The Economy Is (Almost) Back. It Will Look Different Than It Used To.

The housing sector is experiencing nearly as big a surge. Residential investment was 14.4 percent above its prepandemic trend, representing $90 billion a year in extra activity. And that was surely constrained by shortages of both homes to sell, and lumber and other materials used to make them. It is poised to soar further in the coming months, based on forward-looking data like housing starts.

Another bright spot is business investment in information technology. The tech industry has been comparatively unscathed by the crisis. Spending on information processing equipment in the first quarter was 23 percent higher than its prepandemic trend, and investment in software 7.4 percent higher.

Then there are the losers.

The troubles of service industries, especially related to travel, are well documented. While spending on restaurants, airline tickets, concerts and other recreational activities grew in the first quarter, it was a considerably smaller surge than the one that went to physical items, and not nearly big enough to fill in the deep hole those sectors face. Spending on transportation services remains 23 percent below its prepandemic trend, recreation services 31 percent, and restaurants and hotels 19 percent.

Those three sectors alone represent $430 billion in “missing” economic activity — largely the same, it’s worth noting, as the combined shift of economic activity toward durable goods and residential real estate.

A corollary shows up in trade data. Services exports are down 26 percent compared with the prepandemic trend, which reflects in significant part the freeze-up in global travel.

Less widely understood is a steep pullback in the energy sector.

There are two sides of the same coin: Consumer spending on gasoline and other energy goods is down 11 percent from its prepandemic trend line. And business spending on structures is down 19 percent, which reflects a pullback in investment by both the oil extraction industry and the commercial real estate sector.

Separately, the pullback in state and local governments, many of which have faced funding crunches, is real. Their spending is 4.3 percent below the prepandemic trend, another $89 billion in lost activity, though that is likely to return as federal stimulus dollars flow to their coffers and schools reopen.


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