Since the start of the present pandemic, the US Congress has authorized over \$5 trillion in various forms of economic aid (Business Insider), including the just-signed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. So things are pretty bad, right?

Then why are cargo ships queuing up outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach (Axios)? The articles I've read (such as CNBC and WSJ) say the backup is caused by the combination of surging consumer demand and COVID-19 disruptions. I'm looking for data to corroborate that interpretation, because a "surging customer demand" narrative seems to contradict the "the economy is in a bad way" narrative.

So is consumer spending surging? If I am reading these FRED graphs right, personal spending on durable and nondurable goods spending are roughly 10% above pre-pandemic levels. (I'm eyeballing these on a smartphone.) So yes, demand could be described as "surging."

So then why the need for \$1.9 trillion in new government spending? My belief and understanding was that the economy is struggling right now, but then how are we all paying for so much more stuff that our ports are clogged? (I know the pandemic has disproportionately hurt service industries; is that the answer? Spending on goods is fine but the lack of spending on services is dragging the economy down?)

(The COVID-19 disruptions part of the explanation also confuses me but that's less important, and less relevant to this forum. But from that CNBC article, 800 of 15,000 longshoremen have been "out of work due to COVID;" so if 5% of Longshoremen call in sick, the ports grind to a halt? There's got to be more to the story that I'm missing.)

  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps some people are spending more while other are able to spend less. If I get a new cellphone and you can't afford rent, it may cancel out in total numbers, but it doesn't mean there isn't a struggle. It would be better if you could afford rent and I didn't get a new cellphone. $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Mar 15 '21 at 12:14
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I suspect the uneven impacts of the pandemic are at the root of my question. So what I am looking for are: (1) data corroborate the two narratives I identified, and (2) data to illustrate why those narratives are not actually contradictory. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 '21 at 14:04

In a graph you linked, the durables spending FRED series PCEDG is 1968 versus 1550 (Aug 2021 versus pre-pandemic Feb 2020, a span of 18 months). That is +27%. The PCE price level series PCEPILFE that excludes food and energy shows levels of 118.1 versus 113.2, so +4.3% over 18 months. The U.S. is not a net importer of food and energy. Currently there is probably no broad inflation measure that is as high as +27% over 18 months and the one I cite as +4.3% is a good example. It is very likely that more real output in durables is being bought so it is no surprise if import shipping activity is higher than it was in Feb 2020.

Here is U4 and U6 unemployment.

u4 and u6

It appears August 2021 levels of U4 and U6 were both lower in all of 2019. That suggests weakness in the economy.

You asked...

how are we all paying for so much more stuff that our ports are clogged

The increase in unemployment is more likely in customer facing positions in restaurants, airlines, hotels, cruise ships, and other hospitality businesses. Since people that work from home are not spending as much in restaurants and travel, they have more money to spend on other things.


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