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Vaccine Could Unlock Trillions In Spending, Leading To 'Biden Boom'

Nov 13, 2020
Originally published on November 16, 2020 6:32 am

What Brandon Fritze misses most this year is belting out Coldplay's "Yellow" at karaoke sessions with his friends.

"I was a big karaoke guy," said Fritze. "I'd be going to the karaoke bar pretty much every night. But since the pandemic started, the bar's been shut down and that wasn't an option. I don't think I've sung in eight months now."

Fritze, an Indianapolis accountant, is among millions of Americans who have squirreled away their money in savings this year as the coronavirus pandemic has put an end to many activities — like going to the gym, restaurants or bars — that were common before the pandemic.

The savings reach $2 trillion, or roughly 10% of the economy. With a successful vaccine, all that money could be steered toward spending, according to economist Ian Shepherdson, ushering in what he calls the "Biden Boom" by the time spring arrives.

"President-elect Biden is arriving in Washington at the right time," said Shepherdson, who's the chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. "The COVID news at the point where he's inaugurated is likely to be horrific. But it won't be for much longer after that."

Not all of that saved-up money will come flooding into the economy at once. Household habits could have changed, and some activities that were skimped on during the pandemic will never be made up, like missed baseball games or haircuts.

"I went quite a long time without getting my hair cut," said Joel Prakken, chief U.S. economist for the forecasting firm IHS Markit. "I'm not going to get three extra haircuts to make up for the ones that I missed during the summer."

It also remains unclear how rough the upcoming winter will be because of surging COVID-19 cases.

Although Pfizer and partner BioNTech this week announced an experimental COVID-19 vaccine that was more than 90% effective, it still needs to clear a lot of hurdles before it becomes widely available.

In the meantime, millions of Americans are still out of work, and Congress has been slow to extend additional relief. That has led IHS analyst Prakken to lower his forecast for economic growth next year from 3.7% to 3.1%.

Prakken thinks it will be two more years before Americans spend on travel, entertainment and other services at pre-pandemic levels.

What's more, even when a vaccine is widely available, it may take time before people feel safe going out and spending money again.

"It would be great in 2021 if all the venues were up and operating again and we could go see some bands," said Pittsburgh librarian Dana Farabaugh. "But I think it's going to be a while before, mentally, I feel OK being in a crowd of people like that again, not wearing masks."

Christie Vezzola, who works for an aircraft-parts company in New Haven, Conn., and her husband have spent more on ice cream and alcohol during the pandemic, but less on everything else.

"We're certainly not spending on any sort of entertainment," she said. "We're not going to the movies. We're not paying for gym memberships or to participate in sports leagues," she said.

Still, there's a lot of other activities that Americans could resume with a vaccine, and that would give a boost to the economy.

Shepherdson thinks that spending could be "the likes of which we've never seen before."

"I don't want to minimize how bad things could be over the next two or three months," he said. "But I think it's also possible to hold the other idea in your head, which is that when spring comes, it's going to be a different planet, really."

And Americans who are ready to spend again would benefit a broad swath of businesses — karaoke establishments, for example.

"The karaoke crowd is kind of a family," said Fritze, the Coldplay crooner. "So it would be nice to get out and see them again."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So it is looking like this will be a cold, dark winter for the U.S. economy. The pandemic is forcing new limits on businesses and also prompting nervous consumers to stick closer to home. NPR's Scott Horsley has been asking economists whether the spring or summer could be brighter.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Brandon Fritze has spent an awful lot of this past year stuck in his Indianapolis apartment. He misses going out to buffet restaurants and doing all the things he used to enjoy.

BRANDON FRITZE: I was a big karaoke guy. I'd be going to the karaoke bar pretty much every night. But since the pandemic started, I don't think I've sung in eight months now.

HORSLEY: Coldplay's "Yellow" was Fritze's go-to standard. As much as he misses the microphone, his self-imposed quarantine has been good for his bank account.

FRITZE: Definitely socking some money away. I've saved, I want to say, thousands (laughter).

HORSLEY: Christie Vezzola of New Haven is in the same isolated boat. Vezzola says she and her husband have spent more money on ice cream and alcohol in the last eight months but less on just about everything else.

CHRISTIE VEZZOLA: We're certainly not spending on any sort of entertainment. We're not going to the movies. We're not paying for gym memberships or to participate in sports leagues. We have saved on transportation costs because I'm working from home and not commuting 60 miles per day.

HORSLEY: All told, cautious consumers in the U.S. have squirreled away some $2 trillion during the pandemic while avoiding travel, crowds and in-person entertainment. Spending is likely to take an additional hit this winter as new infections and hospitalizations are soaring. Economist Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics says President-elect Biden is inheriting an economy that's still weighed down by the pandemic, but that could turn around fairly quickly.

IAN SHEPHERDSON: President-elect Biden is arriving in Washington at the right time. The COVID news at the point where he's inaugurated is likely to be horrific, but it won't be for much longer after that.

HORSLEY: Shepherdson says, with a successful vaccine, springtime could see a flowering of the economy fueled by pent-up demand for the kind of amusements that have been off limits for so long. To be sure, that extra $2 trillion in savings is not going to be spent all at once. Economist Joel Prakken of the forecasting firm IHS Markit says some of the things we've skimped on will never be made up.

JOEL PRAKKEN: Well, I went quite a long time without getting my hair cut. I'm looking pretty mangy. I'm not going to get three extra haircuts to make up for the ones that I missed during the summer.

HORSLEY: Even when a vaccine is widely available, it may take time before people feel safe going out to crowded places and spending money freely. Pittsburgh librarian Dana Farabaugh says she talks a lot with her husband about what the new normal might look like.

DANA FARABAUGH: It would be great in 2021 if all of the venues were up and operating again and we could go see some bands. But I think it's going to be a while before, mentally, I feel OK being in a crowd of people like that again not wearing masks.

HORSLEY: A prospective spring thaw faces other chilly headwinds. Millions of Americans are still out of work, and Congress has been slow to extend additional relief. Brandon Fritze has kept his job as an accountant, and he's wearing his mask, trying to stay safe. If the vaccine checks out, Fritze says he'll be quick to get it so he can rejoin his friends at the karaoke bar.

FRITZE: The karaoke crowd is kind of a family. Everybody at The Monkey's Tale in Broad Ripple is pretty close, so it would be nice to get out and see them again.

HORSLEY: Economist Shepherdson says once people do feel able to get out and do the things they enjoy, the cash they've been socking away this year could bankroll a substantial economic boom.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YELLOW")

COLDPLAY: (Singing) Look at the stars. Look how they shine... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.