Analysts: Sandy unlikely to damage US economyPublished 12:23pm Tuesday, October 30, 2012
WASHINGTON — Airlines have canceled thousands of flights, stranding travelers around the globe. Insurers are bracing for possible damages of $5 billion. Retailers face shrunken sales.
Hurricane Sandy took dead aim at New Jersey and Delaware on Monday, with sheets of rain and wind gusts of more than 90 mph knocking out electricity and causing major disruptions for companies, travelers and consumers. But for the overall economy, damage from the storm will likely be limited. And any economic growth lost to the storm in the short run will likely be restored once reconstruction begins, analysts say. Americans may even spend more before the storm when they stock up on extra food, water and batteries.
Preliminary estimates are that damage will range between $10 billion and $20 billion. That could top last year’s Hurricane Irene, which cost $15.8 billion. If so, Hurricane Sandy would be among the 10 most costly hurricanes in U.S. history. But it would still be far below the worst — Hurricane Katrina, which cost $108 billion and caused 1,200 deaths in 2005.
“Assuming the storm simply disrupts things for a few days and it doesn’t do significant damage to infrastructure, then I don’t think it will have a significant national impact,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said Monday.
The economic impact could be more severe if the storm damages a port or a major manufacturing facility such as an oil refinery, Zandi noted.
The economy expanded at an annual rate of 2 percent in the July-September quarter. Zandi said he isn’t changing his forecast for similar growth in the current October-December quarter of 1.9 percent. Economic activity in October and November might slow if factory output declines and some workers are laid off temporarily and seek unemployment benefits. But the economy could strengthen in December as companies rebound.
Here’s how the storm has begun to affect key areas of the economy:
Flights in the Northeast are all but stopped for at least two days. Airlines have canceled nearly 12,500 flights for Monday and Tuesday from Washington to Boston. The disruptions spread across the nation and overseas, stranding passengers from Hong Kong to Europe.
The Airports Council International, a trade group, said that even if the storm damage turns out to be minor, it could be a week before operations are back to normal at major East Coast airports. Wall Street analysts expect carriers like JetBlue, United and Delta to suffer a short-term hit to earnings as they spend money to shuffle crews and planes away from and then back to the East Coast.
The nation’s big stores are expected to lose billions, and the losses could extend into the crucial holiday shopping season. Sales at department stores, clothing chains, jewelers and other sellers of non-essential goods are expected to suffer the most.
The industry is entering the holiday season, when many retailers collect up to 40 percent of annual revenue. Retailers, excluding restaurants, could lose at least $25 billion in sales this week, estimates Burt Flickinger III of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group. Flickinger now estimates that holiday sales in November and December will rise 2.1 percent over last year instead of the 3.2 percent he had originally predicted.
A better idea of Hurricane Sandy’s effect will come Thursday, when some major retailers like Target Corp. and Macy’s will report sales figures for October.
All major U.S. stock exchanges were shuttered Monday as areas around New York’s Financial District came under a mandatory evacuation order. The shutdown was extended through Tuesday, marking the first time since 1888 that the exchange will have been closed for two consecutive days because of weather.
NYSE Chief Operating Officer Larry Leibowitz said he was worried about low trading volumes due to many investors taking the day off. The fear is that just a few trades could whip stock around like the storm outside, sending prices surging one minute or plunging the next. As automatic trading by computers has come to dominate stock trading, it was a fear voiced by other Wall Street experts.
The cost to insurers is expected to rival the insured damage from Hurricane Irene last year. Damage from Irene cost insurers roughly $5 billion, according to Sterne, Agee & Leach Research. Because the storm is hitting a highly populous region, with “one of the highest concentrations of wealth in the world,” the damages are likely to run into the billions, say analysts at Morgan Stanley.
The effect on auto sales may be minimal, some analysts say. Many people who planned to buy cars in the last few days of the month, when deals tend to peak, bought cars over the weekend instead, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with car buying site TrueCar.com.
Energy outages and disruptions in major East Coast cities “may take a toll on [power] demand unlike anything we have seen before,” Phil Flynn, a senior market analyst for Price Futures Group, wrote in a report.
Owners of the six biggest refineries in the Northeast shut down two and cut production at most of the others. That includes a full shutdown of the Phillips 66 refinery in Linden, N.J., the second-biggest in the Northeast at 285,000 barrels per day.
When disaster strikes, phone and Internet service often takes a hit, right when it’s needed the most. Phone companies on the eastern seaboard were topping up fuel for backup generators and lining up disaster recovery trailers to move into flooded areas after the storm passes.
Verizon, the largest landline phone company on the East Coast, said the storm had not yet had any major effect.