March retail sales in the U.S. fell 8.7%, breaking all previous records. Economists had expected a decrease of 8%, and markets began to sell off as the news of lower demand hit Wall Street. The U.S. continues to lead the world in the most confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths, surpassing 600,000 cases and 26,000 deaths on Tuesday.
As the U.S. was mostly “open” for March, this reading will most likely point to a far-worse outcome for retail sales in April. Policymakers, most notably President Donald Trump, are rushing to “reopen” parts of the country to prevent further demand destruction, while simultaneously coming to grips with the health hazards of doing so. When will the world return to “normal”?
In Europe, Denmark reopened most schools for younger children across the country, with all slated to reopen by Monday. Austria, Czechia, Spain and Italy all followed suit, beginning to lift restrictions on shops and employees. Germany is set to announce its own “back-to-work” measures Monday. But is it too soon? While new cases appear to have plateaued in many parts of Europe, deaths continue to increase. At what point will governments swallow the poison pill of opening too soon to forgo further economic loss? The answer currently appears to be early to mid-May.
Denmark was one of the first to take steps to slow the spread of the virus, with Danish schools having been closed for over a month now. The pandemic has infected relatively few individuals with less than 300 deaths and 7,000 total cases reported in the country. The case could hardly be made for herd immunity, but the Danes believe the measures they have put in place to prevent a further spread are sufficient. Social distancing will be used in schools, but how are you going to social distance 4-year-olds? From a distance, the opening of schools appears to be premature, but the political will to keep everyone at home for longer may have disappeared.
I believe the same will occur in other countries where deaths have slowed, and the U.S. will almost certainly begin to “reopen” by May, according to the latest statements from state governors and Trump. This may very well change at any moment. A new outbreak or surge in a specific location may force governments to delay lifting restrictions. As it is, New York City has lobbied to end the school year now with talk of reopening earlier in the summer to make up for the lost time. New York governor has as of yet rejected a unilateral closure of New York schools.
As citizens grow restless, especially as the economic toll on families begins to set in, governments will be forced to “reopen” early. This will almost certainly cause unnecessary deaths, but with no safety net in place in much of the world, including the U.S., people have to eat. While many are beginning to receive their stimulus checks, these payments will only cover losses from March. How can anyone predict an economic rebound without a more robust stimulus? I don’t know.
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