Can Americans withstand the 'quadruple shock' in store for this fall?
Autumn is the season of change, and big changes could be in store for Americans in the coming months—none of them particularly appealing.
Among the possible changes are the broadening auto workers strike, a potential government shutdown in Washington, the end of student loan forbearance, and rising oil prices.
While America has proven it can take on these challenges individually, when combined, they are a formidable obstacle to an economy that some experts believe is already tip-toeing toward recession.
“It’s that quadruple threat of all elements that could disrupt economic activity,” Gregory Daco, chief economist at EY-Parthenon, told The Wall Street Journal.
The U.S. economy has proven remarkably resilient this year. Job growth has been steady, consumer demand remains strong, and rising property values continue to enrich the 66% of Americans who own homes.
But there’s another side to America—one where the average family struggles to make ends meet because of rising costs, depleted savings, and declining real wages. All these problems could come to a head very soon.
The “quadruple shock”
The “quadruple shock” in store for Americans this fall is analogous to “death by a thousand cuts.” Lots of bad things are happening—none of which are fatal on their own.
But can Americans handle them all together?
Some shocks also have a more immediate impact than others. For example, households are more likely to feel the impact of rising oil prices than the ongoing auto workers strike.
In April, the Energy Information Administration predicted that the average American household could spend up to $2,730 on gasoline this year. Gas prices today are about 7% higher than they were six months ago.
The auto workers strike could become a bigger economic threat the longer it drags on. A longer, more sustained work stoppage could limit auto production and drive up already expensive car prices.
A government shutdown at the end of September could have a direct impact on the economy as up to 800,000 federal workers could be furloughed, leading to knock-on effects on spending and consumption.
Congress has until Oct. 1 to pass a federal spending bill and avoid a shutdown.
Perhaps the biggest drain on consumers’ pockets this fall is the resumption of student loan payments.
After a more than three-year break, some 44 million Americans will be required to start paying back their student loans in October. That’s expected to take anywhere from $200-$500 out of their pockets each month.
Soft or hard landing?
America’s list of grievances wasn’t just identified by academics or pundits; it came straight from the horse’s mouth.
On Sept. 20, Fed Chair Jerome Powell was asked about the biggest risks he sees for the economy. “[I]t’s the strike, it's government shutdown, resumption of student loan payments, higher long-term rates, oil price shock,” he said.
The same day, the Fed decided to keep interest rates on hold after pushing them up consistently over the past 18 months.
Powell’s Fed has lifted rates 11 times over that period to try and orchestrate a “soft landing”—a scenario where the Fed successfully raises rates just enough to reduce inflation and slow the economy without triggering a recession.
The strategy has worked so far, but there’s evidence the Fed is running out of steam.
Inflation came in hotter than expected in August, as Americans paid more for airfare, car insurance, transportation services, and groceries. All the while, U.S. GDP growth is decelerating.
According to the Conference Board, the U.S. economy is forecast to grow a paltry 0.8% in 2024 after a modest 2.3% uptick this year. A slowing economy raises the risk of a “hard landing,” or a rapid shift from growth to a flat economy that’s teetering on recession.
Americans don’t have to worry about a hard landing for now. But if the Fed can’t get the inflation genie back in the bottle, all bets are off.