Unemployment in the United States according to data released Thursday points to a protracted coronavirus economic slowdown. Nearly 7 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the last week of March, according to the Labor Department. The 6.6 million applicants follow the 3.3 million people filing for unemployment the previous week.
Analysts had predicted that new applicants applying for unemployment benefits would increase between 2 million and 6 million. This number may be understating the actual number of unemployed individuals as lack of resources at unemployment offices to handle the unprecedented amount of new applications dissuaded many from filing last week. This means that millions more will apply for benefits in the coming weeks. This is truly the tip of the iceberg.
Unemployment is an incredibly important leading indicator of U.S. economic health because two-thirds of the U.S. economy depends on consumer consumption. Coupled with the data from the American Payroll Association that 74% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck and if millions of households can’t replace their current job, they are weeks away from defaulting. If millions default, shock waves will ripple across the economy until all sectors are impacted. This is why even a temporary spike in unemployment caused by the coronavirus can be lethal for economies that depend on consumption by consumers.
The U.S. has the benefit of being able to print the world’s reserve currency, with little downside, to finance stimulus that will allow consumers to spend despite losing their jobs. Although the U.S. Treasury signaled a $2 trillion aid package for consumers last week, this may not be enough with such high unemployment numbers. Congress will almost certainly have to pass new legislation to send more money to U.S. households. This is no longer a U.S. issue.
If these households stop spending, U.S. firms will stop importing goods from emerging markets, (EM) which in turn will lead to a global recession. This has become almost a certainty at this point. Short of flooding the market with dollars and lending to foreign central banks to prop up their currencies, the coronavirus will lead to a broad EM sell-off. Demand destruction in the U.S. will lead to a global depression from which recovery will take at least a decade. Policymakers need to act now. While universal basic income sounded quaint last year, it is essential now. Without it, thousands of firms will shutter, and millions more will lose their jobs. The tax base will disappear, and economic activity will come to a standstill.
The longer politicians delay the implementation of steps to begin the recovery process, the longer things will take to get better. Immediate stimulus in the U.S. and European Union to households and multi-year swaps to foreign central banks, so that they too can provide stimulus to their people without devaluing their currencies, is the only way out of this crisis. Short of these steps, an economic armageddon is inevitable.