Bank of America’s chief market strategist this morning painted an improving picture of the U.S. economy during his virtual keynote presentation for the Bellevue Chamber’s annual Economic Forecast Summit, for which more than 600 participants registered.
Joe Quinlan cited the forthcoming COVID-19 vaccines, expected moderating forces of President-elect Joe Biden, overall corporate health, the generally good condition of U.S. households, and more targeted economic lockdowns to control the pandemic rather than a total lockdown among the things factoring into his optimism.
“Obviously … the pandemic is not over, we’re still waging the war — the battle continues for sure,” Quinlan said, acknowledging peaking infection, hospitalization, and death rates. “But when you look at your policy response, there’s concerns in the market about another massive lockdown like we saw back in March, April, May. We don’t see that.”
Instead, Quinlan sees more strategic shutdowns across the U.S., “such that the economy continues to move forward, albeit at a slower pace than what we saw in the third quarter.”
Earnings that quarter exceeded expectations.
“Sure, services, travel, tourism, restaurants, gyms — they’re taking a beating and it’s not over yet with selective shutdowns that were coming,” he said. “But when you look broadly across the economy, whether it’s housing, autos, the rebuilding inventory, manufacturing, health care, we’re seeing continued momentum. … So the economy continues to improve. We’re not looking for a double-dip in the fourth quarter, albeit with the pandemic numbers getting worse, we think we plow forward.”
Quinlan praised the Federal Reserve and Congress for going big and fast in their fiscal response to the pandemic. He hopes for another fiscal package in the $1 trillion-plus range. Quinlan said he thinks the public may have to wait until February before such a package arrives.
He also said the housing market is a key driver of growth into 2021 and 2022, and other sectors do well as housing does well. Surging auto production, as well as other manufacturers that have learned how to protect workers, keep operating, and keep money flowing into communities, were also positives, Quinlan noted.
On the consumer side, unemployment will continue to fall and wages will start to rise, Quinlan said. He added that household net worth numbers are seeing all-time highs, thanks largely to the surging stock market.
Quinlan anticipates travel, tourism, and restaurant sectors normalizing in perhaps 2022-23, post-vaccine.
“When we write kind of the history of the economic response to the pandemic, it’s going to be pretty impressive, all things considered,” he said.
Looking at sector performances, Quinlan touted health care.
“If we’ve learned anything about the pandemic, it is that health and wealth go together,” he said, adding that a healthy labor force is vital to growth.
The pandemic showed that the health care industry has been underfunded globally, but there’s now a focus among policymakers and companies on protecting the labor force, “so we’re still very bullish on the health care industry,” Quinlan said.
The pandemic has accelerated trends already underway, including the merging of science and technology, he said.
“Whether it’s artificial intelligence, gene editing, 3D printing — you name it — there’s a whole new Renaissance coming when it comes to health tech,” Quinlan said, connecting the marriage with the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines.
Bellevue tech companies are part of that dynamic, he said, “but I think it’s something that’s not appreciated just yet, just how much the pandemic has brought forward the merging of two great sectors in the United States — health care and technology.”
With Biden, Quinlan sees positive effects on trade and immigration.
“We’re in a much more favorable trading environment as we head into ’21, and that’s important for Bellevue — Washington state in general,” he said.
Global trade makes the U.S. better, provides more goods, lowers the cost of products, and makes more room for consumer preferences and selection, he added.
“So trade is good, and trade is going to improve,” Quinlan said. It won’t happen overnight, but “we’re going to dial back tensions and actually have some progress.”
That will help growth and earnings, he said.
The tone on immigration will improve deeper into the Biden administration, Quinlan added.
“That’s going to be very important because we need the immigrants, we need their energy, we need their dream, we need everything that they provide … so I see that’s a pro-growth policy plank as well,” Quinlan said.
Quinlan hopes infrastructure spending improves under Biden, too, particularly in regard to spreading fiber optics and 5G beyond the cities to the rest of the U.S.
“If we are — and I do believe this — in a tech cold war with China, then we don’t need to build missiles,” he said. “We need to lay fiber, we need to close off that last mile, we need to get rural areas on the internet,” he said.
He invoked the digital divide, which is still keeping some students from remote learning.
“There’s internet bandwidth inequality that needs to be fixed,” Quinlan said, calling for more public-private partnerships.
More partnerships also can help drive solar, wind, and electric vehicles further ahead, Quinlan said, recommending more consumer incentives to foster environmentally beneficial behavior.
Potential negatives under Biden include a regulatory backdrop that could become more challenging for energy, financial, and technology sectors, which could add costs, he said.
On the issue of the U.S. deficit, which stood about 15 percent of GDP at the end of the last fiscal year, Quinlan didn’t sound an alarm. Borrowing costs are low and he said GDP growth of 3 percent to 5 percent next year will help lower the deficit as a percentage of GDP.
Globally, China and other parts of Asia are rebounding, along with the U.S. But the European Union is lagging and taking some steam out of the global expansion, he said.
Also, for the first time in 20 years, the number of people falling into extreme poverty globally will increase due to the pandemic, he said, putting the number at more than 100 million people. That divide creates potential risk, too, and needs to be watched, he said, noting the U.S. hasn’t been spared.
“The pandemic has really pulled back the covers on inequality here in the United States,” Quinlan said.
While he believes corporate and individual philanthropy will step in, the U.S. divide also needs to be watched carefully, he said.
He concluded the discussion by bringing up ruptured China-U.S. relations.
“How do we patch that up?” he said. “U.S. companies need China; China needs U.S. companies. … China is a source of growth, it’s a source of energy, it’s a source of entrepreneurship, science, technology, climate change. We need all their resources marshaled together. How does that happen? That’s very important. How does Biden reset with China and will China reset with the United States?”