The United States grew at a 4% annual rate in the final three months of 2020 and shrank last year by the largest amount in 74 years. The coronavirus inflicted the worst economic freeze since the end of World War II, the economy contracted 3.5% and clouded the outlook for this year.
The economic damage followed the eruption of the pandemic ten months ago and the deep recession it triggered, with tens of millions of Americans left jobless.
A government report earlier in the week estimated that the US GDP slowed sharply in the October-December quarter from a record 33.4% surge in the July-September quarter. That gain had followed a record-shattering 31.4% annual plunge in the April-June quarter, when the economy sank into a free-fall.
The outlook for 2021 remains hazy. Economists warn that a sustained recovery won’t likely take hold until vaccines are distributed and administered nationwide and government-enacted rescue aid spreads through the economy — a process likely to take months. In the meantime, millions of Americans continue to struggle.
The Labor Department reported that while unemployment applications for benefits declined last week, they remained at a historically high 847,000, evidence that companies keep cutting jobs as the pandemic continues to rage. Before the virus erupted in the United States in March, weekly applications for jobless aid had never topped 700,000, even during the Great Recession.
Even as the economy shrank last year, the stock market managed to rise sharply, with the S&P 500 index gaining 16%. The disparity between the two reflected a time-tested adage: The stock market is a forward looking indicator, with investors focused on prospects for future corporate profits and economic health rather than on the current state of the economy. So even as the economy was sinking last year, investors looked ahead to hopes for vaccines and government aid and to solid company profits, especially among tech companies, which drove last year’s gains.
The pandemic's blow to the economy early March ended the longest U.S. economic expansion on record — nearly 11 years. The damage from the virus caused GDP to contract at a 5% annual rate in last year's January-March quarter. Since then, thousands of businesses have closed, nearly 10 million people remain out of work and more than 400,000 Americans have died from the virus.
Last quarter’s economy was driven in part by business investment and housing, which has been a star performer during the past year, reflecting record-low mortgage rates and a demand for more household space. Housing grew at a sizzling 33.5% annual rate, business investment at a 13.8% rate. Government spending, though, shrank at a 1.2% rate last quarter. State and local governments have started to resort to layoffs in response to falling tax revenue.