Economy won't recover until consumers feel safe, UNC expert says

As long as we need to wear masks when we leave the house and as long as we feel the need for social distancing while buying something, we aren't likely to return to our old pre-pandemic spending habits.

That's according to UNC finance professor Christian Lundblad who, along with colleagues, came up with what they call the Consumer Consternation Index.

They say even if the state were to lift all restrictions on businesses and if every worker was willing to go back to their jobs, the economy won't improve unless consumers get over their health fears and consternation about the health risks of traditional brick-and-mortar shopping.

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The Consumer Consternation Index is akin to the better known Consumer Confidence Index but reflects only non-essential business in a COVID-19 world.

"Consumer consternation is basically about the inability or the unwillingness perhaps of households to buy the things they don't have to buy," Lundblad, who teaches at the Keenan-Flagler Business School, said.

Lundblad notes that when the national emergency was declared in mid-March, consumers were already backing away from non-essential purchases.

That trend shot straight up for the next month.

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"Households are incredibly disinclined to engage in non-essential economic activity. And that hits a peak of sort of inability or unwillingness to transact in April after the 'stay at home' order," Lundblad said, looking back at the time.

Things began to improve after that peak and that improvement trend continued through our state's move into Phase 2 on May 22.

But in mid-June, that trend turned into a plateau at about half the non-essential purchasing we saw before the pandemic.

It's been there ever since.

And it's not nearly enough to sustain the economy, according to Lundblad.

"We stand very far away from where we were," he said. "And the critical question is, where are we going? What would it take to sort of get us back to kind of normal household consumption activity?"

Those are rhetorical questions because Lundblad thinks he knows what it will take.

"I think there's a road map for policy makers to manage this trade-off but what that's going to require is better monitoring of the virus, we've got to do a better job of testing," he said. "We've got to do a better job of tracing contamination and community spread. And it's at that point where we're going to start to see then customers who are going to start to feel more comfortable coming back through the doors."

Lundblad says a vaccine that's effective would be a game changer.

But even if that were to happen in November or December as some have predicted, he thinks it would take months to distribute it widely.

"My best guess for some improvement is getting well into 2021 I'm afraid. I think we're going to be in for a slog here where we're working through the challenges of this opening."

Lundblad hopes he's wrong.
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