It’s obvious that America continues to suffer from the coronavirus-induced recession. Too many people have died, too many businesses have closed and too many people have lost their jobs. We are 10 months into this pandemic and, even with vaccines available, we still cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel.
What is less obvious is that this recession is different from the textbook economic slumps that the public used to endure every few years. The same can be said of the Great Recession in 2009, and there is a Federal Reserve chart that shows exactly what’s different.
A recession is a slowdown in business. That means fewer jobs, less spending and less money available. But for the past decade, America has been awash in a stunning amount of cash that remains unspent.
The Motley Fool investment website recently published a commentary piece titled, “The Most Important Chart in Economics.” It pointed out that the amount of cash in American checking accounts has reached record levels over the past year, and warns that when things return to normal and more of this money gets spent, it could spark both economic growth (good!) and inflation (bad!).
The numbers, from a Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis chart, truly are amazing. The chart shows that between 1990 and 2008, the amount of money in checking accounts typically was between $500 billion and $800 billion. But when the Great Recession hit, this figure took off — and has not stopped.
The Federal Reserve injected huge amounts of money into the financial system to prevent an economic catastrophe. It worked, but the deposits in checking accounts — a useful measurement because it is immediately accessible to the account holder — went from $778 billion in January 2009 to $2.2 trillion in January 2020.
Put another way, Americans’ amount of readily available cash nearly tripled in just 11 years. But if you think that’s a big jump, the increase during 2020 put it to shame.
The Fed reported that on Dec. 26, there was a stunning $4.7 trillion in checking accounts. This is more than double in just 12 months.
Motley Fool writer Morgan Housel said the chart explains a lot of things going on in today’s economy.
“One is a partial explanation for why the stock market has done so well in the last year. There’s lots of money floating around the system,” Housel wrote. “It also helps explain why some sectors are thriving while others are in a state of depression. Lots of cash is sitting idle, earned by people in one sector (say, technology) but not spent on services in another sector (say, restaurants).
“It also shows just how big stimulus packages have been in the last year.”
It also shows, frankly, how too much of the stimulus money was misguided. There’s no way bank accounts double in size otherwise. Policymakers have to know that future pandemic assistance needs to be redirected, yet they are talking about sending another $1,400 to every American adult, regardless of need.
Looking ahead, the chart implies there is $2 trillion or more of pent-up spending, just waiting for a more normal business climate. Further stimulus packages may increase this amount. That makes it clear that at some point, but not soon enough, there will be a gigantic economic rebound. We just have to wait for it.
The risk is basic economics: Too much money chasing too few goods is a recipe for higher prices. The government’s rapidly growing debt, which went from $5.6 trillion in 2000 to $27 trillion in 2020, also is going to keep rising under President Joe Biden. The country has been overspending for years at a rate that could damage our stability.