Mar 25, 2021 - Economy & Business

One year later: The crisis that wasn't, and the crisis that was

Data: YCharts; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: YCharts; Chart: Axios Visuals

The economic crash was bad, but it turned out not to be nearly as bad as many economists feared.

Flashback: A year ago this week, economist Nouriel Roubini published a column in which he speculated that we could be entering a "Greater Depression" even harsher than the Great Depression of the 1930s.

  • We wouldn't have a V-shaped recovery, he wrote: "Rather, it looks like an I: a vertical line representing financial markets and the real economy plummeting."
  • St. Louis Fed president James Bullard was also highly bearish, predicting that the U.S. unemployment rate would hit 30% in the second quarter.

The reality was much less dire. Unemployment spiked to 14.8% in April and then rapidly fell back; it's now 6.2%, which is where it was in July 2014.

  • Total employment stands at 143 million, well below pre-pandemic levels but still just back to where we were at the beginning of 2016.
  • U.S. GDP now looks set to reclaim its pre-pandmic levels either this quarter or next.

Context: Roubini was right that the U.S. would fail to implement "widespread COVID-19 testing, tracing, and treatment measures, enforced quarantines, and a full-scale lockdown."

  • He turned out to be wrong that such a regime would be a necessary precondition for economic recovery. Instead, the U.S. made its peace with 544,000 deaths and counting.

The bottom line: Thanks to expansive fiscal and monetary policy, the economic contraction didn't become a financial crisis. Indeed, markets became part of the engine bringing the economy back to life.

  • The true calamity was not economic, but rather humanitarian: an average of roughly 1,500 Americans dying of COVID-19 every day for the past year.
Go deeper