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27 Apr. 2020 | Comments (0)

The core of the US economic outlook for the next one to two years is the impact on consumption categories affected by social distancing. What goods and services will consumers continue to pay for, and what will they decide they can live without?

Some of the catastrophic economic and labor market statistics from recent weeks are actually not that important. It is obvious that when businesses are shut down and people are ordered to stay home, there will be a lot of unemployment. The bigger question is what happens when the economy opens. The most likely scenario is that within a few weeks, many of the orders to shut down nonessential businesses and stay at home will be lifted. While businesses will reopen and millions will return to work, recovery is unlikely to be complete for quite a while. Below we discuss which consumption categories will see the biggest drop in business during the (slow) recovery.

One to two years will pass between initial containment of the virus spread and full vaccination, with gradual improvement in testing for and treating COVID-19. During this period, there will be varied degrees of social distancing, i.e., restrictions on behavior and businesses. Some industries will not go back to normal during that period, as societies try to balance two goals: a healthy population and a healthy economy.

Actions will depend on transmission rate. How severe must restrictions be to keep the rate low enough for the virus to die down? The answer will vary by season, location, and age. More severe social distancing will probably be needed in the cold seasons, in dense areas that rely on public transportation (New York City is the prime example), and for older people.

Economic activity during that period will depend on what governments decide—and on consumer fear. For example, governments may keep airlines open, but many consumers may fear flying.

Which consumption groups would be most affected during this period? It depends on three factors: How much infection risk they pose, how discretionary they are, and to what degree they can be replaced from home.

The risk of being infected through consumption of a product category will depend on factors such as:

  1. Proximity of people to each other (i.e. rock concert, or dental services)
  2. Length of exposure to others (i.e. cruise)
  3. Number of people one is exposed to (i.e. crowded museum)
  4. Exposure of one’s food to other people (i.e. restaurants)
  5. Touching people or objects (i.e. grocery shopping)
  6. Proximity to COVID-19 carriers (i.e. hospital and physician services)
  7. Requires people entering the home (i.e. cleaning or handymen services)
  8. Requires flying or public transportation (i.e. tourist activities)

In many consumption categories that are especially sensitive to social distancing, older households are responsible for a large share of spending. Other factors being equal, these categories—such as cruises, home remodeling and full-service restaurants, will experience a larger drop in spending because older Americans are experiencing a more extreme and protracted period of social distancing.

In the table below, we subjectively ranked 26 consumption categories by two dimensions: The infection risk they pose (using the criteria above), how discretionary they are, and to what degree they can be replaced from home. The consumption categories that will be most affected are the ones at the upper right of the table: mostly entertainment. These categories can easily be replaced at home (television) or avoided. Additionally, they pose significant infection risk.

(Click the chart for an enlargement)

A few observations from this table:

  1. Hardest hit categories:
    1. Concerts, sports events, movie theatres, casinos, cruises, and amusement parks pose high risks of infection and could easily be avoided for a year or two. Therefore, they are likely to recover more slowly than other categories.
    2. Activities that do not on their own seem infectious are still likely to experience a large drop in demand because they are destinations that require flying. For example, tourist attractions such as the Grand Canyon.
    3. Hotels and other hospitality businesses that rely on customers in driving distance may experience a solid recovery, as the risk of infection is moderate, and they may replace vacations that require flying.
  2. Food services: While almost 60 percent of job loss in March’s job report came from the food and drink industry, we expect the industry to make a significant recovery after pandemic restrictions are lifted. But full-service restaurants may recover more slowly than fast-food establishments because they are more discretionary and typically involve more exposure. In addition, about 30 percent of spending on breakfast and lunch in full-service restaurants comes from older households (head of household is 65 or older), which are expected to cut back more than younger consumers.
  3. Other categories: Many consumption categories beyond those above are likely to be affected by social distancing:
    1. Major life changes such as moving to a new home or to assisted living or nursing care facilities or home remodeling and renovation may see a large drop in demand as those activities involve a high risk of infection and can often be postponed. These consumption categories are also dominated by older consumers.
    2. While health-related industries were expected to weather the storm, they are in fact likely to shed many jobs due to social distancing. For example, 61,000 jobs were lost in the healthcare and social assistance sector in March. Many of these losses will be in nonessential procedures in physicians and other health care providers’ offices, hospitals, physical and massage therapy facilities, and gyms.

Hopefully, this framework will help you think about the outlook related to the consumption category your business cares most about.

  • About the Author:Gad Levanon, PhD

    Gad Levanon, PhD

    Gad Levanon is the founder of the Labor Market Institute and is leading the Help Wanted OnLine© program for The Conference Board. His research focuses on trends in US and global labor market…

    Full Bio | More from Gad Levanon, PhD

  • About the Author:Elizabeth Crofoot

    Elizabeth Crofoot

    Elizabeth Crofoot is Senior Economist at the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board (TCB). With nearly 20 years of experience assessing US and global labor market data, she researc…

    Full Bio | More from Elizabeth Crofoot

  • About the Author:Frank Steemers

    Frank Steemers

    Frank Steemers is a Senior Economist at The Conference Board and his expertise is primarily in the analysis of the labor market in the US and other mature economies. Based in New York, he conducts sta…

    Full Bio | More from Frank Steemers


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