UHERO: More Substantial recovery in sight
From UHERO, March 5, 2021
Hawaii is struggling to emerge from the severe COVID-19 downturn, but the recovery is poised to accelerate. Falling virus counts and vaccination progress set the stage for a strengthening visitor industry recovery as the year progresses, as well as growth in the broader local economy. Business failures and economic damage to lower-income households will continue to be burdens, and full recovery to pre-pandemic employment remains several years down the road. Exceptional uncertainty continues to surround our forecasts for Hawaii.
• US economic recovery stalled out late in the year as COVID-19 cases surged, but the economy is poised for a robust rebound as vaccination becomes widespread. The largest federal fiscal support on record and an accommodative Federal Reserve continue to be essential supports. Abroad, prospects for rich countries—who have locked up most of the world’s vaccine this year—are much better than for developing countries. For all countries, the speed of vaccination relative to contagious new COVID-19 variants will be key in recovery.
• Hawaii has managed the COVID-19 pandemic better than many, if not all, other states. This reflects Hawaii’s ability to almost completely shut itself off in the early stages of the pandemic, but we were also successful in tamping down a summer surge. After a holiday pickup, virus numbers have trended downward to their lowest level since July. Hawaii is also among the states furthest along in vaccination, priming the economy for renewed growth.
• Hawaii’s Safe Travels program has allowed the visitor industry to make a partial recovery, while keeping COVID-19 cases at bay. But visitor numbers remain far below pre-pandemic levels. As case counts fall and vaccination rates rise, US tourism will pick up speed as we approach the summer and fall months. International markets will lag. In our baseline forecast, arrivals recover half their pandemic losses by July, and visitor spending recovers nearly 70% of its losses by year end. Full recovery is still several years out.
• Vaccination progress will also allow a broader reopening of the local economy. At the same time, the accrued damage to local firms has been extensive, particularly in the most-affected areas of tourism and other face-to-face services. Surveys indicate a large number of firms fear failure in coming months. While the unemployment rate has receded, the payroll job base remained 16% below pre-pandemic levels in December. We expect an accelerating pace of job recovery as the year progresses.
• The crisis has had a disparate effect on high- and low-income households. Professional workers have been able to continue to work remotely, while many lower-income households are dependent on the face-to-face services that have been hardest hit. This has led to disproportionate economic hardship for these families. Income and housing support programs have been crucial in preventing economic collapse for some families and communities.
• There remains an exceptional level of uncertainty about the path forward, which will depend on COVID-19 control, an end to social distancing, the extent of business failures, and the travel and spending response of consumers. In an optimistic scenario, broad vaccine coverage by summer in the US and major international markets, and a spending surge driven by fiscal stimulus and pent-up demand, would fuel a more-robust tourism and local recovery. Slower-than-expected vaccination progress and resurgent case counts could lead to poorer recovery progress. Business failures and damage to household balance sheets and employment prospects could weigh more heavily on the economy. In such a pessimistic scenario, overall economic recovery would be more delayed and much less robust.
First Quarter Hawaii Forecast
With the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out building and case counts in decline, tourism is positioned to begin a more significant recovery this year. And this also sets the stage for a more rapid re-opening of locally-focused businesses. Pent-up demand after a year stuck at home will support recovery, as will the massive federal fiscal package now in the works. At the same time, Hawaii’s reliance on service sectors means our recovery will be more attenuated than that of many other states, and there continues to be an exceptional level of uncertainty, both to the upside but especially the downside.
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