US GDP shrinks 4.8%, ends decade's growth

Worse-than-expected figures reveal extent of Covid-19 damage and signal start of recession

WASHINGTON • The record-long United States economic expansion is over after almost 11 years, with the deepest recession in at least eight decades now under way.

The world's largest economy shrank at a 4.8 per cent annualised pace in the first quarter, the biggest slide since 2008 and the first contraction since 2014, as the need to fight the coronavirus pandemic forced businesses to close and consumers to stay home.

The downturn, reported yesterday by the Commerce Department, was led by the steepest drop in consumer spending since 1980 and the fastest decline in business investment in almost 11 years.

The worse-than-expected report reveals the wide-scale hit to US output from the Covid-19 disease and the subsequent freezing of economic activity. The current quarter is likely to be far worse, with analysts expecting a record tumble stretching back to the 1940s.

Bloomberg Economics has projected a 37 per cent annualised contraction, but UniCredit is the most bearish with a 65 per cent estimate.

That will end an expansion that began in mid-2009 when the economy began to recover from the financial crisis. Since then, gross domestic product (GDP) swelled by US$7 trillion (S$9.9 trillion) and unemployment had fallen to a five-decade low of 3.5 per cent.

But some have questioned how widely the benefits have been spread, with an increasing concentration of wealth at the top and wages rising at a relatively tepid pace for most of the expansion.

The pain is being felt worldwide, with China already reporting a sharp decline in output and the euro area set to deliver grim figures Thursday. As the US government and states debate when and how fast to lift restrictions on companies and schools, there remains considerable doubt over the duration of the economic slowdown and the shape of the recovery.

Early hopes for a rapid rebound have faded, with most analysts assuming a jump in activity, once the pandemic passes, will be followed by a slower resumption of growth. So far, many data points signal a deepening contraction, while others have shown slight improvement, according to a Bloomberg Economics tracker.

Despite massive government aid packages and near-zero interest rates, businesses big and small risk going bankrupt, while consumers may remain wary of hitting shops and restaurants amid health concerns, higher debt burdens and job insecurity.

Another big question is the re-election chances of President Donald Trump, who has lately been pushing for removal of the constraints after losing the ability to run on a strong economy.

At the Federal Reserve, which slashed rates and rolled out a slew of emergency and unprecedented lending programmes, its chairman Jerome Powell and colleagues are trying to limit Covid-19's damage to jobs and business while setting the conditions for recovery.

GDP figures underscore what is clear from government data showing 26 million Americans filing for unemployment.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2020, with the headline 'US GDP shrinks 4.8%, ends decade's growth'. Subscribe