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The Covid Economy Carves Deep Divide Between -2-

10/05/2020 | 11:25am EST

So, casinos and theaters saw business evaporate, the air-travel industry slashed spending by two-thirds, restaurants cut their spending by half and gas stations cut spending by a quarter as commuting fell. Manufacturing and railroads slowed sharply, as did oil and gas extraction.

The Palmer House Hilton hotel in Chicago now is facing a bank foreclosure. High-end New York restaurants Per Se and Eleven Madison Park remain closed. Exxon Mobil Corp. is expected to lose $1 billion this year . Department stores Neiman Marcus Group Inc. (sted of Ltd., okay?) and J.C. Penney Co., which were already buffeted by internet shopping, sought bankruptcy-court protection in May.

Within the reshaped landscape, some companies have adapted faster than others. As foot traffic evaporated, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. saw online orders more than triple in the second quarter, rising to 61% of total sales from about a quarter. The chain added staff and said it would include drive-through "Chipotlanes" at most new restaurants.

Lululemon Athletica Inc., after closing stores in the spring, was able to capture purchases by Americans working from home and eager for more comfortable "athleisure" clothing. The seller of high-end yoga pants embraced the shift to at-home fitness by buying Mirror, a start up that sells Internet-connected equipment and class subscriptions.

Other companies found the virus stoked demand for their wares. Spending by data hosting and processing companies rose 7% in April, from a year earlier, and slightly in May, as consumption of cloud services soared. Supermarket business thrived as families ate at home more and stockpiled staples. Electronics retailers saw business rise as people worked from home and went out for entertainment less.

Home-improvement chains like Home Depot Inc. and Lowe's Cos. saw business soar as home-bound Americans went to work on their lawns and spare rooms and the housing market boomed. Walmart Inc. and rival Target Corp. recorded year-over-year sales jumps as Americans stocked up on essentials and turned to their e-commerce offerings. Amazon.com Inc. said last month that it would hire 100,000 more employees across North America.

In sectors on the upper arm of the K-shaped recovery -- such as health care, financial and information -- economic output is likely to surpass 2019 levels by the end of this year, according to Oxford Economics, a consulting firm. Construction and utilities aren't far behind, it says.

But some types of businesses are unlikely to recover before 2024, the firm says, citing textiles and apparel, electrical equipment and appliance manufacturing as well as the petroleum, mining and coal industries. It could take until early 2022 for U.S. manufacturing to return to late-2019 levels, and until the end of next year for retailing and transportation, the firm says.

Broadly, sales and profits are showing signs of recovery. Retail sales have grown for four months straight through August, but the pace of that growth has slowed significantly.

Analysts expect third-quarter profits for large publicly traded companies to come in about 22% below 2019 levels, compared with the second quarter's 31% drop, according to Refinitiv, a data firm that compiles consensus profit forecasts.

Economic production, despite a sharp bounce-back in the third quarter, still resembles the depths of the 2008-2009 recession, at roughly 95% of where it stood going into the crisis, said Gregory Daco, Oxford Economics' chief U.S. economist.

"Not many things are viable if they're just at [95%] of the revenue they usually have," he said, and if they are, "they're usually viable with lower input costs -- reduced workforces."

That poses a risk for the economy in coming months, analysts say. Growth in demand could slow or even stall if many Americans lose federal aid and spend down their savings, and if better-off households slow the kind of spending the pandemic prompted. The risk is that companies pull back on their own recovery plans, hiring more slowly or even initiating new layoffs -- the hallmarks of a more traditional contraction.

"The risk is that...people don't buy a third screen or don't buy another desk, or they don't order food out," Mr. Daco said. "We may not have seen all the pain from this recession."

Regions

The pandemic's economic effects ripple unevenly across geography, too.

Travel bans and worries about air travel have devastated destinations from Hawaii and Las Vegas to New York and Los Angeles, pinning tourism-dependent economies firmly on the recovery K's lower arm.

Employment in Hawaii is down more than 16% since February, the worst of any state, according to the Labor Department. Hawaii's leisure and hospitality employment remains less than half what it was before the pandemic, said Carl Bonham, an economics professor and executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

Rises in coronavirus cases delayed until Oct. 15 the end of mandatory quarantine periods for visitors to Hawaii. With or without quarantines, tourists need to feel comfortable about travelling to come. "The virus is in control here," Mr. Bonham said.

Florida, also tourism-heavy but less restrictive of business, has seen less job loss and faster recovery than states such as Hawaii. Orlando's theme parks were able to open this summer, while Disneyland in California remains closed by government order. Florida's August unemployment rate was right in the middle of the states at 7.4%. California's 11.4% was fifth highest.

Among other states that set relatively light restrictions on businesses, Alabama, Georgia and Texas had unemployment rates below 7% in August, when the national rate was 8.4%. It fell to 7.9% in September.

Covid-19's early surge in Northeastern states such as New York and Massachusetts led their officials to impose stringent rules about business closures and capacity limits. The precautions and the broader impact of the virus on confidence deepened economic downturns in some of the states, but they are rebounding now at a faster rate, said Adam Kamins, director of economic research at Moody's Analytics.

The Northeast is home to many of the industries recovering best, such as finance and technology. Cities such as New York and Boston are flush with affluent and educated people who have generally fared well working from home.

Their absence is felt in business districts around office towers. The workers at downtown coffee shops and food trucks face severe challenges. There's economic divergence not just among regions but within them.

Take the intersection of 42nd Street and Avenue of the Americas in midtown Manhattan, where Bank of America Corp. offices sit diagonally across from Bryant Park, said Mitchell Moss, a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. "At 6:30 p.m., you used to have 100 guys delivering dinner to those working late," he said.

"We have no visitors and few workers," he added. "Until we get one or the other back, it's going to be a ghost town."

Covid-19 has also sped up a shift under way before the disease appeared: the emergence of America's Mountain West region, states such as Utah, Colorado and Idaho.

These lower-cost alternatives for industries such as technology and finance are on the recovery K's upper arm, attracting a growing pool of young professionals.

"A combination of low costs, a strong workforce and high quality of life was already facilitating such a move. And if the appeal of big cities is diminished, it could hasten the flight to already-fast-growing regions," Mr. Kamins of Moody's said.

Write to Eric Morath at eric.morath@wsj.com, Theo Francis at theo.francis@wsj.com and Justin Baer at justin.baer@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

10-05-20 1124ET

Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
BANK OF AMERICA CORPORATION 0.10% 28.91 Delayed Quote.-17.49%
CHIPOTLE MEXICAN GRILL INC. 0.91% 1308.76 Delayed Quote.56.34%
EXXON MOBIL CORPORATION 0.68% 40.21 Delayed Quote.-42.38%
LONDON BRENT OIL 1.78% 49.66 Delayed Quote.-28.42%
LULULEMON ATHLETICA INC. 0.76% 375.42 Delayed Quote.62.05%
MADISON HOLDINGS GROUP LIMITED 0.00% 0.068 End-of-day quote.-67.62%
RIPPLE (XRP/BTC) 0.00% 3.2E-5 Real-time Quote.26.92%
RIPPLE (XRP/EUR) -2.40% 0.50822 Real-time Quote.208.98%
TARGET CORPORATION -0.84% 174.92 Delayed Quote.36.43%
THE HOME DEPOT, INC. -1.09% 268.14 Delayed Quote.22.79%
WALMART INC. -0.81% 149.3 Delayed Quote.25.63%
WTI 1.66% 46.425 Delayed Quote.-28.04%
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