As businesses started to reopen in May, so did the wallets of U.S. consumers

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Consumers are the backbone of the American economy, making up two-thirds of the economy. Recovering from the coronavirus pandemic will rest on how quickly people open up their wallets.

On Friday the economy got good news: After consumer spending fell -6.6% in March and a record -12.6% drop in April, consumer spending soared 8.2% in May—a record jump, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The surge in consumer spending comes as states across the country eased their shutdowns in May.


While that figure is still down 11.7% from February, the increase last month is another sign the economy has swung from recession to growth. In May, the unemployment rate fell to 13.3% from its peak in 14.7% in April. And the total number of Americans currently receiving unemployment benefits—continued claims—is at 19.5 million, down 5.4 million from its May peak.


And the rebound in the economy may be greater than it appears. Why? The economy was likely still contracting in early May, with unemployment rolls peaking at 24.9 million the week of May 9. That’s what makes the May economic data so impressive: The upward swing in the second half of the month was great enough to erase any drop earlier in the month and still show a substantial gain.

But there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the potential for a V-shaped recovery. For starters, another 1.5 million initial unemployment claims were filed in the week ending June 20—marking 14 straight weeks with jobless claims topping a million. Before this pandemic, the U.S. had never topped 700,000 weekly claims. Secondly, many Southern and Western states are seeing surging COVID-19 cases, which could threaten the recovery. Texas even rolled back its reopening plans.

On Friday the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis also announced that personal income dropped -4.2% in May. But that isn’t as bad as it appears: Personal income soared a record 10.8% in April as many Americans received their stimulus checks. So the May drop may simply reflect a more normalized pattern.

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