The COVID-19 Recession is the weirdest we've ever had. There is no way anyone could have forecast it. It did not happen because the Fed was too tight. It did not happen because of a trade war. It was self-inflicted, caused by COVID shutdowns.
And, in spite of a V-shaped bounce off the bottom – 33.1% annualized real growth in Q3, and likely 5%+ growth in Q4 – the economy is still smaller than it was a year ago.
Most big companies have not suffered financial damage, and clearly big tech has allowed much of the economy to operate virtually, but damage to small service industry businesses has been dramatic. What this means is that, while the economy will continue to heal, it will take years to fully recover.
The pace of recovery will depend heavily on renewed shutdowns and the speed of a vaccine rollout. We watch high frequency data, including TSA checkpoint flow-through, OpenTable reservations, rail traffic, and gasoline usage. These weekly, or daily measures turned up in May, signaling a second half recovery. Now, they have leveled out, and in some cases slightly weakened. "Green Shoots" are temporarily going dormant due to large state closures.
This may mean some data weakness in the first quarter of 2021. But don't let that scare you, we do not see a double dip. In fact, we anticipate solid 3.0% real growth for 2021. Three percent growth might not sound great, but it would be the first time growth has reached 3% for any calendar year since 2005.
Nonetheless, any return to complete normalcy (getting the unemployment rate back down to under 4%) will take years. Because of reopening, the first waves of jobs came back fast. From the April peak of 14.7%, unemployment has fallen to 6.7% in November.
And even with our robust forecast of 6.3 million new jobs in 2021, the unemployment rate will still only fall to about 5% by the end of next year. At that rate, total jobs will still be below where they were in February 2020, before shutdowns began.