Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Subdued Economic Mood Post-Sandy

Trees dropped most of their leaves during the four days before the high winds from Hurricane Sandy arrived here. This may have saved the trees from the worst damage — leaves pick up high winds better than bare branches do. But the thought struck me, as I spent a day picking up downed tree branches after the storm, that while we were busy with storm cleanup, no one was raking the leaves.

For the most part, we will rake the leaves. We may just get to it later than we had planned. But if we are raking leaves in the middle of November, that takes time away from Christmas shopping. With less time for Christmas shopping, it stands to reason that the amount of Christmas shopping could be less than usual. Other activities down the line will be diminished as a consequence of the attention to storm recovery.

Trick-or-treating already took a hit. Only an intrepid few went out in search of candy on Halloween itself, with the disruption of the storm still at the front of people’s minds. Supermarkets didn’t sell out of their stock of Halloween candy, and I saw some of it still on the shelves this weekend, awkwardly mixed into the Christmas candy display. More than a few houses are left with a Halloween bucket nearly full of candy, which now may take the month of November to give away. It will be hard to sell these households new candy until the last of the Halloween candy is gone.

Not having time is one thing, but it is just one of many storm effects that may dampen enthusiasm for spending. Just the thought of disaster makes people reluctant to make large purchases. As one indication of this effect, auto sales fell off nationwide as soon as the reports of a hurricane approaching land started to dominate the news. During the approach of the storm, Gap was widely criticized for tweeting that people should stay inside during the storm and shop on the Gap web site. It was an ill-considered suggestion. Danger and destruction nearby doesn’t make people feel acquisitive.

The New York City Marathon was supposed to run this morning, and it easily could have, but the city canceled it. This was partly out of concern for the safety of the participants amid a chorus of political opposition to the perceived cost of the event (never mind that it had already been paid for by the participants themselves). A marathon costs hardly anything as large public events go, so events of actual extravagance may be hard to hold in New York for months to come. One wonders, for example, whether the Thanksgiving Day parade can go forward, with its cost 100 times that of the marathon. The same mood that forced the cancellation of the marathon will put a damper on conspicuous consumption of every kind. It doesn’t feel right to be seen doing anything fancy and possibly wasteful while people are cold and hungry in Staten Island. Even ordinary Christmas shopping would draw angry criticism in New York City this week. When this kind of economic activity eventually comes back, it will be tentative and hesitant at first. There isn’t a chance that New York area retailers will have the kind of blowout Christmas season they were preparing for before the storm.

Power outages affected most of the people in New Jersey and roughly half the people in the region affected by the storm. Millions are still without power almost a week later. The average electricity outage was more than two days. During an outage, most people cannot heat their homes. Oil is a popular heating fuel in this region, and the loss of two days of heating, coupled with the reduced driving during the worst weather, was enough of a decline in petroleum consumption to lower gasoline prices across the rest of the country. Prices may fall in the storm-hit region as soon as new supplies arrive in the next day or two. And there may be a continuing effect. After three days of living in an unheated house at 48°F, I did not immediately heat my house up to 74°F when the power came back on. When the thermometer got to 58°F, that started to feel warm, at least for the first few hours. Having learned how to, I may spend 10 percent less on heat all winter long, and half a million households may have a similar reaction, if not necessarily to the same extent.

Just witnessing the kind of destruction that comes with a storm on the level of a hurricane puts people in a more serious mood, and this shift in mood will take some time to fade. For the next few months, it will a damper on some of the more frivolous and speculative forms of economic activity.