By Harriet Torry
The economy grew at a record pace in the third quarter --
increasing 7.4% over the prior quarter and at a 33.1% annual rate
-- recovering about two-thirds of the ground it lost earlier in the
Gross domestic product -- the value of all goods and services
produced across the economy -- jumped as pent-up consumer demand
and government support helped power spending after disruptions
related to Covid-19 eased. The increase in growth, the biggest jump
in records dating to 1947, followed a record decline earlier in the
pandemic when the virus disrupted business activity across the
That puts the economy about 3.5% smaller than at the end of last
year, before the pandemic hit.
"Record gains aren't enough to get us out of the hole that Covid
left us in," Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, said.
She cited risks from a recent U.S. surge in infections as a
potential economic headwind in the current fourth quarter, saying,
"It's hard to reopen an economy unless workers and consumers feel
safe and healthy."
The third-quarter GDP increase followed a 9% quarter-to-quarter
decline in the second quarter, or a 31.4% annualized drop, adjusted
for inflation and seasonal fluctuations. U.S. GDP is normally
reported at an annual rate, or as if the quarter's pace of growth
continued for a full year. But the pandemic triggered extreme
swings in output -- a severe drop followed by a quick rebound --
making the annualized numbers misleading because no one expects
second- or third-quarter numbers to continue for a full year.
The Commerce Department's GDP report provides the last major
quantitative snapshot of the economy before Tuesday's presidential
election. President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe
Biden offered contrasting views on what the growth figures mean in
the final days of campaigning.
Recent data suggest improvement in the economy continued into
the fourth quarter, though at a slower pace than the summer's
The number of workers filing initial claims for unemployment
insurance fell by 40,000 to 751,000 last week to the lowest level
since the pandemic began, suggesting layoffs are easing despite a
rise in coronavirus infections. The U.S. as of September has
recovered about half of the 22 million jobs lost in March and
April, at the beginning of the pandemic.
Forecasters predict the economy will expand more slowly through
the fourth quarter as the temporary jolt from the economy's
reopening and government stimulus fades, with unemployment expected
to remain high this winter. They also project the economy will end
2020 smaller than a year earlier, but grow in 2021.
"There's a long way to go until the economy's healed," said
James Knightley, an economist at ING Financial Markets LLC, citing
the "squeeze on incomes coupled with anxiety about Covid coupled
with election uncertainty."
The Wall Street Journal's October survey of economists found
that more than half of respondents don't expect GDP will return to
its pre-pandemic level until next year and that the economy will
contract 3.6% this year, measured from the fourth quarter of
Economists say the path of recovery hinges on getting the
pandemic under control. The U.S. and Europe both face fall
increases in cases.
Business executives are cautious about the months ahead. "We
certainly have seen some indications across the economy that across
the nation and, frankly, the world that it could be a tough
winter," Discover Financial Services chief financial officer John
Greene said last week on an earnings call.
General Electric Co. Chief Executive Larry Culp on Wednesday
said that while his company has generally stabilized, "We still
acknowledge that the full duration, magnitude and pace of this
pandemic across our end markets, operations and supply chain is
Recent private-sector data show consumer spending remains below
prior-year levels, led by weaker spending on in-person services
such as travel, entertainment and restaurants. JPMorgan Chase &
Co.'s tracker of credit and debit-card transactions showed that
spending was down 5.1% from a year earlier in the week through Oct.
Government support for businesses and households with stimulus
checks, enhanced unemployment benefits and the Paycheck Protection
Program helped power spending in the third quarter. Consumer
spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic
output, increased at a 40.7% annual rate in the third quarter.
Spending on long-lasting goods was particularly strong. The
report showed the pace of consumer spending on durable items rose
at a 82.2% rate during the quarter, a sign of increased purchases
on big-ticket items such as vehicles and recreational goods.
Spending on services that were hobbled earlier in the pandemic also
rose sharply as people resumed health-care visits, dining out and
Consumers, especially those in higher-income households, bought
furniture, autos, computers and home-exercise equipment as many
worked and stayed close to home because of the pandemic.
The housing sector also has boomed, thanks to low mortgage rates
and demand for larger living spaces. Residential fixed investment
-- spending on home building and improvements -- increased at a
59.3% rate in the third quarter.
Business investment picked up in the third quarter.
Nonresidential fixed investment -- which reflects business spending
on software, research and development, equipment and structures --
rose at a 20.3% annual rate. Spending on equipment rose, although
spending on structures, a category tied to the struggling oil and
gas sector and commercial real estate, fell at a 14.6% annual
Business has been thriving for Premium Service Brands, a
home-services franchising company based in Charlottesville, Va.,
said Chief Executive Paul Flick. Third-quarter revenue is up 44%
from a year earlier, following an initial drop in business in March
and April when customers were reluctant to have work crews in their
homes, he said.
"Overall people are saving money, taking those savings and
reinvesting it into their home. They're not going to restaurants
and not traveling," Mr. Flick said.
Christopher Boone, an automotive-industry data analyst in
Westfield, Ind., said that "right now my spending is somewhat wary,
just because of uncertainty in markets" related to the pandemic and
He and his wife, Nancy, recently bought a car and plan to travel
to Florida this winter. He expects the pandemic's impact on his
future spending "will be collateral effects," such as the
availability of products. "Disruptions in supply chains are going
to create shortages in the Christmas season, I'm positive of that,"
he said. "I think things are just going to be hard to get."
Meanwhile, restaurants have faced continued weak demand and
capacity constraints due to the coronavirus pandemic. Glenn Lunde,
chief executive of San Jose, Calif.-based Togo's Eateries LLC,
which operates and franchises a chain of 183 sandwich restaurants,
said the past few months have been "quite an adventure."
Sales were down 26% year-over-year in the second quarter and
down 8% in the third quarter. In September, sales fell 6% from the
prior year. "I think everyone's concerned about cases going up,
where's the virus going to go, no one really knows. The election,
stimulus, there's a lot of uncertainty given all these unknowns,"
Mr. Lunde said.
Write to Harriet Torry at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 29, 2020 13:50 ET (17:50 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.