COVID-19 and South Carolina’s Economy:
Where We Are and Where We’re Headed
By: Joseph Von Nessen, Ph.D. April 13, 2020
For many South Carolinians, the last few weeks have brought with them a level of uncertainty not seen in a long time. As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread across the United States and social distancing has become the new normal, many sectors of our economy have either been severely disrupted or completely stopped. Many workers have been laid off from their jobs and many more face the possibility of being laid off in the weeks ahead. And the stock market, which was at an all-time high just a few weeks ago, has seen a substantial contraction and is now highly volatile. Given this whirlwind of change, how can we begin to evaluate the state of our economy and the prospects for South Carolina’s recovery in the months ahead? It is important to first recognize that this current economic shock is very different from those we have typically seen before. Most economic contractions are caused by fundamental problems in specific areas of the economy that lead to steady declines in economic activity that can last for many months or even years. By contrast, right now we are experiencing an intentional pause on an otherwise strong economy as part of a proactive effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In this way, our current situation is more akin to a temporary statewide shutdown in response to a major winter storm than it is to a typical economic contraction. This is one reason why unemployment has been spiking so quickly. This also implies that if the pandemic abates in a relatively short period of time, we could see our economy recover faster than we might otherwise expect. At this point, of course, we do not know how long the pandemic will last nor how long the guidelines on social distancing will remain in effect. We do know, however, that there are at least two likely paths to economic recovery for South Carolina in the months ahead after the pandemic is mitigated. If the COVID-19 pandemic abates before the summer begins, South Carolina’s economy would likely follow what economists call a V-shaped recovery pattern – that is – a steep drop followed by a steep rise. In many sectors, a pent-up demand is already being created for the goods and services not currently being purchased. Once we begin to move back towards normal social interactions, there is likely to be a surge in consumer demand that will offset some of the losses we are currently experiencing. This could set the stage for a relatively fast recovery during the second half of the year. The federal stimulus, which includes direct payments to South Carolina households and cash-flow assistance to businesses, will also help to preserve consumer spending and minimize business losses in the meantime. If, however, the pandemic extends into the summer months, many of South Carolina’s businesses that are temporarily closed right now would be increasingly likely to go bankrupt. This could lead to a second wave of layoffs as well as to disruptions in financial markets that would set the stage for further economic decline in the second half of 2020 and a much slower recovery period that could extend into 2021. Economists call this second path a U-shaped recovery pattern – that is – a steep drop followed by a slower rise. In the weeks ahead, it will be important to be on the lookout for any significant increase in the rate of bankruptcies among businesses, as this could indicate that a U-shaped recovery path is becoming more likely. One other critical factor for South Carolina’s economic recovery will be the revival of consumer confidence. Even after social distancing guidelines are relaxed and businesses are reopened, consumer spending will not likely return to pre-pandemic levels if individuals are still uncomfortable going out in public. Health officials will be able to help to minimize this “hangover effect” as widespread screenings and effective treatments are put in place. All industries are being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the housing industry is no exception. The single biggest predictor of housing demand is job growth, and the recent layoffs suggest that South Carolina has lost about six months of job growth in just the last three weeks alone. That’s the bad news. The good news is that a majority of these layoffs have been reported as temporary, suggesting that these workers will be hired back once the pandemic is over. Further, the long-run outlook for South Carolina’s economy remains strong. Over the past decade, South Carolina has consistently experienced both job growth rates and population growth rates that have been higher than the national average. In addition, the competitive advantages that South Carolina maintains – including strong natural amenities, a low cost of living, and a business-friendly environment – continue to make South Carolina an attractive choice for both companies and individuals. While we do not know how long this pandemic will last, we do know that South Carolina is well positioned for the years ahead.