The coronavirus is causing the U.S. economy to break all the wrong records. An unprecedented 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance last week, and today the economy added another dubious achievement to the list.
Between February and March, the National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Optimism Index plummeted from 104.5 to 96.4 .
This historic decline is a very bad omen for the nation’s economic outlook. Combined with unprecedented unemployment data, it reveals that the core U.S. economy is set to take a massive hit from the coronavirus. And it’s unlikely to recover anytime soon.
Tuesday’s reading is the largest monthly drop in optimism since NFIB began compiling the index in 1986.
And the record drop ends a 39-month run of strong small business sentiment. In other words, the coronavirus has erased the gradual improvement the U.S. economy had enjoyed over the past three years.
And make no mistake, the NFIB is blaming the coronavirus for the record plunge in business confidence.
The business impact of Covid-19 has shaken the small business sector. The economic disruptions felt on Main Street escalated over the month as an increasing number of small businesses rapidly scaled back operations or closed their doors altogether.
U.S. businesses expect even worse days ahead. The NFIB writes that they anticipate “continued economic disruptions going forward.”
Nine out of ten components of the optimism index recorded marked falls. There was a 31-point dive in expectations of increased sales. And a 13-point fall for businesses thinking the next three months would be a good time to expand. That made it unsurprising to see a 12-point decline in U.S. businesses expecting to increase employment.
Additionally, there was also a 17-point fall in confidence that the economy will improve. If this pessimism is justified, then U.S. business optimism is likely to accelerate its downwards trajectory as the coronavirus pandemic continues its forward march.
Small businesses are right to suspect that the U.S. economy will get much worse before it gets better.
For one thing, nearly ten million people filed for unemployment in the final two weeks of March.
Goldman Sachs predicts that the coronavirus will cause U.S. economic output to fall by 34% in the second quarter . The bank expects the unemployment rate to surge to 15% by the second half of 2020.
The Asian Development Bank is forecasting that the coronavirus pandemic will cost the global economy $4.1 trillion .
Taken together, it’s entirely understandable that U.S. business optimism has experienced its biggest ever monthly fall. All economic indicators are pointing to a sharp recession, or even a lasting depression.
But it’s remarkably telling just how quickly and how sharply these negative indicators have affected business confidence.
And it’s likely that the collapse of U.S. business optimism will help create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because when businesses expect a sharp contraction, they reduce their output. And when they reduce their output, the U.S. economy contracts. And so on.
That’s why the NFIB’s report is so significant. It forewarns just how bad the coming recession is going to be.