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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Coronavirus is already the most serious threat to the U.S. economy since the financial crisis, and the dominoes are aligned for a severe recession that could erase much of the 11-year recovery.

What's happening: While the outbreak itself is unlikely to drive an economic collapse, the U.S. has been something of a ticking time bomb for some time.

  • Growth has declined over the last two years despite higher government spending and a $23.4 trillion national debt.
  • While the labor market has boomed, many of the jobs added have been hourly service-industry positions that offer limited scope for savings or health insurance.
  • 44% of all U.S. workers earn barely enough to live on, a Brookings Institution study found in January.

Where it stands: While President Trump said late Monday that he would work with Senate Republicans on a "very substantial" payroll tax cut and relief for hourly workers, such measures — if they can be enacted — could still be insufficient to fend off a recession.

At the same time, corporate America is more heavily indebted than ever before, due to years of record-low interest rates and increased borrowing.

  • The Federal Reserve has repeatedly warned that this spike in leveraged lending — combined with loosening covenants — has created risks not only to bond issuers, but also to the wide network of hedge funds and mutual funds (yes, mutual funds) that actually hold the debt.
  • In short, it's an economic haystack awaiting a match.

One big difference between 2020 and 2008 is breadth. The financial crisis began with financial services companies and insurers, which meant bailouts and structural fixes could be aimed at Wall Street. But this crisis is hitting the entire economy with a single blow — harming not just the Fortune 500, but also mom-and-pop businesses.

Between the lines: The cavalry may not be coming to the rescue this time.

  • The Federal Reserve, which helped rescue the economy after the 2008 crisis, is effectively out of ammunition.
  • Starting in 2007, the Fed cut interest rates by 500 basis points, bought an unprecedented amount of U.S. debt and unleashed a flurry of stimulus programs that propped up the economy.
  • Rather than winding them down, the Fed has had to extend the programs throughout the recovery.
  • As a result, after last week's emergency rate cut — and possibly another that's expected at next week's policy meeting — the central bank has limited ability to take action.

Threat level: Government also increasingly looks broken. The dysfunction in Washington is dimming hopes for major fiscal stimulus that economists say will be needed to offset the outbreak's negative impact.

  • The $8 billion allotted to coronavirus so far "is an insult," Claudia Sahm, who formerly served as top economist for the Fed's Board of Governors, tells Axios. "It has to be hundreds of billions of dollars, and it has to be now."
  • "I want to see it — and maybe I will," Sahm, now director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, says. "But without that piece, we are in a recession before the end of the year."

Go deeper

Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults

A vaccination center installed at the Barbara Chapel of St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, Austria. Photo: Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images

Austria's lower house of parliament voted on Thursday in favor of making COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for most adults from next month.

Why it matters: The bill is expected to soon pass the upper house and be signed by President Alexander Van der Bellen in order for the law to take effect Feb. 1, per Reuters. It'd make Austria the first EU nation to impose such a sweeping mandate.

Hope King, author of Closer
Updated 3 hours ago - Economy & Business

Peloton pumps its brakes

Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

Peloton’s popularity is falling as swiftly as it shot up.

Why it matters: Not all pandemic habits stick around. Peloton's trajectory over the past two years exemplifies how challenging it's been for companies to gauge shifts in consumer demand — particularly in sectors heavily altered by the pandemic.

Mitch McConnell's remarks on Black voters raise ire

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell during a Capitol Hill news conference earlier this year. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been widely criticized for comments he made this week about Black American voters.

Driving the news: When asked by a reporter Wednesday about concerns among voters of color, McConnell said "the concern is misplaced, because if you look at the statistics, Black American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans."