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US economy suffers sharpest postwar quarterly contraction

The US economy contracted by the most in postwar history in the second quarter as unprecedented shutdowns closed businesses and left millions of Americans out of work during the pandemic.

Gross domestic product, or the value of all goods and services produced by the economy, shrank at an annualised rate of 32.9 per cent, according to a preliminary estimate from the Bureau of Economic Analysis on Thursday.

That was smaller than economists’ forecast for a 34.1 per cent decline. The economy contracted 9.5 per cent compared with the preceding three months, which is the metric used by other major economies. The data landed just a day before the expiry of supplemental jobless aid for the total 17m unemployed.

The heavy damage inflicted by the pandemic on US output has dashed President Donald Trump’s hopes of campaigning for his re-election on his economic record ahead of the November election. Soon after the GDP data were released, Mr Trump questioned whether the vote should be postponed because of the coronavirus crisis, even though the White House has no authority to make such a decision.

“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???,” he wrote on Twitter in a message that he “pinned” at the top of his account.

11.6% Proportion of the workforce receiving continuing unemployment benefits

The BEA said the decline in GDP reflected a slump in personal spending, exports and business investment. The imposition and subsequent lifting of stay-at-home orders “led to rapid shifts in activity”, the BEA added, “as businesses and schools continued remote work and consumers and businesses cancelled, restricted, or redirected their spending”.

The sudden drop in economic activity last quarter exceeded the previous record of a 10 per cent contraction in the first quarter of 1958, according to figures dating back to 1947. GDP contracted by an annualised 5 per cent in the first quarter, as the lockdowns imposed in response to the pandemic brought an end to the longest expansion in history.

US stocks held on to losses of about 1 per cent as investors took in the economic damage. Global markets fell earlier on Thursday after Germany reported that its economy contracted 10 per cent in the second quarter compared with the previous one.

As attempts are made gradually to reopen the economy, recent data pointed to improving trends late in the second quarter. Employers added a combined 7.3m jobs in May and June, following a record loss of 20.5m payrolls in April. Consumer spending also picked up, while pent-up demand and record-low mortgage rates helped drive home sales sharply higher last month.

But flare-ups in coronavirus cases have raised concerns of a rockier recovery than hoped. Some economists believe the labour market’s recovery may have stalled, with parts of the US south and west renewing curbs on business and consumer activity in hopes of stomping out outbreaks of Covid-19. The Federal Reserve warned on Wednesday the fate of the world’s largest economy would “depend significantly on the course of the virus”.

Figures released on Thursday showed initial applications for unemployment benefits totalled 1.43m on a seasonally adjusted basis last week, slightly higher than the 1.42m claims the previous week. Economists had expected the new claims to level off at 1.42m for the week, according to FactSet.

Lawmakers in Washington remain locked in negotiations over whether to extend supplemental jobless aid beyond July. Republicans have proposed reducing the amount of extra benefits to $200 weekly from the $600 that was included as part of a $2.2tn stimulus package passed in March. Democrats put forward a bill that would keep those payments the same.

The number of Americans actively collecting unemployment cheques rose to 17m from 16.2m in the week that ended on July 18. Continuing claims, which peaked at 24.9m in May, equalled 11.6 per cent of the workforce. The insured unemployment rate was 11.1 per cent a week earlier.

Initial claims in the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programme, which extended aid to the self-employed or other individuals who would not qualify for regular unemployment compensation, were down last week to 829,697 from 936,073 on an unadjusted basis.

This article was first published at https://www.ft.com/content/3ff15dc7-be90-4676-8121-5a868016c4bb

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The Markets Today