jobless benefits, which amounted to 7% of total personal income in June — a record far exceeding the 1.3% peak during the Great Recession.
  • Unemployed Americans "roughly doubled their liquid savings over the four month period between March and July 2020." The report notes, however, that they "then spent two-thirds of the accumulated savings in August alone."

The results: The percentage of people who said their ability to afford household goods had improved was the highest since early June in the latest Axios/Ipsos nationwide poll, tied for the best since the survey began in March.

  • National Multifamily Housing Council data show that 94.6% of Americans paid their rent by month-end in September, nearly matching the 95.5% who did so in September 2019.
  • U.S. retail spending rose for the fifth straight month to its highest level on record in September.
  • And the average U.S. credit score improved during the pandemic, reaching the highest in July since FICO began keeping track in 2005. Early estimates suggest scores held steady through mid-October.

The big picture: "The CARES Act worked. It delivered a massive amount of financial support and put a huge financial safety net under families very quickly," David Wilcox, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, tells Axios.

  • "And then Americans were smart — they did rational things that an economist would’ve told them to, which is to hedge against the possibility that that $600 benefit might not be a permanent thing."

Yes, but: Not all the data have been so rosy. A study of the pandemic's impact on food insecurity found that in April 22.8% of U.S. households were food insecure, and 34.5% of households with children.

  • For households with children, that's more than triple the rate economists had projected before the pandemic began.
  • A separate study found overall household food insecurity at similar levels in July.

What's next: The economy has held up much better than experts had predicted, but the numbers are starting to show strain. Job gains have slowed considerably since May, manufacturing and production are contracting and 26.5 million people are receiving unemployment, with 14 million at risk of losing benefits when pandemic programs expire at year end.

  • "Eventually, without further government support or significant labor market improvements, jobless workers may exhaust their accumulated savings buffer, leaving them with a choice to further cut spending or fall behind on debt or rent payments," analysts at JPMorgan said in their report.

The bottom line: At worst, passing a stimulus bill would be a form of insurance on the recovery, Mike Fratantoni, chief economist of the Mortgage Bankers Association, tells Axios.

  • "If you listen to the public health experts there is a real risk that we see a second or third wave and the course of the pandemic could get worse from here."
  • "If you’re a policymaker, having that insurance or risk management mindset makes a lot of sense right now."
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