U.S. stocks ended the week lower, but have gotten an overall boost in November from promising developments on vaccines for COVID-19 which may help the economy to recover further in 2021.
But even if a vaccine were ready and widely distributed sometime next year, it won’t help the millions now out of work because of the pandemic or businesses struggling to pay bills.
It also won’t make staying home for the holidays feel less grim.
And that has Wall Street focused on Main Street for clues about what consumers, for decades the engine of the U.S. economy, will do during the crucial holiday shopping season.
“The likelihood of folks hitting the stores next week is nil to none,” said Mark Cohen, director of retail sales at Columbia Business School and a former CEO of Sears Canada Inc
“Lots of folks are seeing their unemployment checks run out.”
Read: 12 million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits the day after Christmas
Cohen still expects good earnings from retail behemoths with successful online platforms, like Amazon.com
Costco Wholesale Corp
and Walmart Inc.
which already benefitted during the pandemic from their “essential services” designation which allow them to keep stores open during lockdowns and from the “work from home” trend. The brunt of the pain, he said, will be felt by retailers that need foot traffic to survive.
“It might have been merely a disrupted holiday season, if not for the fact of the daily ramp up in infections, hospitalizations and deaths,” Cohen told MarketWatch. “The damage is going to be rife. It already is.”
Adobe Analytics expects online U.S. holiday retail sales to hit a record of nearly $200 billion between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31, but Deloitte forecasts overall spending around the year-end period to fall by 7% per U.S. household to $1,387.
Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics, sees economic data already pointing to a slowing of consumer activity, including retail sales that rose a modest 0.3% in October, the smallest gain since April.
“This reading is one of the first signs that consumer are feeling the pinch of lapsing federal income support as we head into the traditional holiday season,” she wrote in a Friday note.
After months of warnings from health experts, new daily coronavirus infections in the colder months have become rampant across the U.S.
Even in places like Billings, Montana, the nation’s third-least densely populated state, hospitals have been pushed to the brink and forced to tap Federal disaster programs that direct critical care nurses to the frontlines during times of crisis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pleaded this week for Americans to not travel during the Thanksgiving holiday period in the next few days. California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom also announced a temporary curfew for much of the state, except for essential work. “We are sounding the alarm,” Newsom said in a press release. California is America’s largest state economy.
Against that backdrop, U.S. stock indexes closed lower Friday, but with the S&P 500
still up 3.4% on the month to date, the Dow Jones Industrial Average
3.3% higher and the Nasdaq Composite Index
on pace for a 2.9% monthly gain, according to FactSet data. All three ended trade Friday less than 2.3% off their recent recent record closes.
Michael Kelly, global head of multi-asset investor, PineBridge Investments, attributed the resilience in U.S. stocks and credit markets in recent weeks to an overarching view among investors that vaccine progress puts an end to the pandemic and its economic carnage within sight.
“The markets are very confident that what we saw before, in terms of a total lockdown, total darkness, would not be repeated,” he told MarketWatch, pointing to the alternatives of mask wearing and social distancing as effective tools to thwart COVID-19’s spread.
British drugmaker AstraZeneca PLC
said the experimental vaccine it is developing with the University of Oxford showed a robust immune response in older adults, based on data from mid-stage trials. That news came after Pfizer Inc.
and BioNTech SE
on Wednesday said their vaccine candidate was 95% effective in late-stage trials and Moderna Inc.
on Monday said its vaccine candidate was 94.5% effective in similar trials.
Optimism early in the week around progress on vaccines even sent shares of the giant SPDR S&P Retail ETF XRT to an all time high of $57.63 on Thursday, before it retreated a slight 0.1% on Friday, according to FactSet data.
In others years, Wall Street might have been thrown off by President Donald’s Trump refusal to concede the Nov. 3 election to President-elect Joe Biden, or by the months that have passed without Congress providing another significant round of financial aid that’s long been promised.
Read: Party leaders go to their corners ahead of hashing out stimulus
But markets, perhaps accustomed to the turmoil that’s become a hallmark of the past four years of the Trump administration, barely flitched Friday after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin abruptly ending several key emergency lending programs it created with the Federal Reserve to keep credit flowing in financial markets during the pandemic.
“This is unfortunate and unhelpful for keeping an orderly, free flow of credit to businesses, consumers and the banking system at a time when it needs it most,” said Steven Skancke, chief economic advisor at Keep Point, a wealth management firm, and a former Treasury Department staffer, in emailed commentary.
But investors still can count on the Fed’s promise to hold interest rates near zero for years to come and a dovish stance on its massive Treasury debt and government-backed mortgaage bond-buying program, which also has anchored markets.
“I can certainly see that we’re probably going to have some volatiliy, but I do think that, ultimately, as we progress with the vaccines it will be positive,” said David Norris, TwentyFour Asset Management, about pandemic-related turmoil.
His estimate is that broad distribtiuon and innoculation of an effective vaccine likely happens toward the spring of next year. “The vaccine is incredibly important and that will be people back to work.”
Meanwhile, there’s a host of consumer-related U.S. economic reports on tap for next week before the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday.
James Sweeney, Credit Suisse’s economist, said he expects Tuesday’s consumer confidence index for November to slip to 99.0 from 100.9, “as positive vaccine news and stock market gains are offset by rising COVID-19 infections and new restrictions nationwide,” in a weekly note, and for the Commerce Department to report Wednesday a drop in America’s personal income in October.