• Despite the continued surge in new infections in the U.S., financial markets were on the upswing this week on positive economic data and encouraging news on a vaccine.
  • Internationally, the Chinese economy resumed growing in the second quarter. However, the recovery in the second quarter was uneven, with consumers reluctant to spend.
  • In the U.S., retail sales and housing starts both rebounded sharply in June. Consumer price pressures in previously weak areas also perked up.



Economic Rebound Continued Through June

Financial markets were on the upswing this week on positive economic data and encouraging news on a vaccine. This came despite the continued surge in new infections. Overall, U.S. data for June was positive, but the virus’s broader spread threatens to set back progress thus far.

The big news internationally was that the Chinese economy resumed growing in the second quarter. After a 6.8% year/year decline in the first quarter, real GDP increased by 3.2% versus a year ago. However, the recovery in the second quarter was uneven, with investment outpacing consumption. Consumers have been reluctant to spend even though most businesses have reopened, reflecting the intensity of the demand shock and consumer scarring, which may take time to heal.

American consumers, on the other hand, continued to ramp up spending at retailers in June (+7.5% month-on-month). May’s gain was also revised upward, and total sales are now only 0.6% below February’s level. The rebound in sales has been uneven across categories, but even lagging areas like restaurants and bars and clothing had big double-digit rebounds in June (Chart 1).

However, retail sales only accounts for about 43% of consumer spending. Many services, like housing and medical care are not captured. This includes some of the hardest-hit areas: air travel, hotels, car rentals, child care, haircuts, movies and live entertainment. So, consumers have more money to spend on retail items because they can’t spend on these other areas. It also means the rebound in total consumer spending is likely to lag the retail front.

The strength in retail spending comes even as the unemployment rate remains at a double-digit level. This is thanks to income supports established in the CARES Act (i.e. one-time checks, and expanded unemployment benefits). The generous top-up to unemployment benefits is set to expire in two weeks. Congress is working on another fiscal package, expected before the end of July, which will hopefully include some assistance for households. Without it, consumers will likely tighten their purse strings.

Turning to the housing market, starts jumped 17.3% in June (Chart 2). Momentum in single-family home construction looks to continue in July, with building permits up. Not surprisingly, multifamily permits fell. These projects typically involve greater risk, and given social distancing, are likely less desirable in the current climate. While starts are 24% below February levels, those were boosted by unseasonably warm weather, and are only down 3.4% versus a year ago.

Consumer prices rose again in June for the first time since the pandemic hit. A 0.2% m/m increase in core CPI in June provided some reassurance that earlier deflationary forces have ebbed. However, some of the more persistent categories, like shelter, continued to cool in June. With shutdowns returning across many parts of the country, prices may see renewed downward pressure. All told, we expect inflation to remain muted over the next couple of years.

Leslie Preston, Senior Economist | 416-983-7053

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