Some indicators to watch for the economic recovery. : The Indicator from Planet Money 2020 was a tough year for the economy. How different will 2021 be? Today on the show, we take a look at three of our favorite indicators for the new year.
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New Year, New Indicators

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New Year, New Indicators

New Year, New Indicators

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Hey, everyone. It's Stacey and Cardiff, and we are back again on THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY...

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Yes.

GARCIA: ...To start a new year.

VANEK SMITH: 2021.

GARCIA: Yeah. And we guarantee, by the way, that this year will be better than last year. We can do that, right? We can make that guarantee, Stacey.

VANEK SMITH: Guarantee it - I mean, hopefully.

GARCIA: Yeah, desperately hope.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, you never know, though, you know? Last I heard, there was a meteor that was sort of near Earth. I don't know, Cardiff. It feels like...

GARCIA: Meteor sounds pretty good right about now. I'll be honest with you. But yeah, OK.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. In all seriousness, though, it is this really big, open question of just how long it's going to take before the economy gets back to where it was before the pandemic started or if it even returns to that point at all, or at least for a really long time.

GARCIA: Yeah, and this is also why it's important to know which questions to ask about the economy and which indicators to keep track of this year that will answer those questions. And this is something, by the way, that you, our listeners, can do right alongside us.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. For our first show, 2021 Interactive INDICATOR...

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: ...We are going to share with you three big questions that we have about the economy in 2021 and the indicators that we think everyone should be paying special attention to right after a quick break.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

GARCIA: Here we go - THE INDICATOR's three big questions this year about the economy. First up, did the new aid in stimulus bill, the one that was passed at the very end of last year when everyone was on holiday - will that bill successfully get money to the people who most need it?

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. So as a reminder, that bill included an extra $300 per week in unemployment insurance for people who have lost their jobs. And it included an extra $600 check for people who make less than a certain amount of money every year.

GARCIA: And so with that in mind, here is the indicator that we are going to be following - food scarcity or, to describe it a little more bluntly, hunger. The Census Bureau has been surveying households in the U.S. and asking them if at any point in the last week they had not gotten enough food to eat. And the recent findings from that survey have been honestly kind of disturbing.

VANEK SMITH: They have. So between the end of August and December, the number of Americans who are not getting enough to eat went up by more than 5 million people to a total of 27 million Americans. That is a lot. To put that number in perspective, it means that 1 out of every 8 Americans is not consistently getting enough food to eat.

GARCIA: And one of the likeliest reasons that that number had been going up is that so much of the money that households had received from the previous congressional bill had simply run out. So if more households start getting enough to eat, then that might be a sign that families are being helped by the new bill that just passed. So what we're watching to see is if the number of people reporting food scarcity, hunger, now goes down by 5 million people to offset the rise at the end of last year.

VANEK SMITH: OK. So now for our second big question. How will we know that the economy has started healing? And by healing, we don't mean that the economy will just keep growing from one quarter to the next. We mean that the damage caused by the pandemic is mostly behind us. How do we know when that happens?

GARCIA: Yeah, and for this question, we chose a really simple indicator because it captures so much of what's happening in the economy. And here's the indicator - the total amount that people are spending on services. Services includes everything from doctor's appointments to eating in restaurants to staying in hotels to getting a haircut to attending a concert.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. And so in November, which is the last month that they have recorded, if you adjust for inflation, spending on services was about 7% lower than it was in February of last year. That was right before the pandemic hit. And that may not sound enormous, but in fact, that is a huge drop, especially when you compare it to how much more people are spending on goods, things that you can actually touch, like a car or refrigerator. Spending is up on those things. It is actually running 7% higher than it was before the pandemic.

GARCIA: Yeah, and that makes sense, by the way. Services often require people to interact with other people, sometimes literally to be served, like in a restaurant. And so those are the sectors of the economy that have been most badly damaged by the pandemic, whereas buying goods has become appealing because people are spending more time at home. So they buy stuff - physical stuff - to make all that stay-at-home time more pleasant. And by the way, the fact that spending on services is down 7% and spending on goods is up 7% does not mean that they cancel each other out for the whole economy because services are a way bigger part of the U.S. economy, normally twice as big as goods. So this is a problem for the entire economy as well.

So finally, that leads us to our third big question. Let's say that we do get to the other side of the pandemic this year. Will we then discover that the pandemic left behind some lasting and maybe even permanent changes to the economy?

VANEK SMITH: To answer this question, we're going to be following a kind of obscure indicator called the Architecture Billings Index. Basically, this is an index that shows how much architects and the firms they work with are in demand. And the reason that we're following this index is that if demand for architects is low, then that is signaling there will not be much construction of office buildings in the future.

GARCIA: Yeah. So for example, let's say that people continue shopping online, buying stuff online, just the way they did during the pandemic and that they don't really go back to visiting physical stores to buy stuff. Well, then companies just won't bother leasing retail spaces. So you need fewer of those buildings and fewer architects to design those buildings in the first place.

VANEK SMITH: And the same trend would apply if a lot of people continue working from home. Then companies will not need as much office space. And again, that means that there will be less of a need for office buildings and for the architects who design them.

GARCIA: And as of right now, the Architecture Billings Index has been showing some really terrible readings. Basically, the demand for architect services has been falling for nine straight months. And that is to be expected. We're still in the middle of the pandemic. The question is, will it rebound strongly, maybe even go up for nine straight months as the pandemic is ending? And if not, then it could be a sign that some of the habits that we've picked up, like online purchasing or working in our sweatpants from the living room couch, will, in fact, be here to stay. And - which reminds me, Stacey...

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

GARCIA: ...You and I should share our own, like, personal indicators...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: ...That we're going to be following this year to see how things are going. Do you have one?

VANEK SMITH: I do have a couple of indicators, yes. One of them is, in fact, the pajama indicator...

GARCIA: OK.

VANEK SMITH: ...Which is it is my personal goal for 2021 to not wear my pajamas to work anymore.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: That's actually a New Year's resolution of mine.

GARCIA: That's excellent. You should track it, by the way - like, how many days a week you wear your pajamas to work, and then see how it compares to - I don't know - the last few weeks of the year or something like that.

VANEK SMITH: The last few weeks of the year was a hundred percent pajamas...

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: ...All the time. So I'm trying to just, like, get back into, like, at least - if not business casual, at least just casual clothes.

GARCIA: That's actually a great one. And mine is one that I actually stole from you from a while back, which is to start counting how many actual steps I take each day because it's so far down because, of course, we're not going to the office anymore. We're working from home. But also, there's just fewer places to go in the city, you know?

VANEK SMITH: And it's cold now. So, like, going for a walk is not as pleasant.

GARCIA: Yes.

VANEK SMITH: OK, so what is the - do you have any indicators for us about that?

GARCIA: I think if I get back to taking 10,000 steps a day, that'll be a good sign that things are returning to normal, you know?

VANEK SMITH: That's a very high reach. I mean, how many steps do you think you take a day on a normal day when you're not trying?

GARCIA: Very, very few.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: So we'll see. You know, the next time we update, like, our three big economic indicators, we'll also update everyone on, like, our own three personal indicators. So if you, our listeners, have your own personal indicators you want to share with us...

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

GARCIA: ...Go ahead and email them to us at indicator@npr.org.

This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable, and it was fact-checked by Sean Saldana. Paddy Hirsch edits THE INDICATOR, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

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