Jobs may not come totally back for years, all depending on how small businesses weather this storm

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KEY POINTS
  • The ability of small businesses to hang on will determine how healthy the economy will be and quickly it will recover once the full impact is felt from the virus-related shutdowns.
  • Economists say it will take at least until 2023 to get back to full employment of 4.5%, and unemployment is forecast to go from 3.5% into the teens.
  • Some businesses, like an Irish pub in Cranford, N.J., have survived the financial crisis and other disasters, and now they look to the government to help them get through the coronavirus.
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GP: Coronavirus empty restaurant NY 200325
A view of an empty restaurant is seen at Grand Central Station on March 25, 2020 in New York City.
Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images

Barry O’Donovan opened his Irish pub across from a  railroad station used by Wall Street commuters just five days before Lehman failed. His business survived the Great Recession.

Then in August, 2011, Hurricane Irene swept the nearby Rahway River straight through his Cranford, N.J. restaurant. Again, his Kilkenny House survived, thanks in part to a $200,000 Small Business Administration Loan. He continues to pay it off.

Now, the coronavirus has hit, and O’Donovan like thousands of small business owners is hoping to get funds  from the small business lending program, which the Treasury planned to have up and running by Friday. However, as of Friday afternoon, only Bank of America and J.P. Morgan were operating and able to accept applications for the hastily established program.  Business owners like O’Donovan are worried.

“I personally gave my business a loan,” O’Donovan said. “We’re trying to keep people employed.”

Economists are worried too. By some estimates, it will take until 2023 or even longer to bring the labor market back to where it was in February, before the shocking layoff of millions of workers by companies that were forced to shutdown or scale back all across the country.

March’s employment report Friday showed a loss of 701,000 jobs, 459,000 of which were related to leisure businesses, such as hotels or restaurants. The unemployment rate jumped to by 0.9 to 4.4%. April is expected to be much worse with jobs declining by 10 million or more, and economists forecasting unemployment at as much as 15% or more.

Several economists told CNBC the speed at which the government can get money into the hands of small business owners, like O’Donovan, the more likely they will be to be to retain workers, and the more likely they will be to weather the weeks of shutdown with a business healthy enough to reopen. Small businesses are the biggest creators of jobs.

Restaurants have been particularly hard hit because many were forced to close as soon as President Donald Trump told Americans to stay away from eating establishments and bars in March. O’Donovan has kept a handful of worker busy with a takeout business. Customers can pull up out front, and the staff loads takeout meals into the back of their vehicles. Delivery services would be a costly overhead.

“I can last maybe a month or so. We’re not even breaking even.  It’s cheaper to close than to stay open,” O’Donovan said. He had run other similar pubs in Brooklyn before moving to New Jersey.

What will the recovery look like?

Economists have had trouble predicting the extent of the economy’s decline. Some major firms, like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, have revised already scary forecasts with even more  harrowing projections of a 30% or even deeper contraction in the second quarter. As the first quarter ended, the economy has already toppled over, but economists expect a spring back later in the year.

The problem is determining what that spring back will look like, and that will depend on when the virus peaks, and whether it will return. It also depends on the ability of businesses to hang on.

“There is a boatload of stimulus coming, and I do think it is big enough to offset the demand shock,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “The first quarter was probably down 4 or 5% I think. A lot really depends on what you’re assuming for the timing of the lock down and what a lockdown means in terms of output.”

Zandi said the economy could bounce back by 11% in the third quarter, then go flat for a period.

Congress has authorized $2 trillion in aid to fight the coronavirus including the small business program and also expanded unemployment benefits that will reach more people. But economists it is almost certain more help will be needed.

Trump has declared social distancing rules will be in place until April 30, and states covering about 80% of the economy have shelter in place orders. In just two weeks, 10 million workers have filed with states for unemployment benefits, and by the end of the month the number could double.

“The suddenness with which it slipped off a cliff in two weeks is shocking,” said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays. Gapen said it will take until the end of 2022 for the economy to recover lost jobs. Unemployment was at 3.5% in February and could easily get to 10% or higher in April. “We have it at 5% at the end of next year. To get it back in the 4s will take longer.”

But it will be the road back, and how many businesses fail along the way that determines how quickly the economy can come back. “As soon as businesses reopen, you’re going to see this surge in activity,” said Zandi. The recovery of the economy could also depend on whether a medical solution is found that would enable people to congregate again, even if it recurred.

“The second half of next year should be strong in terms of growth, and I expect 2022 to be a very good year for growth. But we won’t get back to full employment until well into 2023,” Zandi said. “By July and August, most of the businesses that haven’t failed will be coming back on line. The small business lending is helpful. More helpful in appearance than in practice, I think it’s going to be really hard for them to scale and get this money out there fast enough.”

Zandi said 10% of small companies with fewer than 500 employees could fail. A new poll of small businesses by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MetLife ,conducted in late March, found one in four small businesses say they are two months or less from closing permanently amid the economic downturn caused by the virus. One in 10 are less than one month away from permanently closing.

According to the survey, about one in four have already shut down temporarily, and of those that have not, about 50% say they are likely to close at least temporarily within the next two weeks.

Work at home  – for now

Just as O’Donovan is making his way through the unchartered course of the weeks of virus shutdown, so are the commuters in the homes near his pub. Many work in professional jobs and are now working from home, many with children at home.

How life changes for these workers too will affect the comeback of the economy,

Bhushan Sethi, global people and organization co-leader at PwC, spends a lot of time working with companies in different fields, and he does not anticipate as some expect that the new post coronavirus era means everyone will continue to work from home.

But he did say companies that that been stretched to maintain operations, as the virus hit business, may become more cost conscious.

“We’re not all going to 100% remote. There will be more management trust in working remote,” he said. “There may be more challenges about the cost of travel.”

Sethi said companies have spent a lot of money in commercial real estate. Many view their work spaces as important for generating creativity or reinforcing their culture, and they want workers to return.

“I think the firms are needing to look at their costs and the extent where large firms are saying layoffs are going to be a last resort, they’re going to look at their cost structures and they’re going to manage away costs in some way.”

He said spending on big conferences is likely to fall off along with business travel.  Many conferences were the first things to be canceled as companies pulled back to stop the spread of the virus. “I would see a lot more creative options, especially for the larger firms, other than layoffs,” Sethi said.

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