It’s safe to say that 2020 has been an especially challenging year, but how much has it impacted Americans’ psyche? We continue to highlight a slew of high frequency indicators to gauge economic growth and its effects on 2021 earnings expectations as well as investor sentiment. But it’s also important to dig deeper and understand that as much as we welcome news of a vaccine, there’s still many tough months ahead and it will take time to ease people’s anxiety that was created by the virus.
US Google Trends search volumes for “anxiety” back to January 2019 is one way to start quantifying the social tension from the pandemic relative to last year before the virus appeared.
Takeaway: searches for anxiety have been 5 pct higher since the first week of July through last week relative to the comparable period in 2019. Queries abated after the first wave in May, but have remained at uniformly high levels for just over 4 months. As cases and hospitalizations reach new records, Americans searched for “anxiety” last week more than they have throughout the pandemic yet. In fact, queries for “anxiety” are at a 16-year peak since the start of the series in 2004.
So much angst seems to be translating into Americans going out less again, as shown by US Google searches for “restaurant” and “mall”:
- Searches for “restaurant” 1) started falling in late February as news about the virus began to spread 2) dropped through March and April amid shutdowns 3) rose in May and June as the outlook of the virus improved 4) and generally held these levels through early October as warm weather allowed for outdoor dining. More recently, queries for “restaurant” have fallen 26 pct since mid-October, not far from the worst levels of the year last seen in March and April.
- Queries for “mall” collapsed after lockdowns in mid-March, but actually rose back to pre-pandemic levels at the end of May/early June. Interest in the “mall” has trailed off since, however, and is down 25 pct since mid-October.
Takeaway: we expect the accelerating decline in searches for “restaurant” and “mall” to continue as the weather cools and virus cases mount. Restaurants face a difficult winter ahead with limited indoor seating, which will impact overall employment trends in the coming months. Retailers with an efficient online ordering/delivery process should have a successful Holiday 2020 with many starting discounts early, but those heavily reliant on physical stores will likely not do as well given the drop in foot traffic.
Americans aren’t just less interested in eating out or visiting the mall but are also moving around less overall. For example, below is Apple Mobility data, which shows traffic congestion, foot traffic and mass transit usage in the US. Apple aggregates and updates requests for directions in its Maps App each day.
- The post pandemic highs for driving and walking were in September around Labor Day weekend, but have been rolling over since. Driving (+6 pct since January) and walking (+2 pct) are basically flat since the first month of the year and are heading back into negative territory, such as during the first wave in March through May.
- Mass transit – mostly reflecting activity in cities – never got back to pre-pandemic levels and remain deeply negative (-48 pct). Transit use is also rolling over.
Takeaway: we understand some of this drop is likely seasonal, but it also speaks to the extra difficulty this year in assessing the US economy’s run rate with the pandemic’s overlay. That’s why we, like the Federal Reserve, continue to review high frequency datasets.
Bottom line: Americans are growing more anxious and going out less as the virus worsens and flu season starts. While online sales can help offset less spending outside the home, the pandemic will have a noticeable near-term impact on consumer behavior even with a vaccine on the horizon.