It is hard to know what to make of the economy right now, and harder still to predict its near-term future.
The stock market has been extremely volatile, to put it mildly. Up 1,000 points one day, down 1,000 the next, but well off its peak of less than a month ago. The Coronavirus has been spreading inexorably around the world from its origin point in China, disrupting supply chains and shutting schools and factories. There is little doubt that the cases, and the deaths, in the United States will increase substantially in the coming weeks.
But the monthly jobs report just out from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at 8:30 am this morning was another blockbuster—way above expectations, with 273,000 new jobs and the unemployment rate down a tick to 3.5 percent, where it has been for six months. In the last three months, job creation has averaged 243,000 a month, well above the 178,000 average for the same three months a year earlier. Wages continue to grow at a 3 percent annual rate.
How the Coronavirus will affect the American economy in the next few months is impossible to predict. Right now, media has been hyping it to a fare-thee-well. But it seems clear that it is nowhere near as deadly as earlier epidemics. The flu pandemic of 1918-1919 killed at least 50 million and infected a quarter of the global population, a death rate of about 10 percent. That outbreak disproportionally hit the young and healthy.
This disease has primarily affected the elderly and those with underlying health problems. And while the published statistics show a death rate of about 2-3 percent, that is based only on those diagnosed with the disease. The number of people who have actually contracted it but experienced mild or no symptoms is surely much higher, as Alan Reynolds explains. The actual death rate may be closer to less than 1 percent.
So far, the public seems less concerned than the press. I have yet to see a single person wearing a surgical mask, even in the crowded New York City subways, which could hardly be better designed to maximize the spread of diseases transmitted through the respiratory route.
My guess—and it’s only that: epidemiology is not exactly my field—is that the reality will be far less economically disrupting than the hype has already been, and the American economy will continue to tick along, creating jobs and wealth.