Will Hurricane Irene be a black swan for the U.S. economy?

August 25, 2011

The U.S. economy is growing very slowly, just 0.4 percent in the first quarter, 1.3 percent in the second. And it might not do a whole better the rest of the year. That’s a problem. A recent study from the Federal Reserve finds that that since 1947, when two-quarter annualized real GDP growth falls below 2 percent, recession follows within a year 48 percent of the time. (And when year-over-year real GDP growth falls below 2 percent, recession follows within a year 70 percent of the time.

So while we may be in a recovery, it’s a fragile one, at best. In short, nothing can go wrong or we’ll end up back in recession. That’s a big reason everyone is so focused on Europe and its ongoing sovereign debt and banking troubles. And why problems at Bank of America cause flashbacks of 2008.

But what about the nasty storm making its way up the East Coast? What’s the potential it causes enough economic damage and disruption to nudge the American economy back into a downturn? Well, I suppose the worst-case scenario would be a direct strike on New York City. That would be pretty bad:

In the city, a hurricane’s storm surge would cause sudden, extensive flooding, submerging much of Lower Manhattan and crippling the subway system and tunnels.

The powerful winds would uproot thousands of trees, down power lines and send debris flying in all corners of the city. And those winds could shatter windows on skyscrapers, especially in the taller buildings that would bear the brunt of powerful gusts that occur at higher elevations. The canyons of Manhattan could magnify the winds, and would be a deadly place for anyone caught beneath the raining glass.

Other comparisons to Hurricane Katrina are hard to ignore. Katrina, the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history, caused insured losses of more than $40 billion in 2005. AIR Worldwide, a firm that models disaster scenarios for insurance companies, has said that a repeat of the Long Island Express would cost $33 billion if it happened today. In the most dire projections, a direct hit on New York City could cost upwards of $100 billion.

The impact would be felt long after flood waters recede. Coch predicts that the salt water in the subway would corrode the switches and cripple the system for months or years, and disable much of the communications infrastructure in Lower Manhattan. “In 1893, Wall Street was cut off from the rest of the country when the telegraph lines went down,” he said. “Imagine what would happen now when the fiber optic cable failed.”

Sounds a lot worse than Hurricane Katrina given the incredible importance of Manhattan to the U.S. and global economy. Tough to quantify, of course. But, for comparison purposes, here is a Congressional Research Service analysis of the economic impact of Katrina in 2005:

Since the storm, a number of economic forecasters have adjusted their predictions to reflect its effects. Most indicate that, as a result of the storm, national economic growth is expected to be 0.5%-1.0% slower than in the second half of 2005. However, as economic activity recovers in the affected region, and rebuilding begins, growth in the first half of 2006 is now expected to be more rapid than was previously forecast.

Back in 2005, the economy was growing at a 3-4 percent clip. Today, it’s less than 2 percent. Maybe even less than 1 percent. It seems pretty clear a devastating hit on the Big Apple might well send the economy back into recession. And given the current fragility of consumer and business confidence, how likely is it that the economy would quickly bounce back into growth in a quarter or two? Here’s how Japan is doing, by the way, after its pair of natural disasters earlier this year:

Five months after a tsunami and nuclear meltdown assailed Japan, the economy has been pummelled by fresh blows. Share prices have followed global stockmarkets down, with the Nikkei 225 index revisiting its nadir in the days after the earthquake in March. As if the fears about a global slowdown that have depressed equity investors were not enough, the yen has been soaring, which will hurt Japanese exporters. Adding to the pain, Moody’s, a credit-rating agency, downgraded Japan’s debt rating one notch to Aa3 on August 24th because of its huge public debt and chaotic politics.


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If the people of this country would stop living as if God does not exist, maybe He would lighten up on the increasing judgments. They won’t, they’d rather rebel and live as ‘each feels right in his own sight’, so these storms, earthquakes, etc., will continue to wax worse and worse…

Posted by Elihu | Report as abusive

Wait….. according to Paul Krugmann, a big, money-pit disaster si *exactly* what we need to cause a recovery.

Posted by corncat | Report as abusive

Paul Krugman assures me that natural disasters are good for the economy, because the window companies have to hire more people to replace all those broken windows.

Posted by wooga | Report as abusive

If there are severe damages it is going to be a disaster. People who can not cover their deductibles and are under water in their mortgage will find it convenient to walk away and leave the property deserted. A very wide swath of the mid Atlantic and North East will end up blighted with these abandoned properties. What you see now is only going to get worse and the jobs that would be created for repairs will be far fewer than what you see in normal times. Cash flow is the issue and there is no cash to flow.

Posted by Aluminizer | Report as abusive

A whole row of black swans lately. Its a flock-a-lypse.

Posted by DocMerlin | Report as abusive

Perhaps, might, could…speculative rubbish.

Posted by Elektrobahn | Report as abusive

The economy should not be the main concern here, we should be focused on preparing. Our lives, homes, and families are in danger. We always worry about the economy, we know this storm could potentially be a huge downfall, but that’s not the issue right now. We need to make sure we are safe until the hurricane is over. The economy should be the least of our concern. Don’t you just love how people are more worried about money than their lives?

Posted by 321anonymous123 | Report as abusive