Skip to content
The Morning Dispatch: Grim News on the Economy
Go to my account

The Morning Dispatch: Grim News on the Economy

Plus, how the coronavirus has shaken up the oil industry's international squabbles.

Happy Friday. We don’t know when this thing will be over, but we’re one week closer to the end of it. Let’s do the news.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • As of Thursday night, there are now 245,213 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States (a 13.3 percent increase from yesterday) and 5,983 deaths (a 16.9 percent increase from yesterday), according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, leading to a mortality rate among confirmed cases of 2.4 percent (the true mortality rate is difficult to calculate due to incomplete testing regimens). Of 1,267,658 coronavirus tests conducted in the United States, 18.9 percent have come back positive, per the COVID Tracking Project, a separate dataset with slightly different topline numbers.

  • During the final week of March, 6.6 million workers filed for unemployment benefits, doubling last week’s 3.3 million claims, which was also an all-time high. Nearly 10 million workers have filed for unemployment insurance in the last two weeks alone.

  • The Democratic National Convention has been postponed by a month and will now take place the week of August 17. It’s possible that the convention will have a different format from years past in order to lower coronavirus risks.

  • A Navy captain was relieved of his duties after a memorandum he wrote asking for additional help dealing with a coronavirus outbreak on the aircraft carrier in his command was leaked to the press. “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die,” Capt. Brett Crozier wrote. “If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset—our sailors.”

  • A federal judge declined to postpone Wisconsin’s primary elections scheduled for this Tuesday, but the deadline for absentee ballots to be returned was extended a week.

  • After 3 million masks ordered by Massachusetts were inexplicably confiscated in the Port of New York, the state got creative, using the New England Patriots’ private plane to transport masks directly from China.

  • The White House and CDC are expected to announce new guidance for Americans, urging them to wear cloth masks in an effort to prevent coronavirus spread.

Grim News on the Economy

Even at a socially distanced remove, it almost seemed possible to hear the collective gasp of the country when the new jobless claims were announced at 8:30 Thursday morning. Some 6.65 million Americans filed first-time jobless claims for the week ending March 28, doubling the estimates of many economic forecasters. Added to the 3.3 million first-time claims of the previous week, the nearly 10 million Americans newly unemployed drove home yet again the devastating effects of coronavirus on the U.S. economy. As a new report by the Congressional Budget Office noted, “the number of new claims was about 10 times larger this morning than it had been in any single week during the recession from 2007 to 2009.”

That same CBO report had bitter news for the economy more broadly. Projections for the gross domestic product forecast a “decline by more than 7 percent during the second quarter.” In context: “If that happened, the decline in the annualized growth rate reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis would be about four times larger and would exceed 28 percent. Those declines could be much larger, however.”

To address such concerns, the White House led the daily coronavirus briefing with remarks from Jovita Carranza, commissioner of the Small Business Association, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Stories about potential problems with the federal government emergency loan efforts had appeared throughout the day, with banks telling reporters they were not prepared to move forward with the new program Friday despite the insistence of the Trump administration. Mnuchin swatted away reports of turf battles between the SBA and Treasury, telling reporters that teams from the agencies had worked together until 4 a.m. Thursday and then reconvened three hours later to continue. Still, banks and private lenders, charged with processing the loans and getting money into the hands of small business owners looking to make payroll, pleaded with the government for more details about how the program was meant to work.

The New York Times reported that National Association of Government Guaranteed Lenders canceled an informational conference call Thursday because it didn’t have the information to provide its members. Bankers expressed concerns that without a proper understanding of the rules around the loans, particularly their own legal liability and government guarantees backing the loans, the effort could lead to extensive damage to their own industry even as they worked to help others.

The press briefing lasted two hours and 15 minutes and was unsettling for other reasons, too. As one speaker after another emphasized the importance of good data needed to fight the virus, Dr. Deborah Brix revealed that some states were not reporting to the Centers for Disease Control, leading to gaps in its data.

The back-and-forth between states and the federal government also continued Thursday. Several briefers—including President Trump, Rear Admiral John Polowczyk and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner—responded to questions from reporters about public frustration from governors about the distribution of crucial medical equipment. A reporter asked about complaints from states that they’re bidding “like they’re on Ebay” against other states for the equipment they need. “That’s normally how things work, right? I’m not here to disrupt a supply chain,” Polowczyk replied. When Trump was asked about “states bidding against each other,” the president blamed the states for a lack of foresight and preparedness. “Well, they have to work that out. What they should do—long before this pandemic arrived they should have been on the open market just buying. There was no competition. You could have made a great price. The states have to stock up. It’s just like—one of those things, they waited. They didn’t want to spend the money because they thought this would never happen.”

Kushner, who has recently taken on coronavirus as part of his expansive White House portfolio, argued that the states are trying improperly to obtain equipment meant for the federal government. “The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile. It’s not supposed to be states stockpiles that they then use.” His comments contradicted the stated purpose of the Strategic National Stockpile, laid out at the top of its website. “Strategic National Stockpile is the nation’s largest supply of life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out. When state, local, tribal, and territorial responders request federal assistance to support their response efforts, the stockpile ensures that the right medicines and supplies get to those who need them most during an emergency.”

Kushner praised his father-in-law’s response and faulted some governors and local officials for their failure to live up to the moment. “What a lot of the voters are seeing now is that when you elect somebody … think about who will be a competent manager during the time of crisis.”

Oil Drama in the Oval Office

President Trump is set to meet with several of the nation’s top oil executives today to discuss what, if anything, the administration is prepared to do to help the energy sector during the pandemic.

In January of this year, Brent crude* was at $68.60 a barrel, which is roughly where it’s been hovering (between $45 and $85) for the last three years. On March 9, however, barrel prices plunged 24 percent to just over $34—the worst single day drop since 1991. But it wasn’t directly caused by the impending worldwide pandemic that would bring a halt to almost all air travel—and use for jet fuel—just a few days later. 

In short, for the last three years the U.S. has been stepping up shale oil production, which has cut into the profits of the world’s other two biggest producers—Saudi Arabia and Russia. In early March, the Saudis, through OPEC, floated production cuts as a way to curb shrinking demand if the Russians would agree. The Russians refused. Saudi Arabia, in response, increased production and dropped its prices. As one market analyst put it at the time, “[w]e believe the OPEC and Russia oil price war unequivocally started this weekend when Saudi Arabia aggressively cut the relative price at which it sells its crude by the most in at least 20 years.” 

That turned out to be very bad timing. By the beginning of this week, with airline travel at a virtual standstill and the global economy reeling from the ongoing crisis, Brent crude dropped to $22 a barrel—a 67 percent slide from its high this year. As Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan said, “the Saudis … really brought in a supply shock at exactly the wrong time.”

Now what? Last week, Congress declined to include funding to purchase 30 million barrels of oil in its $2 trillion bill as the administration had initially requested. But the Department of Energy announced that it would ease the immediate shortage in commercial storage space by making 30 million barrels of storage in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve immediately available to U.S. producers. Two additional ideas were also floated this week: tariffs on Saudi oil imports and potential changes to the Jones Act, which currently requires companies to use American vessels to transport product between U.S. ports and has long been a sore subject for the energy industry.

Yesterday, however, brought the biggest drama of the week. President Trump tweeted that an agreement had been reached between the Russians and the Saudis to cut production by as much as 15 million barrels, which led to a 25 percent jump in oil futures. When Reuters White House correspondent Jeff Mason asked Trump about this at the briefing, saying Reuters had indications the parties hadn’t agreed to the terms Trump suggested, Trump said it was possible the Saudis would cut even more.

While it is not clear what else may happen at today’s meeting, a White House official said that the president is not expected to ask the U.S. energy executives today to agree on a coordinated drop in their own output.

And interestingly, there appeared to be very little appetite from the energy executives themselves for the kind of direct intervention that the airlines and other companies have been receiving in exchange for significant government stakes. In part, this may be due to the nature of the industry itself—a culture of wildcatters accustomed to the boom and bust nature of their business who have long believed that markets are fundamentally better suited to sorting these things out and aren’t interested in socializing risk if it means losing out when the upswing comes. 

*For the curious: Brent crude is one of the two major oil classifications that are used to benchmark world oil prices—the other being West Texas Intermediate. The “lighter” (less dense) and “sweeter” (less sulfurous) of the two varieties, Brent is named for the Brent oilfield in the North Sea from which it was originally extracted, which got its name from the indigenous Brent Goose, courtesy of the Shell oil corporation. The more you know!

Struggling Through the Loneliness

It’s a stressful, anxious time to be an American. People are feeling the squeeze from every direction at once: economic anxiety of vanished jobs, personal anxiety of worrying about family and friends, and nothing but time to worry about it all in socially distanced isolation. “The first wave of texts about the coronavirus have been about anxiety,” Ashley Womble of the Crisis Text Line, a resource designed to help people in mental health crisis, tells The Dispatch. “We expect the second wave will be from the impact of the quarantines, including isolation and loneliness.”

Declan spent the last few days talking to people trying to make do in this strange new world, as well as a number of mental health professionals, to try to get a sense of how well people are holding up under all this strain. “Thousands are experiencing grief over the loss of a loved one, and millions over the loss of a job,” he writes. “Mandatory loneliness has plunged those crawling out of the depths of depression back into the pit. And it’s an impossible situation.” In his new piece on the site, he tackles a number of questions about what the long-term impacts will be of our widespread isolation:

Beyond mitigating the coronavirus threat, what kind of additional impact will measures like shelter-at-home orders have on public health?

Although mandated social distancing is an absolutely crucial part of the strategy to blunt the impact of the coronavirus, it is also unfortunately likely to exacerbate a number of other health problems. Dr. Kassandra Alcaraz points out that social isolation “is actually our strongest social risk for poor health.” Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warns that chronic loneliness leads to chronic stress, which breaks the body down in a number of ways.

What are people doing to try to cope?

“Running is the only thing that’s keeping me sane,” Jack Moore, a screenwriter from LA, said. “Like the endorphin boost, but also just the feeling of having done something in a day.” One psychologist sung the praises of video conferencing for combating loneliness: “the benefits of being able to see someone, and observe their facial expressions, and make eye contact, and just have a conversation are so important.” Another suggested that it might help to view distancing not as isolation, but as an act of social solidarity: “When [young, healthy people] make the choice to shelter in place, they’re protecting more vulnerable members of their communities. And I think remembering that our decision to be alone is one that we make together can be helpful.”

Is it sustainable?

These mental health concerns are, of course, no reason to cut the quarantines short. “Not sheltering in place will create more illnesses, which will create more grief and loss,” Dr. Jamil Zaki of Stanford said. Protecting the nation’s physical health and protecting its mental health “don’t pull against each other in any clear way.”

But that doesn’t make the road ahead any easier. “If I focus on the day to day, I’m okay,” Moore said. “But if I start thinking about like, ‘this is the next few months of your life,’ then I start to freak out.” 

Worth Your Time

  • One in 10 coronavirus deaths in the United States have occurred in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Young people in the South are dying from the virus at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country. This piece from The Atlantic explores why that’s happening, and how the southern U.S. is becoming the new hotspot for COVID-19.

  • Russia locked down its borders on March 30, trapping any foreign nationals in the country. One of them, Trenton Thurber, has been stuck in a Moscow airport since then, and spoke to Buzzfeed News about the lack of support he’s received from the U.S. government, which has advised him to try to make it to Finland, requiring him to travel 700 miles through a country that’s cracking down on anyone leaving their homes. 

Presented Without Comment

Really Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

We’ve been thinking about this picture all day and are still not quite sure it’s real. How could it be?

Toeing the Company Line

  • We are informed that Jonah’s latest homebound Remnant contains some “rank nudgery,” but is also “a great pick-me-up episode with a little bit of something for everyone.” It’s an interview with Cass Sunstein, the most frequently cited legal scholar in America. Give it a listen here or wherever fine podcasts are sold. 

  • Jonah’s midweek newsletter yesterday took our first crack at responding to a recent essay by Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermuele, which argued that the conservative movement has outgrown originalist legal theory. Now David and Sarah are getting in on the action too, in an episode of Advisory Opinions that also covers the political consequences of coronavirus and what conservatives get wrong about masculinity.

  • David expanded on his argument in his Thursday French Press, making a definitive case “against Christian authoritarianism.”

Let Us Know

As the gorgeous-but-fleeting D.C. springtime continues to blossom outside, your Morning Dispatchers’ social-distancing resolve is being mightily tested. What steps should Andrew and Declan take to ensure the enticing weather doesn’t break their spirits and turn them into the Typhoid Maries of the capital coronavirus? 

  • Immediately throw out all shorts, sunglasses, and sandals, anything made of linen or seersucker, and all socks made of anything but wool. 

  • Shave off eyebrows to induce fear of public mockery.

  • Strengthen body horror by setting phone backgrounds to this picture of what a coronavirus test entails.

  • Introduce buddy-system accountability: If one leaves his apartment for any non-essential purpose, the other breaks his kneecap.

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Alec Dent (@Alec_Dent), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph of Jared Kushner and Donald Trump by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.