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Tracking the Economy Out of Lockdown

26 May 2020   |  

Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer and a key moment for the US in its journey through the COVID-19 pandemic: All 50 states have begun—to varying degrees—easing COVID-19 related restrictions.

As restrictions on movement ease, we will start to get a handle on the answer to one very important question: What shape will the US economic recovery take? 

Just as many with a device and an Internet connection have been habitually looking at daily COVID-19-related numbers, the same type of real-time information will be in high demand to see how consumers, businesses and the overall economy responds.

Monthly economic reports, while insightful, aren’t frequent enough and are often reported at a sufficient lag that the data aren’t particularly real-time. And some—such as employment and inflation—are subject to some pandemic-related limitations on data-collection.

In the age of big data, more near-real-time alternative data exist to shed light on current conditions. Here are some potentially useful sources to watch in the coming weeks and months.

1. Small Business Activity: A recovery in small business activity is critical for the economy as those businesses have been hit especially hard by the near-shuttering of the US economy. One suggested source of daily small business activity data comes from Homebase, a provider of scheduling and time-tracking software.

Exhibit 1: Homebase Daily Small Business Activity

Source: Homebase, as of 25 May 2020.
*Baseline Day: The median level for the same day of the week based on the period Jan 4, 2020 – Jan 31, 2020.
This dataset is based on Homebase data for over 60,000 businesses and 1 million hourly employees active in the US in January 2020.

2. From an industry perspective, leisure and hospitality has been another hard-hit area of the economy—both in the US and abroad. OpenTable has been tracking daily reservations on a year-over-year basis. This may be a good source for gauging consumer spending, comfort with returning to public spaces and how these factors are playing out geographically.

Exhibit 2: OpenTable Daily Restaurant Reservation Activity—YoY Percent Change on May 25

Source: OpenTable, as of 25 May 2020.
Data show year-over-year seated diners at restaurants on the OpenTable network across all channels: online reservations, phone reservations and walk-ins. For year-over-year comparisons by day, the data compare the same day of the week from the same week in the previous year. For example, comparing Tuesday of week 11 in 2020 to Tuesday of week 11 in 2019. Only states or cities with 50+ restaurants in the sample are included. All such restaurants on the OpenTable network in either period are included.

3. Measuring mobility and transportation also helps illuminate current activity levels. Transit station activity, GPS usage, gasoline demand and air traffic are all ways to see how much people travel as nonessential travel restrictions are lifted.

Exhibit 3: Google Daily Visit Activity to Transit Stations Based on Location History Data

Source: Google, as of 15 May 2020.
The data show how visitors to (or time spent in) categorized places change compared to our baseline days. A baseline day represents a normal value for that day of the week. The baseline day is the median value from the 5‑week period Jan 3 – Feb 6, 2020. For each region-category, the baseline isn’t a single value—it’s 7 individual values. The same number of visitors on two different days of the week, result in different percentage changes.

Exhibit 4: Apple Maps Daily US Directions Request Activity

Source: Apple, as of 25 May 2020.
Change in routing requests since January 13, 2020. Data for May 11-12 are not available and appear as blanks on the chart. These data are generated by counting the number of requests made to Apple Maps for directions in select countries/regions, sub-regions and cities. Data sent from users’ devices to the Maps service is associated with random, rotating identifiers so Apple doesn’t have a profile of users’ movements and searches. The availability of data in a particular country/region, sub-region, or city is based on a number of factors, including minimum thresholds for direction requests per day.

Exhibit 5: US Gasoline Demand—Four-Week Moving Average

Source: Energy Information Administration, as of 15 May 2020.

Exhibit 6: TSA Daily Checkpoint Figures—Number of Travelers

Source: Transportation Security Administration, as of 25 May 2020.

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