You are here

2020 Second Quarter GDP Decline Is Worst in U.S. History—But Not 32.9 Percent

The good news is that the second quarter’s GDP numbers aren’t nearly as scary as the more dramatic headlines are saying. The economy has not shrunk by a third. The bad news is that yes, we really have just experienced the worst crash in U.S. history. And it’s not over yet. This post gives some context, and some ideas for how to aid the recovery for both the virus and the economy.

Several newspapers are reporting a 32.9 percent decline in GDP. This is a projection. It is not what has actually happened. If the economy were to continue shrinking for an entire year at the rate it did last quarter, GDP will have shrunk by 32.9 percent.

While normalcy might be years away, that steep of a decline is unlikely to happen. 9.5 percent and 7 percent are more accurate numbers for what has happened to the economy. Here is why.

GDP numbers are often seasonally adjusted. For example, an outsized amount of spending happens during the holidays, while other parts of the year are slower. So, GDP figures are often compared to what they looked like at the same time the previous year. That is what seasonal adjustment is, a way to compare apples to apples. For example, 2020’s second quarter GDP is 9.5 smaller than 2019’s second quarter. It is the worst decline in U.S. history, and barely begins to explain the pain that people all over the world are experiencing due to COVID-19. But it is not a 32.9 percent decline.

The non-seasonally adjusted number is a 7 percent decline. That is the change from one quarter to the next. That number also provides useful context. Lockdowns began late in the first quarter, so while the economy took a 5 percent dent then, it makes sense that the second quarter would be even worse, since the full three months were under lockdown. But since the dip had already started, it makes sense that the quarter-to-quarter number is a couple of percentage points gentler than the seasonally adjusted number.

For a fuller explanation, I refer readers to an excellent article by University of Central Arkansas economist (and my former grad school classmate) Jeremy Horpedahl, who has a gift for understanding and explaining statistics.

It will be another three months before we know for sure, but there is a chance the worst of the economic shock has already happened. People are finding ways to adapt. Today’s hardships will be with us for a while longer, and we need to help each other out. If you can, please do. But our troubles are 9.5 percent bad or 7 percent bad, not 32.9 percent bad.

What should we do to fight the virus and help the economy? Two things come to mind.

The first has nothing to do with public policy. It is simply to be prudent. COVID-19 is on pace to be America’s third-leading cause of death this year. Almost everyone who reads this has someone they care about who is high-risk, whether due to age, occupation, or a health condition. Think of them. Do right by them. The more people do to keep the virus under control, the more it will be under control. Some form of masks and social distancing might be necessary until a vaccine or other proven treatment is widely available. That could take a year or more. But it will happen, and the virus will lose. Until then, people need to be prudent. Not living in a hermetic seal, but prudent.

The second thing has everything to do with public policy. It is regulatory reform. CEI’s #NeverNeeded campaign has spent the last several months crafting as many COVID-related policy reforms as we can and explaining them to policy makers, media, coalition members, and the public.

Regulations against telemedicine should never have been on the books in the first place. A more realistic approval process would get new and proven COVID treatments to the public as quickly as possible. Factories wanting to retool to make personal protective equipment for health care workers should not have to wait 45 to 90 days for permits to come through. If a restaurant wants to deliver food to willing customers, regulations should never have forbidden it. The Centers for Disease Control and Preventions should focus on controlling diseases instead of spending $125 million on an anti-vaping campaign.

Nearly a third of occupations now require some kind of government license. In many states, this includes fields such as barbers and decorators. During normal times, these regulations protect incumbents by keeping competitors out. During times of double-digit unemployment, keeping people out of work on purpose is immoral.

President Trump has roughly doubled tariffs. They now cost the average household more than $2,000 per year. For families where someone just lost a job, that tariff money could help to keep them afloat instead.

Just this week, Congress held a hearing regarding potential antitrust cases against large tech companies. These are the companies that are making contactless deliveries and grocery shopping possible. They keep people informed and in touch with friends and family. They are improving video conferencing and other technologies that make remote work and education possible. And they provide on-demand entertainment to help keep people’s spirits up during a difficult time.

To this point, Congress and the president have mostly dealt with the virus and the economic crash with hasty “flash policy” such as stimulus bills. The next one is being drafted right now. Policy makers at all levels of government have already removed more than 800 #NeverNeeded regulations. President Trump issued an order directing agencies to remove more unneeded rules. But the Code of Federal Regulations alone contains 1.1 million regulatory restrictions and 185,000 pages. There is much more to do. For lots of ideas, see neverneeded.cei.org.