Breakingviews - U.S. economic reboot menaced by bug in the system

Hundreds of people line up outside a Kentucky Career Center hoping to find assistance with their unemployment claim in Frankfort, Kentucky, U.S. June 18, 2020. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Like a computer suffering from a pesky virus, the U.S. economy has been shut off and turned back on. This reboot seems to be working. The economy added almost 5 million jobs in June, on top of the roughly 3 million added in May, bringing the unemployment rate down over two percentage points to 11.1%. But as frustrated tech users know, short-term fixes are usually just that.

Beyond the decent headline numbers, the labor force participation rate also increased to 61.5%, and around two-fifths of the job gains were in the hard-hit leisure and hospitality sector. Also, the Bureau of Labor Statistics actually revised the net jobs added over the previous two months upwards to 90,000.

But the root source of the economic woes – Covid-19 infections and deaths – is also moving northward. The U.S. reported almost 50,000 new cases on Wednesday, the fifth daily record in a little over a week, according to the New York Times. Texas hit a whopping 8,000 new daily cases.

What these relatively decent jobs numbers may actually show is an economy that reopened too quickly. In fact, recent JPMorgan data from around 30 million of its credit- and debit-card holders shows that increased spending in restaurants appeared to be correlated with a rise in new infections three weeks later.

So the fragile recovery could easily crash – or at the very least, freeze. The virus spikes are prompting states and cities to stall or reverse reopenings. Texas has closed bars and limited restaurant occupancy. California shut down bars and indoor dining in 19 counties. And even New York City, which has dramatically reduced infections, decided on Wednesday to delay bringing back indoor dining at restaurants, which had been slated to restart next week.

Ultimately, it’ll be impossible to assess the depth of the lasting economic damage until reopening is mostly complete. In the topsy-turvy world of 2020, jobs numbers are not the best way to predict how the economy will perform. Until the bug is removed from the system, or brought under control, medical statistics will provide perhaps the most important information. With almost 2.7 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and 128,000 deaths, and rising, these numbers aren’t looking good.


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