Distorted Data, a Clear Near-Term Picture, but a Foggy Outlook

Chief Economist Scott Brown discusses current economic conditions.

Economic data reports are generally backward-looking. There’s a lot of noise, reflecting statistical uncertainty and seasonal adjustment difficulties. Reports for March 2020 present a greater challenge. Social distancing was sporadic, with some states locking things down sooner than others. One should always take a given piece of economic data with a grain of salt, but this is especially so now. Yet, it’s pretty clear that the economy began to contract in March and that second quarter figures will be much worse. For the markets, the bigger question is how long it will take the economy to recover and when that will start.

“There will be growth in the spring.” – Chance the Gardener (Being There)

Not this year. March is an important month for retailers. A year ago, prior to seasonal adjustment, retail sales rose 16.5%. This year, they edged up 0.2%. That’s a huge shortfall. The Bureau of Census tweaked the seasonal adjustment in the March report, which yielded an 8.7% seasonally adjusted decline. Restaurants, department stores, clothing stores, gas stations, and auto dealers suffered badly, while grocery stores, online shopping, and (implicitly) wholesale clubs thrived. The decrease in retail sales was enough to throw the first quarter into negative territory, a

-9.2% annual rate relative to 4Q19. Chance may have been wrong about growth in the spring, but he has one prescient observation for the current environment – “I like to watch.”

Scott Brown
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COVID-19 also affected the collection of industrial production data. The Fed reported a 5.4% decline in March. Manufacturing output fell 6.3%, led by a 28.0% decline in motor vehicles. Factory output fell at a 7.1% annual rate in 1Q20, a recessionary decline – and April figures will be even worse.

Housing starts fell 22.3% in March. Single-family permits, which are reported more accurately, fell 12.0%, offsetting strong gains in January and February. Residential construction may still add a little to first quarter GDP growth.