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Four in 10 households report lower income than pre-pandemic, threatening economic recovery

Around 6 percent of surveyed households said they have given up hope that their income will ever recover.
A pedestrian wearing a mask walks past closed shops in Los Angeles on Nov. 30, 2020.Frederic J. Brown / AFP - Getty Images file

Executives and ordinary Americans alike are worried about the future and the increased financial fallout from Covid-19.

More than four in 10 respondents to a new survey said their income took a hit at some point during the pandemic, and remains lower today. The data also revealed sharp demographic differences that illustrate how the coronavirus has had an outsized effect on certain populations.

“We see a greater level of pessimism and concern about the prospect for further impact on household income and how long it will take for households to see their income rebound,” said Greg McBride, Bankrate’s chief financial analyst.

Nearly one-third, 31 percent, say it will take more than a year for their income to rebound, while 6 percent have given up hope that it will ever recover.

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Across the board, 17 percent say their income has already bounced back, but a deeper dive into the numbers shows a sharp bifurcation in this rebound, with the richest Americans seeing a quicker bounce-back. While 30 percent of those with household incomes greater than $80,000 say their income is back to normal, only 10 percent of those earning less than $40,000 said the same.

While 30 percent of those with household incomes greater than $80,000 say their income is back to normal, only 10 percent of those earning less than $40,000 said the same.

"It clearly shows that there is a broad need” for more fiscal stimulus, McBride said. “And that need extends beyond households that have lost jobs and are currently unemployed. Many of those people are back to work, but making less than they had been pre-pandemic.”

There are macroeconomic implications here, McBride warned. “People who are worried about their future income prospects are more likely to clutch the purse stings and hold off on spending,” he said. “Two-thirds of U.S. economic output is tied to consumer spending, so as goes the consumer, so goes the economy.”

Chief financial officers are more optimistic today than they were three months ago, but that isn’t saying much: According to a quarterly survey conducted by consulting firm Deloitte, just 18 percent of North American CFOs characterize the current economy as good. While this is an improvement from the slim 1 percent who said economic conditions were good back in June, the survey results also show that the timeline for an expected return to normalcy has been pushed back.

While the percentage of North American CFOs expecting better conditions in a year rose from 43 percent last quarter to 59 percent now, around one in four don’t expect improvement until the beginning of 2022 or later, primarily in hard-hit sectors like retail.

“Medium to longer term, given the vaccine and given some other factors, prospects are improving, but they know the process is going to take a lot longer,” said Steve Gallucci, national leader of the U.S. CFO Program at Deloitte.

“I think the optimism is really tied to clarity,” he said, pointing out that three months ago, the outcome of the presidential election was still unknown, and there was much less certainty about the timeline of a Covid-19 vaccine.

Much of CFO’s forward-looking optimism, though, hinges on three events CFOs overwhelmingly support: more fiscal stimulus, a federal infrastructure spending package and a nationally coordinated Covid response — none of which is in place right now.

“Clearly, we did see a strong consensus that CFOs would like to see a federally coordinated response to Covid-19,” Gallucci said. In addition, roughly three-quarters of respondents said Congress should fund a substantial infrastructure program, and about two-thirds voiced support for more stimulus.

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The rapidly escalating Covid-19 case loads comprise the biggest unknown — and the greatest risk. “There continues to be concern around spikes of the pandemic itself,” Gallucci said.

Two new small-business surveys turned up similar sentiments. A new Bank of America survey found that only a third of business owners surveyed expecting to grow their revenues next year. “This has been a very trying year, on so many levels,” said Sharon Miller, Bank of America’s head of small business, adding, “This is a day by day, geography by geography, industry by industry type of recovery.”

And the percentage of small business owners expecting better business conditions over the next 6 months declined 19 points, according to the most recent survey from NFIB, a small business trade group. Executive director Holly Wade said there were a couple of key driver. “Part of it is likely due to the election results and being worried about what the policy initiatives might be,” she said. “Also, it’s certainly the increased infection rates of the virus and state responses in dealing with that are negatively impacting the small business sector,” she said.