Just how much are Americans worried about the coronavirus? We’re about to find out.
The first big clue on how Americans think comes Friday with the initial results of consumer sentiment. The closely followed survey stood near a postrecession high in February, but it was taken before the viral outbreak started to dominates the news.
The novel coronavirus was mentioned by just 7% of consumers in early February when the University of Michigan did its preliminary questionnaire. That number jumped to 20% in the last two days of the survey before the final results for the month were released. The World Health Organization first named the infectious disease derived from the new strain COVID-19 on Feb. 11.
The number of consumers who mention the virus could jump a lot higher in March and knock the index sharply lower.
“The sharp stock market sell-off and the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. are likely to depress consumer optimism,” Credit Suisse told clients in a research note.
To be sure, there is already plenty of evidence consumers are worried. Many have canceled flights, stocked up on medical supplies such as masks and hand sanitizer or even canceled vacation plans.
All of that is contributing to a climate of anxiety that is likely to take a toll on the economy in the next few months. Congress passed an $8 billion spending bill last week to given the Trump administration more resources to try to contain the virus—and more help may be on the way.
The spread of the coronavirus has overwhelmed a string of mostly positive snapshots of the U.S. economy in the first two months of 2020.
Take last week’s muscle-bound U.S. employment report. The economy added a whopping 273,000 new jobs for the second month in a row, but stock prices DJIA, -0.98% SPX, -1.70% and interest rates TMUBMUSD10Y, 0.767% tumbled again as the number of coronavirus cases continued to rise.
”This was a strong employment report down to just about all the details, and yet the market—for obvious reasons—does not much care,” noted chief economist Chris Low of FHN Financial.
A pair of reports this week on inflation, including the consumer-price index, would normally receive lots of attention from Wall Street. But not this time around.
No matter what inflation does, the Federal Reserve is primed to cut interest rates again soon, experts speculated. The Fed slashed a key U.S. interest rate by a half-point last week to a 1.00%-1.25% range in a surprise bid to shore up the economy.
The one other report bound to get scrutinized next week is the weekly tally of jobless claims.
The rate of layoffs in the U.S. fell to a 50-year low recently and they have been hovering in the low 200,000s, but new claims are likely to offer the first real evidence of whether the coronavirus is causing the economy to stumble.
Last week some 216,000 Americans applied for unemployment benefits. It would be a bad sign if the number starts to head north in the next few months and moves toward 300,000, a level it hasn’t topped since the fall of 2017.