On Saturday, we showed why according to observations from Credit Suisse and BofA, the "US Economy Is Set To Overheat As Households Are Flooded With $2 Trillion In Excess Savings." Then, in a note this morning from Morgan Stanley asking "What To Do About All This Optimism" the bank said that "in November, December and now January, no question or concern has come up more often than 'everyone is optimistic'." Finally, the latest Fund Managers Survey showed that investors’ global growth expectations rose by 1% to a net 90%, the 3rd highest growth expectations ever (#1 in March 2002, #2 in November 2020).
This unbridled optimism prompted Goldman to boost its full year US GDP forecast to 6.6%, nearly 50% higher than the 4.1% consensus.
The common theme: record euphoria has gripped not just markets - Wall Street is just as euphoric about the broader economy where "everyone is optimistic" and for a very simple reason: with the Biden admin set to (realistically) unleash at least $1 trillion in new stimulus (down from Biden's $1.9 trillion target), and also planning to unveil a new multi-trillion infrastructure program later in the year, negative numbers and bearish narratives simply do not matter ahead of this stimulus tsunami.
Whether or not such euphoria is justified - after all, thanks to the Blue Wave, risks from insufficient fiscal aid or substantial scarring effects now look much less likely than a few months ago - but as Goldman's chief economist Jan Hatzius wrote today in a lengthy note titled "What Could Go Wrong" with the 2021 rebound, other downside risks remain "including uncertainty about how consumers will respond to lingering risks and how new virus mutations will affect virus spread and vaccine efficacy." Some more details on these three risks:
- The first downside risk according to Goldman is that consumers remain more cautious than expected, even as mass vaccination and warmer weather greatly reduce virus spread and the risk of infection. While this could restrain the consumption boom, consumer surveys and the resiliency of the consumer thus far suggest such downside is likely limited.
- The second, "more concerning downside risk" is that virus mutations significantly increase the bar for herd immunity, either because they are far more infectious or because they decrease the efficacy of existing vaccines. This would likely delay the consumption boom by pushing back the date when the US reaches herd immunity and virus risks diminish substantially.
- The third, most severe downside risk is the evolution of a vaccine-resistant virus strain that would require a new vaccine and another round of vaccination. Virus-sensitive spending would likely retrench while a new vaccine is developed,and although a new vaccine could be approved in less than five months, the consumption boom would likely be delayed until 2022
Some more details on each of these points as excerpted from the Goldman report:
Downside Risk #1: Greater Consumer Caution
The first risk is that consumers remain more cautious than we expect, even as mass vaccination and warmer weather greatly reduce virus spread and the risk of infection.While our baseline already incorporates some amount of lingering risk aversion, it is possible that demand for virus-sensitive activities remains well below pre-virus trend levels, particularly for the higher-risk population. While this could restrain the consumption boom, consumer surveys and the resiliency of the consumer thus far suggest such downside is likely limited. Surveys indicate that mass vaccination will significantly increase consumers’ willingness to resume virus-sensitive activities, and the experience of other countries that have more effectively controlled the virus also shows that virus-sensitive services can quickly normalize once infections decline. Additionally, our recovery tracker shows that consumer spending has retrenched only slightly despite very bad virus spread over the winter months. To estimate the possible downside from greater consumer caution, we focus on consumer spending of older individuals who are at greater risk from the virus. Based on Consumer Expenditure Survey data, we estimate that spending by individuals above the age of 65 on virus-sensitive activities accounts for 3% of total consumer spending
To assess a downside case with increased consumer caution, we first use surveys of social distancing by age group to project our baseline services spending forecast across age groups, and then assume that services spending recovers 50% more slowly than in our baseline forecast for the older population and 10% more slowly for everyone else. As shown in Exhibit 3, more caution would slow the pace of the consumption boom, but would still likely imply fairly robust growth throughout 2021 of +5.9% on a full year basis (vs. +6.6% in our baseline forecast) and +6.3% on a Q4/Q4 basis (vs. +7.5%).
Downside Risk #2: A Highly Infectious Strain
The second, more concerning downside risk is that recent or future virus mutations sharply increase the bar for herd immunity to levels that take substantially longer to achieve. This could be because the mutations are significantly more infectious, or because the current vaccines are less effective against the new strains.
Exhibit 4 relates the basic reproduction number R0—defined as the number of new cases spread by each case in a population that hasn’t seen the disease before—and vaccine efficacy with the required immunity in the population to reach “herd immunity” under a stylized model. If R0 were 2.5, for example, and infections and vaccines provided an average protection of 80%, reaching herd immunity would require immunity of 86% of the population, acquired either through infection or through vaccination. While vaccine demand appears to have edged up over time (Exhibit 5) and is likely to rise as awareness of efficacy grows, achieving very elevated vaccine coverage might be challenging. This is especially true if lower efficacy or uncertainty about efficacy against new strains further discourages vaccination.
Under the scenario where virus mutations significantly increase the bar for herd immunity, virus spread would remain considerably higher for longer and the consumption boom would likely be both delayed and softer. Exhibit 6 shows a stylized scenario where we assume that the boost from the recovery in services spending is pushed back by two months due to the delay in reaching herd immunity, and subsequent growth in services spending is 30% slower than in our baseline forecast. In this scenario we would expect moderately lower growth in 2021 of +5.1% on a full year basis (vs. +6.6% in our baseline forecast) and +5.4% on a Q4/Q4 basis (vs. +7.5%).
Downside Risk #3: Vaccine-Resistant Variant
The third, most severe downside risk is the evolution of a vaccine-resistant virus strain that would require a new vaccine and another round of vaccination. In this scenario, progress toward herd immunity from current vaccination efforts would be lost or severely set back.
Fortunately, preliminary evidence suggests that current vaccines generate an antibody response to the UK strain and will remain effective (Table 1). Results for the South African strain are both more preliminary and more mixed, with two early studies suggesting some decline in vaccine efficacy. However, experts interpret these results cautiously, and Dr. Richard Lessels (lead author of one study) characterized the results as showing that it was “possible” that that vaccine efficacy may be “slightly diminished.” At this point, it seems unlikely that vaccines will need to be adjusted to remain effective against either new strain, although the South African virus strain has more downside potential.
In addition to the risks from current strains, nearly all experts anticipate that vaccine-resistant strains could evolve, although generally do not believe such an evolution is imminent (Table 1). Instead, a vaccine-resistant virus would likely reflect the accumulation of mutations that lower the efficacy of vaccines over time. The risk that a vaccine-resistant virus strain emerges have risen recently, since higher case counts and more infectious strains increase opportunities for efficacy-lowering mutations to occur. Nevertheless, most viruses (with the seasonal flu as a notable exception) do not mutate in a manner that regularly renders vaccines ineffective, and so we do not incorporate such a mutation in our baseline forecast.
They don't... but they just might and soon, considering the highly "political" nature of the covid pandemic, which in addition to directly toppling the Trump presidency, has emerged as the most palatable way of mainstreaming MMT and helicopter money, and overhauling the entire fiscal and monetary structure virtually overnight. It's why one doesn't have to be a deranged conspiracy theorist to conclude that despite the sudden improvement in the US covid picture since Biden's inauguration, which as we reported on Friday resulted in a record one-day drop in covid hospitalizations...
... if it means that trillions more will be pumped into the economy - again, for political purposes, that the third risk, one of a "vaccine resistant virus strain", is quite likely to emerge some time around the summer, not only to extend the lockdowns into 2022 but to give Congress and the Fed political cover for more trillions in Universal Basic Income-funding stimmy checks (while politicians quietly embezzle trillions more).