So far, the coronavirus has not caused mass layoffs in any U.S. industries. However, if the virus spreads rapidly, some industries will almost have to curtail activity. The civilian labor force in the United States is at a near-record 164.6 million. Of those, 158.7 million had jobs in January for an unemployment rate of 3.6%. Months of job increases could be reversed quickly if industries such as retail, travel and consumer goods suffer a drop in demand. The remedy to a fall-off in revenue is usually cost cuts, and often that means workers let go.
In one of the latest forecast developments, Moody’s Analytics put the odds of a global pandemic at 40%. According to the financial intelligence company: “Our previous assumption that the virus will be contained in China proved optimistic, and the odds of a pandemic are rising.”
There is only one solid reason the stock market has sold down by over 10% in a matter of six days, and it appears it will be down again. Investors have looked to China, Japan, South Korea and even Italy, as regions of the countries have completely limited travel. In some cases, people have been forced to remain in their homes. In a shocking development, Japan has closed almost all of its schools for a month. Approximately 13 million students will be affected. Large companies have canceled conferences, which are attended by thousands of people. Streets in parts of these countries are largely deserted.
Also, the stock market has started to handicap the companies in deepening trouble. Walt Disney, a perennial Dow Jones industrial average winner, is off this year. Its theme parks are a major part of its revenue. Johnson & Johnson is flat. It sells consumer products in tens of thousands of locations. Shares of Pfizer are off 5%.
A closer look by threatened industry is more concerning. Shares of United Airlines are down 15% in the past month, with most of that drop in the past two weeks. The carrier employs nearly 100,000 people. Larger employers are at risk as well. Walmart’s shares have sold off on anxiety about store traffic. It has over a million workers in the United States.
McDonald’s, Target, Kroger, Home Depot and fast-food holding company Yum! Brands are among the 15 largest employers. A lockdown of large numbers of people would sharply undermine their customer visits. Financial firms like Bank of America, which has thousands of branches, might have to shutter many of those. Car dealerships are also vulnerable.
Another category of companies that could face serious hurdles is those that source goods from China and other Asian nations where the virus is spreading. Apple’s shares are down 13% in the past month.
As activity in China and Japan show, the coronavirus can crater an economy within days. It is not just giant companies that face trouble. Smaller companies may not have access to the capital they could need if revenue plunges sharply.
People may not remember that in the last recession, unemployment went from 4% in June 2007 to 5% a year later. That represents about 1.5 million jobs. After that, the figure soared. Like the financial crisis, the coronavirus is completely unexpected, and it may hammer the U.S. economy just as many economists had forecast that the jobless rate would be very modest for the rest of the year.
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