With Resurgence in COVID Cases, NRF Chief Economist Says Economic Recovery is ‘Being Tested Daily’

WASHINGTON–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Despite broad indications that the economy has begun to recover as businesses reopen from the coronavirus pandemic, conflicting data makes it difficult to say how steadily the comeback will continue, National Retail Federation Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said today.

“A key question is whether the pace of growth and momentum will carry forward over the next few months”

“Optimism about the economy and retail spending is being tested daily with the spread of the coronavirus,” Kleinhenz said. “Big questions are looming, and we are all grappling to discern what incoming data is telling us about the health of the economy and consumers. Depending on the data selected, the answers are not entirely clear.”

“A key question is whether the pace of growth and momentum will carry forward over the next few months,” Kleinhenz said. “Based on quarterly and monthly data, the U.S. economic recovery continues despite elevated COVID-19 cases. But in examining weekly data, the pace of improvement appears to be slowing. Could it be that we are at or heading back to the same spot we were at two months ago?”

Kleinhenz’s remarks came in the August issue of NRF’s Monthly Economic Review, which said monthly indicators showed the economy improving in May and June but that more frequent data showed the pace of recovery flattening by mid-July.

Economists traditionally look at monthly and quarterly numbers to gauge the status of businesses and consumers. But the release of that data lags weeks behind when it is collected. And with the situation changing rapidly since the outbreak of the coronavirus early this year, more frequent information has been needed to keep up. In response, the Federal Reserve and others have begun tracking some indicators as often as weekly.

Consumer spending was up 8.2 percent in May, for example, ending two consecutive months of decline, and up another 5.6 percent in June. Meanwhile, retail spending as calculated by NRF – excluding automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants to focus on core retail – was up 4.9 percent in June. Monthly numbers for July are not available yet. But the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Weekly Economic Index – a composite of indicators – worsened from -6.65 percent on July 18 to -7.24 percent as of July 25, with officials citing a decrease in retail sales. The weekly Mobility and Engagement Index from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas also showed the economy leveling off in mid-July.

In the labor market, 4.8 million jobs were added in June as the unemployment rate ticked down to 11.1 percent from 13 percent in May. The monthly jobs data, however, was collected before the recent resurgence in COVID-19 cases. By contrast, weekly data showed that 1.4 million initial unemployment claims were filed the week of July 18. That was a rise of about 100,000 from the week before and reversed a steady decline in claims since a peak of 6.9 million the last week of March.

While many of the weekly reports initially agreed with the monthly data and “showed the economy on a good start down the recovery runway, they now suggest that the economy is moving sideways,” Kleinhenz said. “Time will tell, but the bottom line is that the economy is far from being out of the woods. The question is whether it is re-entering the woods.”

With many economists saying the timeline of the recovery will be determined by the efforts to control the virus, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland conducted a survey in early July that found 89.9 percent of those polled wear a mask for activities such as shopping in a grocery store. The bank said it conducted the survey because masks “have the potential to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 without greatly disrupting economic activity.”

About NRF

The National Retail Federation, the world’s largest retail trade association, passionately advocates for the people, brands, policies and ideas that help retail thrive. From its headquarters in Washington, D.C., NRF empowers the industry that powers the economy. Retail is the nation’s largest private-sector employer, contributing $3.9 trillion to annual GDP and supporting one in four U.S. jobs — 52 million working Americans. For over a century, NRF has been a voice for every retailer and every retail job, educating, inspiring and communicating the powerful impact retail has on local communities and global economies.

More Temporary Coronavirus Business Closures Turning Permanent, Yelp Reports

KEY POINTS

  • Only 24% of the businesses that were closed in April had reopened by July 10
  • Permanent closures now account for 55% of all closures
  • Of the 26,160 restaurants and bars that were closed in July, 15,770 plan to stay that way permanently

A Yelp analysis indicated Wednesday fewer businesses are closing temporarily as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but permanent closures are growing. At the same time, data indicated the number of COVID-19 cases increased as consumer interest in restaurants, bars, nightlife and health clubs rose.

U.S. cases of coronavirus began surging as states lifted restrictions imposed in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, especially in the South and West where instances initially were low in the spring and restrictions were lifted rapidly.

The U.S. has recorded nearly 3.9 million coronavirus infections and nearly 142,000 deaths from COVID-19. Nearly 58,000 new cases were reported Tuesday along with more than 470 deaths.

Yelp reported in April 175,000 businesses had closed because of pandemic lockdowns. As of July 10, that number fell to 132,000, indicating only 24% of those businesses had reopened. And although temporary closures are falling, permanent closures are growing, accounting for 55% of all closures since March 1.

Of the 26,160 closed restaurants and bars in July, 15,770 have closed permanently.

Among retail businesses, 29% of the 26,119 closures are permanent.

“How durable the improvement in retail spending will be is directly related to how widespread the resurgence in COVID-19 cases becomes,” NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said in a press release. “All eyes are on the infections that are accelerating in many parts of the country and they pose a serious threat to recovery.”

Retail sales for June were up 7.5% compared to 18.2% in May, the Census Bureau reported. Restaurant and bar sales for June totaled $47.4 billion, $18 billion under prepandemic levels, the National Restaurant Association reported.

Yelp data indicated the 10 states with the largest increases in COVID-19 cases in June and significant increases in consumer interest in restaurants, bars and nightlife, and gyms were Florida, Idaho, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Kansas and Alabama.

Massachusetts, Michigan, the District of Columbia, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Virginia and Illinois not only had the largest decreases in COVID-19 cases but showed flat interest in restaurants, bars, nightlife and health clubs.

Yelp said there also has been a shift in consumer trends since May. Interest in alcohol-related activities is up while grocery interest is down. Formal wear and bridal shops also saw growing interest, as is axe throwing, escape games and boxing.

Additionally, there is growing consumer interest in urgent care and emergency rooms.

International Business Times

Four Numbers That Show How Coronavirus Is Dramatically Reshaping Retail As We Know It

FORBES

As the coronavirus pandemic ravages an already-struggling retail landscape, the divide between “essential” and “non-essential” businesses has been thrown into stark relief. “COVID-19 has hit the retail industry unevenly,” National Retail Federation Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said. “This is a market of haves and have-nots. The haves are the stores that remain open with lines out the doors to buy daily necessities while the have-nots are the stores that have closed and are taking the brunt of the impact of the pandemic.”

Here are four numbers that sum up retail right now.

8.7%

That’s how much retail sales in the United States dropped in March, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, from $529 billion in February to $438 billion in March. This monthly drop is the largest ever recorded, the National Retail Federation notes, far exceeding the retail contraction during the financial crisis that saw sales drop 4.3% in November 2008.

$1 billion

That’s how much cash Gap Inc. has burned since February, according to a recent regulatory filing. On Thursday, Gap said it would not pay April rent for its stores—a move the company says will save it $115 million per month. It also cut executive pay and furloughed tens of thousands of employees.

100,000

Analysts at UBS are predicting that 100,000 retail stores will close by 2025 as a result of the coronavirus. As e-commerce picks up, brick and mortar clothing stores, consumer electronics, furniture, and grocery stores are likely to bear the brunt of the impact.

19,000

According to a recent LinkedIn study, Kroger KR currently has about 19,000 open jobs— that’s more than 2.5 times its usual total. The number underscores that while many outlets are struggling, business at “essential” retailers like grocery stores is surging, especially as online ordering ramps up. LinkedIn’s data reveals that in March, job applications in essential retail soared 88% across the country.

‘Pretty Catastrophic’ Month for Retailers, and Now a Race to Survive

March brought a record sales plunge as the coronavirus outbreak closed stores. A long shutdown could leave lasting changes in the shopping landscape.

Retail sales plunged in March, offering a grim snapshot of the coronavirus outbreak’s effect on consumer spending, as businesses shuttered from coast to coast and wary shoppers restricted their spending.

Total sales, which include retail purchases in stores and online as well as money spent at bars and restaurants, fell 8.7 percent from the previous month, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. The decline was by far the largest in the nearly three decades the government has tracked the data.

Even that bleak figure doesn’t capture the full impact of the sudden economic freeze on the retail industry. Most states didn’t shut down nonessential businesses until late March or early April, meaning data for the current month could be worse still.

“It was a pretty catastrophic drop-off in that back half of the month,” said Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester Research. She said April “may be one of the worst months ever.”

The resulting job losses continue to mount. Best Buy, which has 125,000 employees over all, said Wednesday that it would furlough 51,000 hourly store workers beginning Sunday, including nearly all of its part-time staff.

And in the months ahead, the question is how quickly spending will bounce back once the economy reopens, and how many businesses will survive until then.

People who lose jobs won’t quickly resume spending once businesses reopen. And those willing to spend may be reluctant to congregate in malls, restaurants and other businesses that rely on face-to-face contact.

Michelle Cordeiro Grant, chief executive and founder of Lively, a lingerie brand acquired by Wacoal last year, said it wasn’t clear how customers would want to shop and “what the new culture of shopping in physical retail will be.”

“Do they want to have a different type of fitting-room experience?” she mused. “Do they want our associates to wear masks and to be offered a mask? What is the try-on situation?”

When demand does rebound, it might come too late for some retailers, many of which were struggling even before the pandemic because of changes in mall traffic and a long-term shift to online sales.

The disruptions from the pandemic may ultimately hand more power to retailers able to continue operating stores during the crisis.

“It’s only going to cause a shakeout of a lot of retailers, and I think long term it just means that some of these big guys get less competition,” Ms. Kodali said. “The less competition they have, the worse they can treat everybody, whether it’s a supplier, a customer or an employee.”

Economists often distinguish demand that is deferred because of a crisis from demand that is destroyed. Retail probably has some of each. Someone who needs a new dishwasher might put off the purchase but will probably buy one eventually. But an office worker who puts off a springtime wardrobe refresh might just skip a year, meaning those sales are simply lost.

“Pent-up demand is what drives recoveries, and the good news there is we will come out of this with some degree of pent-up demand,” said Ellen Zentner, chief U.S. economist for Morgan Stanley. She added, however, that there are “a lot of caveats.”

Apparel retailers, in particular, seem to be preparing for a substantial amount of destroyed demand. Deborah Weinswig, founder of Coresight Research, an advisory and research firm that specializes in retail and technology, said she had spoken with retailers who were preparing for holiday sales to be 40 percent lower than last year.

Gap, which has been trying to rehabilitate its namesake brand in recent years with limited success, said it would continue “aggressively” closing the brand’s stores.

“This crisis will absolutely set a new baseline for what component of the fleet we want to keep,” Katrina O’Connell, Gap’s chief financial officer, said last week on a conference call with analysts and investors.

Clothing stores were especially hard hit in last month’s plunge, with sales falling by more than half. Spending on cars and car parts fell more than 25 percent in March, seasonally adjusted. Sales at gas stations, pushed down by low oil prices as well as reduced commuting, fell 17 percent. The exceptions were grocery stores, pharmacies and other sellers of essential items, which had a surge of demand as consumers stocked up.

Previously, the largest one-month drop in retail sales came in the fall of 2008, when the financial crisis led spending to plunge nearly 4 percent for two straight months. Sales ended up falling more than 12 percent before they began to recover. But as bad as that downturn was, sales never ground to a halt the way they have in recent weeks, said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist for the National Retail Federation.

“It was a very severe contraction, but the gears of the economy were still working,” he said.

The rebound this time will probably look different as well, Mr. Kleinhenz said. After the last recession, it took a while for consumers to feel that their jobs were secure and that they could resume spending. Now there will be the added hurdle of assuring shoppers of their physical safety.

“The fear can be as damaging to the economy as the disease itself,” he said.

What happens to retail matters to the broader economy. The sector accounts for more than one in 10 U.S. jobs; only health care employs more. Its stores generate billions of dollars in rent for commercial landlords, ad sales for local media outlets, and sales-tax receipts for state and local governments.

If retailers survive and can quickly reopen and rehire workers, the eventual economic recovery could be relatively swift. But the failure of a large share of businesses would lead to prolonged unemployment and a much slower rebound.

Economic policymakers in Washington have been trying to avoid that kind of cascade of business failures. The $2 trillion emergency package passed by Congress and programs announced by the Federal Reserve include government-backed loans and grants to keep businesses afloat.

Those initiatives have gotten off to a rocky start, however, with many businesses reporting difficulty applying for loans.

“They need lifeboats, and the lifeboats aren’t getting out there fast enough,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton. “This is a time when speed matters more than bureaucracy.”

John Horrocks closed BlackBird Frame & Art, a custom framing business in Asheville, N.C., because of county orders on March 26 and anticipates it will remain closed through May. Mr. Horrocks, who owns the shop with his wife, is working with a local bank to secure a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which would help pay the staff until the business reopens.

Mr. Horrocks, 65, said that he expected to make payroll through May “without a problem,” but that “beyond that, it gets very, very difficult.”

recent survey by a team of academic economists found that two-thirds of small-business owners said they could carry on if the crisis lasted a month, but only a third said they would survive if the disruption dragged on for four months.

“There’s no question that if it goes on for four to six months, it will be catastrophic,” said Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economist who was one of the study’s authors. “For many businesses, almost assuredly the answer will be closure.”

The steep sales drop underscores the huge role that physical stores continue to play within retailing. Even as online businesses at major apparel chains and department stores have gained ground in recent years, they can’t make up for the shuttering of malls and stores.

“We’re going to come out of this having accelerated some of the trends that were already in place,” Ms. Zentner of Morgan Stanley said. “Internet taking share from brick and mortar, that’s going to be accelerated.”

Some chains have recently rolled out contact-free curbside pickup for products. But in the long run, retailers want customers to walk around stores and talk with staff members so that shoppers take “a second bite of the apple” as they browse, said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consulting firm.

In a sign of the industry’s upheaval, J.C. Penney, which has more than 800 stores, did not make a $12 million interest payment due Wednesday and has 30 days before it is considered in default. A company representative said it was a “strategic decision” to forgo the payment after discussions with lenders since last year to strengthen the chain’s financial position. That has become more important with the closing of its stores, the representative said.

For many of the nation’s nearly 16 million retail workers, the standstill has meant a loss of their livelihood, often overnight.

When Mia Lupo showed up to work at Bloomingdale’s in Norwalk, Conn., on March 16, it was clear that nothing was normal. The few customers were mostly making returns or buying sweatpants to prepare for working from home. Workers were worried about their jobs, but also about their safety.

“None of us had any idea what was going on,” Ms. Lupo, 27, said. “We’re just like panicking because we’re all hourly-wage workers. We need the money, but we also don’t want to get sick and we don’t want our families to get sick.”

The next day, Bloomingdale’s parent company, Macy’s, announced it was closing its stores — news that Ms. Lupo learned on Twitter — and it later furloughed nearly all its workers. She is now awaiting her first unemployment payment.

By Sapna Maheshwari and 

NY TIMES

Weatherhead’s Sue Helper and Jack Kleinhenz assess economic impact of the coronavirus

Case Western Reserve University

The Economic Impact of Coronavirus

City Club of Cleveland:  Sue Helper, a professor of economics and Jack Kleinhenz, an adjunct professor—both at the Weatherhead School of Management—weighed in on the immediate and long-term negative economic consequences of multi-pronged efforts to decelerate the spread of COVID-19.

https://www.ideastream.org/programs/city-club-forum/the-economic-impact-of-coronavirus