U.S. Economy Rebounds as Pain Caused by Pandemic Eases: Live Updates

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The economy picked up speed last quarter, shaking off some of the lingering effects of the pandemic as consumer spending grew, bolstered by government stimulus checks and an easing of restrictions in many parts of the country.

The Commerce Department reported Thursday that the economy expanded 1.6 percent in the first three months of 2021, compared with 1.1 percent in the final quarter last year.

On an annualized basis, the first-quarter growth rate was 6.4 percent.

Gross domestic product,

adjusted for inflation and

seasonality, at annual rates

Gross domestic product, adjusted for inflation

and seasonality, at annual rates

“This was a great way to start the year,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “We had the perfect mix of improving health conditions, strong fiscal stimulus and warmer weather.”

“Consumers are now back in the driver’s seat when it comes to economic activity, and that’s the way we like it,” he added. “A consumer that is feeling confident about the outlook will generally spend more freely.”

Looking ahead, economists said they expected to see even better numbers this quarter.

“It’s good news, but the better news is coming,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. “There’s nothing in this report that makes me think the economy won’t grow at a gangbusters pace in the second and third quarter.”

The expansion last quarter was spurred by stimulus checks, he said, which quickly translated into purchases of durable goods like cars and household appliances.

“This demonstrates the value of government intervention when the economy is on its knees from Covid,” he added. “But in the coming quarters, the economy will be much less dependent on stimulus as individuals use the savings they’ve accumulated during the pandemic.”

Cumulative percent change in

G.D.P. from the start of the

last five recessions

Final quarter

before

recession

5 quarters

into recession

Cumulative percent change in G.D.P.

from the start of the last five recessions

Final quarter

before

recession

5 quarters

into recession

Overall economic activity should return to prepandemic levels in the current quarter, Mr. Anderson said, while cautioning that it will take until late 2022 for employment to regain the ground it lost as a result of the pandemic.

Still, the labor market does seem to be catching up. Last month, employers added 916,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 6 percent, while initial claims for unemployment benefits have dropped sharply in recent weeks.

Tom Gimbel, chief executive of LaSalle Network, a recruiting and staffing firm in Chicago, said: “It’s the best job market I’ve seen in 25 years. We have 50 percent more openings now than we did pre-Covid.”

Hiring is stronger for junior to midlevel positions, he said, with strong demand for professionals in accounting, financing, marketing and sales, among other areas. “Companies are building up their back-office support and supply chains,” he said. “I think we’re good for at least 18 months to two years.”

Spending on goods like automobiles led the way in the first quarter, but demand for services like dining out should revive in the second quarter, said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics. “I think we will see a surge in services spending,” she said.

The acceleration of the vaccine rollout will allow more Americans to return to restaurants.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

The first-quarter economic recovery was powered by spending. Specifically, by spending on stuff.

Consumer spending rose 2.6 percent in the first three months of the year, with a 5.4 percent increase in spending on goods accounting for most of the growth. Americans ramped up spending on cars, furniture, recreational vehicles and other long-lasting items, as well as on clothes and food. Spending on services, which has slumped throughout the pandemic, rose by a more modest 1.1 percent.

Services spending is likely to pick up in the second quarter, as the acceleration of the vaccine rollout allows more Americans to return to restaurants, airplanes and other activities that they avoided during the pandemic. The data released Thursday by the Commerce Department largely predates that surge.

What the first-quarter data does capture is the impact of two rounds of relief checks from the federal government. After-tax personal income, adjusted for inflation, jumped 12.7 percent in the first quarter, with the government payments accounting for most of the increase. There was a similar jump in income when the first round of relief checks hit last year, which was followed by a similar surge in spending on goods.

“To some extent, when people have money, they’re going to spend it,” said Ben Herzon, executive director of IHS Markit, a forecasting firm. “If they’re not spending on services because they’re not going to movies or amusement parks, they’re going to derive utility from goods.”

He said he expected goods spending to ease in the second quarter as services spending begins to rebound more strongly.

Americans still have plenty of cash to spend. Households were sitting on a collective $4.1 trillion in savings in the first quarter, up from $1.2 trillion before the pandemic began — although such aggregates can obscure the fact that many families have seen their finances wiped out by the crisis.

Ample savings and rising consumer optimism are giving businesses the confidence to bet on the future as well. Business investment rose 2.4 percent in the first quarter and is now above its prepandemic level. The housing market has been juiced by low interest rates and strong demand; residential construction spending rose 2.6 percent in the first quarter.

As more Americans become vaccinated, many economists expect a decline in new unemployment claims.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Initial jobless claims fell last week to yet another pandemic low in the latest sign that the economic recovery is strengthening.

About 575,000 people filed first-time claims for state unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department said Thursday, a decrease of 9,000 from the previous week’s revised figure. It was the third straight week that jobless claims had dropped.

In addition, 122,000 new claims were filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program that covers freelancers, part-timers and others who do not routinely qualify for state benefits. That was a decline of 12,000 from the previous week.

Neither figure is seasonally adjusted. On a seasonally adjusted basis, new state claims totaled 553,000.

“Today’s report, and the other data that we got today, signals an improving labor market and an improving economy,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist with the career site Glassdoor. “It is encouraging that claims are continuing to fall.”

Although weekly jobless claims remain above levels reached before the pandemic, vaccinations and warmer weather are offering new hope. Most economists expect the slow downward trend in claims to continue in the coming months as the economy reopens more fully.

But challenges lie ahead. The long-term unemployed — a group that historically has had a more difficult time rejoining the work force — now make up more than 40 percent of the total number of unemployed. Of the 22 million jobs that disappeared early in the pandemic, more than eight million remain lost.

“The labor market is definitely moving in the right direction,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at the online job site Indeed. She noted that job postings as of last Friday were up 22.4 percent from February 2020.

Still, she cautioned that industries like tourism and hospitality would probably remain depressed until the pandemic was firmly under control. She also stressed that child care obligations might be preventing people ready to return to work from seeking jobs.

“We still are in a pandemic — the vaccinations are ramping up but there is that public health factor still,” Ms. Konkel said. “We’re not quite there yet.”

Microsoft will decrease the share of money it charges independent developers that publish computer games on its online store, starting in August, the company said on Thursday.

Developers will keep 88 percent of the revenue from their games, up from 70 percent. That could make Microsoft’s store more attractive to independent studios than competitors like Valve’s gaming store, called Steam, which typically starts by taking a 30 percent cut. Epic Games’ store takes 12 percent.

“We want to make sure that we’re competitive in the market,” said Sarah Bond, a Microsoft vice president who leads the gaming ecosystem organization. “Our objective is to have a leading revenue share and really a leading platform.”

The share of revenue that developers get to keep has come under greater scrutiny across the tech industry. Google and Apple have faced antitrust questions for the 30 percent fees they charge developers whose programs appear in their app stores.

Last year, Epic sued Apple and Google separately, claiming they violated antitrust laws by forcing developers to use their payment systems. Epic had tried to bypass the fees by letting customers pay for items in its Fortnite video game directly through Epic. That caused Apple and Google to boot Fortnite from their app stores.

Apple and Google have since reduced fees for some developers. Epic’s lawsuit against Apple is set to head to trial on Monday in U.S. District Court in Oakland, Calif.

Gary Gensler, the chair of the Securities Exchange Commission, has some expertise with cryptocurrencies.Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

For many cryptocurrency supporters and investors, regulatory approval of a Bitcoin exchange-traded fund in the United States represents the holy grail. It would allow the crypto-curious to get exposure to Bitcoin without having to buy the tokens themselves, signifying that digital assets are really, truly mainstream.

But it’s not meant to be — yet. On Wednesday, the Securities and Exchange Commission delayed a decision on a Bitcoin E.T.F. proposal from the investment manager VanEck, saying it needs more time but offering no other explanation.

Delay is not denial, and it may be a good sign, Todd Cipperman, the founder of the compliance services firm CCS, told the DealBook newsletter. When considering the concept of a crypto E.T.F. in 2018, the S.E.C. raised questions about investor protection issues and put a “wet blanket on the whole idea,” he said.

Now, crypto is much bigger, and Gary Gensler, who taught courses about blockchain technology at M.I.T., is chair of the S.E.C. His expertise doesn’t guarantee success for crypto E.T.F.s, but it will be easier for an expert in the field to approve them, Mr. Cipperman suggested.

The S.E.C. gave itself until mid-June, with the option to take more time, but it must decide before year’s end. The regulator has rejected every proposal to date, starting with the first Bitcoin E.T.F. pitch in 2013, presented by the Winklevoss twins, which was eventually dismissed in 2017 (and again in 2018). There are several E.T.F. proposals on the table now, including one from the traditional finance giant Fidelity.

Canada is moving faster, approving all kinds of crypto E.T.F.s, after allowing its first Bitcoin E.T.F. in February. Hester Peirce, an S.E.C. commissioner and vocal crypto champion, told DealBook earlier this month that she has been “mystified” by her agency’s response to some prior applications, which met the standards in her view. With more players now engaging in the process, approval could be looming — eventually.

A Shell recharging station for electric vehicles in the Netherlands. Despite investments in renewable energy, Shell’s profit last quarter was largely the result of rising oil and gas prices.Credit…Koen Van Weel/EPA, via Shutterstock

Strong profit increases from two of Europe’s largest energy companies, Royal Dutch Shell and Total, demonstrated that what really matters for the financial performance of these companies remains the price of oil and natural gas.

Their recent investments in clean energy, described by company officials as essential for the future, remain marginal.

Total said that adjusted net income rose by 69 percent compared with the period a year earlier, when the effects of the pandemic were beginning to kick in, to $3 billion, while Shell said that what it calls adjusted earnings rose by 13 percent to $3.2 billion.

The main factor in the improved performance by both companies was a roughly 20 percent rise in oil prices along with an increase in natural gas prices, leading to higher revenues. During a news conference to discuss the results, Jessica Uhl, Shell’s chief financial officer, said that a $10 jump in oil prices would translate into a $6.4 billion increase in cash for the company’s coffers on an annual basis.

Shell, which cut its dividend last year for the first time since World War II, confirmed that it would increase the payout for the quarter by 4 percent, to about 17 cents a share.

Both companies have tethered their futures to generating and distributing renewable sources of energy. Shell in February said its oil production had peaked in 2019, and it has been investing in various clean energy ventures, including a network of 60,000 charging stations for electric vehicles. And Total has, among other things, invested in options to build offshore wind farms off Britain.

In its earnings statement, Total took the lead among the oil majors in providing details on its investments in renewable energy like wind and solar. The company said these businesses brought in $148 million for the quarter, measured as earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. This figure was about 2 percent of the overall total for the company of $7.3 billion, according to analysts at Bernstein, a research firm.

Although Airbus reported a quarterly profit after a full-year loss for 2020,  “the market remains uncertain,”  said Guillaume Faury, the company’s chief executive.Credit…Chema Moya/EPA, via Shutterstock

Airbus announced Thursday that it had returned to a profit in the first quarter following a 1.1 billion euro loss last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, but its top executive warned that the economic toll would continue.

“The first quarter shows that the crisis is not yet over for our industry, and that the market remains uncertain,” Guillaume Faury, chief executive of the world’s largest airplane maker, said in a statement.

Airbus booked a net profit of 362 million euros ($440 million) between January and March, compared with a loss of 481 million euros a year earlier, as cost-cutting measures — which included more than 11,000 layoffs announced last year for its global operations — bolstered the bottom line. Revenue fell 2 percent to 10.5 billion euros.

Airbus delivered 125 commercial aircraft to airlines in the three-month period, up from 122 a year earlier. Over all, Airbus delivered 566 aircraft to airlines in 2020, 40 percent less than expected before the pandemic.

Airbus has previously warned that the industry might not recover from the disruption caused by the pandemic until as late as 2025, as new virus variants delay a resumption of worldwide air travel.

Given the uncertain outlook, Airbus won’t ramp up aircraft deliveries this year. The company said it expected to deliver 566 aircraft on back order from airline companies, the same number as last year.

It maintained its forecast for an underlying operating profit of two billion euros for the year.

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Stocks on Wall Street jumped on Thursday, rising with European stock indexes, amid indications that the economy is moving toward a recovery to prepandemic levels.

The Commerce Department reported Thursday that the U.S. economy expanded 1.6 percent in the first three months of 2021, compared with 1.1 percent in the final quarter last year, or 6.4 percent on an annualized basis.

A day earlier, the Federal Reserve said that the outlook was improving and that it would continue to provide substantial monetary support, easing investors’ concerns that it would soon start easing the stimulus efforts it launched a year ago when the Covid-19 crisis forced a near shutdown of many parts of the economy.

“While the level of new cases remains concerning,” Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said, “continued vaccinations should allow for a return to more normal economic conditions later this year.” The central bank kept interest rates near zero and said it would continue buying bonds at a steady clip.

The S&P 500 rose 0.7 percent. Market sentiment continued to rise after President Biden detailed more of his spending plans — which total $4 trillion — to fund expanded access to education and reduce the cost of child care, among other things.

Oil prices rose. Futures of West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, climbed more than 2 percent to above $5 a barrel.

The Stoxx Europe 600 rose 0.3 percent as a measure of economic confidence for the eurozone surged higher.

  • Facebook shares rose nearly 6 percent after the company said on Wednesday that profit nearly doubled to $9.5 billion in the first quarter as advertising revenue and user numbers increased.

  • Apple shares rose about half a percent after the iPhone maker’s profit more than doubled to $23.6 billion in the first quarter. The company also said it would buy back $90 billion of its own stock, part of its continued program to return much of its earnings to shareholders.

  • Qualcomm, which makes chips for smartphones, rose nearly 6 percent after the company said its revenue increased 52 percent in the first three months of the year compared with the previous year.

  • Airbus shares rose 2.7 percent after the French plane maker said it had returned to a profit in the first quarter following a 1.1 billion euro loss last year. But the company’s chief executive added that the crisis was not over for the industry.

Amazon announced raises for half a million employees in its warehouses, delivery network and other fulfillment teams.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Amazon will increase pay between 50 cents and $3 an hour for half a million workers in its warehouses, delivery network and other fulfillment teams, the company said on Wednesday.

The action follows scrutiny of Amazon from lawmakers and an unsuccessful unionization push that ended this month at its large warehouse in Alabama. In 2018, Amazon raised its minimum pay to $15 an hour. In recent months, it has publicly campaigned to raise the federal minimum to $15, too.

Amazon has been on a hiring spree during the pandemic. As more customers ordered items online, the company added 400,000 employees in the United States last year. Its total work force stands at almost 1.3 million people.

Amazon typically revaluates wages each fall, before the holiday shopping season. But this year, it moved those changes earlier, said Darcie Henry, an Amazon vice president of people experience and technology. The new wages will roll out from mid-May through early June. Ms. Henry said the company was hiring for “tens of thousands” of open positions.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, recently told shareholders in his annual letter that he recognized the company needed “a better vision for how we create value for employees — a vision for their success.” He said that Amazon had always striven to be “Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company,” and that now he wanted it to be “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work” as well.

Amazon is scheduled to report quarterly earnings on Thursday.

Gary Gensler’s tenure leading the Securities and Exchange Commission is off to a rocky start: Alex Oh, who he named just days ago to run the regulator’s enforcement division, has resigned following a federal court ruling in a case involving one of her corporate clients, ExxonMobil.

In her resignation letter on Wednesday, Ms. Oh said the matter would be “an unwelcome distraction to the important work” of the enforcement division.

Ms. Oh’s resignation letter followed a ruling on Monday from Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia over the conduct of Exxon’s lawyers during a civil case involving claims of human rights abuses in the Aceh province of Indonesia.

According to Judge Lamberth’s ruling, Exxon’s lawyers claimed without providing evidence that the plaintiffs’ attorneys were “agitated, disrespectful and unhinged” during a deposition. He ordered Exxon’s lawyers to show why penalties were not warranted for those comments.

The ruling did not single out any lawyers by name. Ms. Oh was one of the lead lawyers for Exxon.

The judge’s order also granted the plaintiffs’ motion that Exxon pay “reasonable expenses” associated with litigating their request for sanctions and with an accompanying motion to compel additional testimony from Exxon related to the deposition.

Ms. Oh’s resignation letter did not mention the Exxon case by name, but a person briefed on the matter confirmed that the ruling from Judge Lamberth had prompted her to step down.

Ms. Oh, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan who worked for the elite firm Paul, Weiss for nearly two decades, was picked by Mr. Gensler to oversee the S.E.C.’s 1,000-attorney enforcement division on April 22. The same day, she filed a notice with the court in the Exxon case saying she had withdrawn from the matter because she had resigned from the firm to join the federal government.

The civil litigation involving Exxon is nearly two decades old and involves allegations by the plaintiffs that Exxon’s security personnel “inflicted grievous injuries” on them. The lawsuit was brought under the federal Alien Tort Claims Act, which enables residents of other countries to sue in the United States for damages arising from violations of U.S. treaties or “the law of nations.”

Mr. Gensler said in a news release that Melissa Hodgman, who had been the enforcement division’s acting chief since January, will return to that position. Ms. Hodgman has been an enforcement attorney with the agency since 2008. He thanked Ms. Oh for her “willingness to serve the country.”

Ms. Oh could not immediately be reached for comment.

Brad Karp, chairman of Paul, Weiss, said the firm would not comment on the matter because it involved ongoing litigation. “Alex is a person of the utmost integrity and a consummate professional with a strong ethical code,” he added.

Ms. Oh is a highly respected lawyer, but her selection had been criticized by the Revolving Door Project, a good-government group, because she had been in private practice for so many years and had defended some of the largest U.S. companies.

  • Apple said on Wednesday that its profits more than doubled to $23.6 billion in the most recent quarter. Apple said its revenues soared by 54 percent to $89.6 billion. As usual, the main driver of Apple’s success was sales of the iPhone, which rose by 66 percent to $47.9 billion, its steepest increase in years. In the latest quarter, iPhones accounted for 54 percent of Apple’s revenues.

  • Facebook said on Wednesday that revenue rose 48 percent to $26.2 billion in the first three months of the year, while profits nearly doubled to $9.5 billion. Advertising revenue, which makes up the bulk of Facebook’s income, rose 46 percent to $25.4 billion. Nearly 3.5 billion people now use one of Facebook’s apps every month, up 15 percent from a year earlier.

  • Ford Motor said on Wednesday that the global shortage of computer chips will take a greater toll on its business than previously expected and would likely cut its vehicle production in the second quarter by about half. Ford expects the shortage to lower its operating profit this year by $2.5 billion, to between $5.5 billion to $6.5 billion. The company made a $3.3 billion profit in the first quarter, a turnaround from a year ago when the company lost $2 billion as the coronavirus pandemic was starting to shut down much of the world’s economy.

Increased supply-chain and freight costs for cereal makers could translate into higher retail prices for customers.Credit…Sara Hylton for The New York Times

Before the pandemic, when suppliers raised the cost of diapers, cereal and other everyday goods, retailers often absorbed the increase because stiff competition forced them to keep prices stable.

Now, with Americans’ shopping habits having shifted rapidly — with people spending more on treadmills and office furniture and less at restaurants and movie theaters — retailers are also adjusting, Gillian Friedman reports for The New York Times.

The Consumer Price Index, the measure of the average change in the prices paid by U.S. shoppers for consumer goods, increased 0.6 percent in March, the largest rise since August 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Procter & Gamble is raising prices on items like Pampers and Tampax in September. General Mills, which makes cereal brands including Cheerios, is facing increased supply-chain and freight costs that could translate into higher retail prices for customers.

At the beginning of the pandemic, companies were focused on fulfilling demand for toilet paper, cleaning supplies, canned food and masks, said Greg Portell, a partner at Kearney, a consulting firm. The government was watching for price-gouging, and customers were wary of being taken advantage of.

Now that the economy is beginning to stabilize, companies are starting to rebalance pricing so that it better fits their profit expectations and takes into account inflation. “This isn’t an opportunistic profit-taking by companies,” Mr. Portell said. “This is a reset of the market.”

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