Signs of Economic Hope Are Growing, Some With Superlatives

The American economic recovery is gathering steam, renewing confidence that a vibrant revival awaits as the pandemic recedes.

After months of false starts, evidence is mounting that the economy has definitively turned a corner, with more growth on the horizon. Job gains last month were the strongest since August. There are signs that the snarled global supply chain may be untangling.

And in dual reports on Thursday, the government reported more good news: Retail sales in March blew past expectations, rising nearly 10 percent, and jobless claims last week fell to their lowest level of the pandemic.

Even as the country is still straining to contain the virus, as millions of people remain unemployed and as a large portion of the population remains unvaccinated, the data suggests that the long-heralded economic rebound is within reach.

“I’m feeling quite optimistic,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “I think what we’re seeing is evidence of this booming economy that we’re going to be seeing over the coming months.”

In the year since the coronavirus smothered the economy, economists have held out hope for a significant turnaround defined by plentiful job opportunities, higher wages and supercharged spending after months of pent-up demand. But the tantalizing promise at times appeared unlikely at best: After a period of growth over the summer, job gains largely stalled heading into the new year. New state unemployment claims spiked to over a million in one week in January. Retail sales, bolstered by stimulus payments, jumped in January only to slide the next month.

Monthly Retail Sales

Seasonally adjusted advance monthly sales for retail and food services.

Source: Commerce Department

The New York Times

Yet recent weeks have delivered increasing reason for hope. With a fresh round of federal payments in their pockets and vaccines in their arms, many Americans have begun shopping and dining out with renewed alacrity, driving retail sales. A 9.8 percent increase last month was a strong comeback from the nearly 3 percent drop in February, when previous stimulus money had dissipated and a series of winter storms made travel difficult across much of the United States.

The increase was broad-based, including big-ticket purchases like cars and discretionary spending on sporting goods, which economists interpreted as a sign of strong household income and growing optimism. Sales of clothing and accessories rose 18 percent, while restaurants and bars recorded a 13 percent increase — demonstrating how many areas of consumption are bouncing back.

“I found it very encouraging that there are signs that people are waking up from hibernation, buying new clothes and going out to restaurants,’‘ said Beth Ann Bovino, U.S. chief economist at S&P Global. “I think people are feeling optimistic that the United States will win the war on the virus. And they have good reason to be hopeful.”

Many economists said the strong retail sales were likely to continue through the spring, even after the new stimulus payments are used up.

The gradual return to normal activities as business restrictions ease has in turn prompted employers to recall workers — and this time, to hold on to them.

The Labor Department reported on Thursday that the number of first-time claims for state unemployment benefits fell sharply last week, to about 613,000, the lowest level since the start of the pandemic. That was a decline of 153,000, the largest week-over-week decrease since the summer.

In addition, 132,000 new claims were filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program that covers freelancers, part-timers and others who do not routinely qualify for state benefits. That was a decline of 20,000 from the previous week.

“We’re gaining momentum here, which is just unquestionable,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton.

There are also broader signs of a comeback.

After a devastating year, airlines are growing increasingly hopeful as travelers return. Over the past month, more than one million people were screened each day at federal airport checkpoints, according to the Transportation Security Administration, a signal that a sustained travel recovery is underway.

As a result, American Airlines said this week that it expected to sell more than 90 percent as many tickets within the United States this summer as it did in the summer of 2019. Delta Air Lines said Thursday that it had recovered about 85 percent of its domestic leisure sales. If trends hold, the airline said, it could be profitable again by the summer.

“A year after the onset of the pandemic, travelers are gaining confidence and beginning to reclaim their lives,” Ed Bastian, the company’s chief executive, said in announcing the airline’s first-quarter financial results. “Delta is accelerating into the recovery.”

Moreover, the nation’s ports are handling record cargo volumes as consumers stock up. March was the busiest month on record for the Port of Oakland, while the Port of Los Angeles, the main point of entry for goods from Asia, said the first three months of the year were the busiest first quarter in its 114-year history.

“As more Americans get vaccinated, businesses reopen and the economy strengthens, consumers continue to purchase goods at a dizzying pace,” Gene Seroka, the port’s executive director, said in a statement.

For months, the port, like others around the world, has been overwhelmed by an influx of cargo, forcing container ships to wait days offshore to unload their goods. In many cases, the containers are unloaded and immediately sent back so they can be filled for another eastbound trip. While the backlog remains, Mr. Seroka said, it is expected to be eliminated in the coming months.

The improving signs on so many fronts are being reflected in brightening forecasts for the months ahead. Morgan Stanley said Thursday that it expected the economy to grow 7.5 percent in 2021, after shrinking 3.5 percent in 2020. That would be the strongest growth rate for a calendar year since the 1950s.

But if the economy appears to be on the upswing, the recovery is still fragile. Weekly applications for unemployment claims have remained stubbornly high for months, causing frustration even as businesses reopen and vaccination rates increase. They have also been a volatile economic indicator, temporarily dipping to their lowest level of the pandemic in mid-March before rising again in recent weeks.

“You’re still not popping champagne corks,” Ms. Swonk said. “I will breathe again — and breathe easy again — once we get these numbers back down in the 200,000 range.”

What’s more, concerns about workplace safety persist, especially for younger workers who have just become eligible for vaccinations. Many children are still attending schools remotely, complicating the full-time work prospects for their caregivers.

Jobless claims for the next few months could remain significantly elevated as the labor market adjusts to a new normal.

“The job market conditions for job seekers have really improved extremely quickly between January and now,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at the job site ZipRecruiter. “But there are still huge barriers to returning to work.”

The rebound in March sales also shows how consumer spending — and the economic rebound as a whole — remains highly dependent on government support.

President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law last month, provides $1,400-a-person payments to most households. The payments began arriving around March 17, and by the end of the month, economists saw signs that spending was ramping up again, such as increased hotel occupancy and travel through airports.

Economists at Morgan Stanley had predicted that core retail sales would jump 6.5 percent in March, driven by the payments. The investment bank said only 30 percent of consumers tended to spend their payments within 10 days, suggesting that many have money on hand that could strengthen April sales as well.

Other factors are contributing to the brightening recovery prospects. Mr. Biden moved up the deadline for states to make all adults eligible for vaccination to April 19, and every state has complied, laying the groundwork for more people to rejoin the work force. Students who have been learning remotely are increasingly returning to the classroom, a shift that will especially benefit women, who have been disproportionately sidelined during the pandemic by caregiving duties.

Echoing the general perception that post-pandemic life is beckoning, American consumers are feeling increasingly upbeat. One measure of sentiment, tabulated by the Conference Board, showed that consumer confidence in March recorded its biggest one-month gain in nearly a decade, fueled by increased income and stronger business and employment expectations.

“This was the deepest, swiftest recession ever,” said Ms. Pollak, the ZipRecruiter economist. “But it’s also turning into the fastest recovery.”

Ben Casselman contributed reporting.

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