As businesses shuttered and workers stayed home, the gross domestic product, a broad measure of goods and services, plummeted in the United States. G.D.P. dropped 5 percent in the first quarter of 2020 and more than 31 percent in the second, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. The unemployment rate surged more than 10 percentage points from March to April last year, nearly reaching 15 percent. That was the highest level and the biggest increase since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data in January 1948.
In March 2020, the Federal Reserve stepped in. On its own, it couldn’t do much to combat the coronavirus itself — the last presidential administration’s efforts were dilatory at best, historians say. But the Fed and the federal government were able to prop up the markets, provide emergency aid for millions of people, help keep at least some small businesses afloat and put most major corporations in a position to reap big profits as the economy rebounded.
By now, the federal government has committed more than $5 trillion in a variety of coronavirus-related aid packages, and the Fed has made trillions more available in loans, intervened in financial markets, purchased vast quantities of bonds and held short-term interest rates near zero.
The Biden boom
All of this is contributing to what looks like a “Biden boom economy,” as the Princeton economist Alan S. Blinder called it in The Wall Street Journal. Economic growth may exceed 7 percent for the first quarter, and will almost certainly be spectacular for the year as a whole, when compared with 2020.
But there’s the rub. These annual economic and financial numbers are comparisons with the depths of the pandemic. The statistics are warped, inevitably, by “base effects,” which is to say, in economic jargon, that the coronavirus-induced recession of last year is making many current numbers look unnaturally high. They don’t provide much insight about where we are heading in 2022 and later.
Take inflation, for example
As Neil Irwin explained in The New York Times, the current uptick in inflation may not be as worrisome as it would otherwise seem because its comparisons are based on the depressed prices of a year ago, when so many people were huddled indoors.
What’s more, Alberto Cavallo, a Harvard economist who has studied inflation deeply, told me that by altering consumption and supply patterns radically, the pandemic has had many subtle effects. Lower-income people, for example, who pay a higher proportion of their income for food, have experienced greater inflation than those for whom food is a relatively minor expense.