Do Survey Respondents Mean What They Say? A Lot Is Riding On The Answer – Coronavirus (COVID-19)


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Financial markets rallied furiously on November 9th on
the news that Phase 3 trial results to date for the Pfizer/BioNTech
COVID-19 vaccine were 90% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID
among 96 test patient cases where the virus was detected,
considerably better than the 60%- 70% effectiveness that was
expected from the first vaccines. Markets rejoiced as if the end
zone was in sight, though much remains unknown about the Pfizer
vaccine — including its long-term efficacy and side effects,
its availability timetable, its ability to prevent transmission of
the virus, and its effectiveness across demographic and ethnic
groups.

The Phase 3 trial will continue until another 70 COVID-19 cases
are detected. Pfizer’s vaccine soon will receive emergency FDA
approval, but it’s not expected to be widely available to the
general public any sooner than springtime. Despite these various
unknowns, equity markets rallied 2%-3% on that very day while
corporate high-yield bond spreads dropped more than 50 basis
points, to their lowest yields ever, amid an economic recovery that
is uneven and decelerating. Stocks reeling from high exposure to
the economic impact of COVID-19, such as airlines and travel &
leisure companies, soared that week. Just one week later, Moderna
announced that its COVID-19 vaccine was 95% effective in early
clinical trials, and the market rally continued. Apparently,
financial markets were not anticipating that early vaccines would
be so effective in clinical trials.

The sense that most aspects of American life will return to
normal in 2021 has become palpable in financial markets, though
many credible consumer surveys conducted throughout this pandemic
continue to indicate otherwise. Are survey respondents unreliable
when it comes to predicting their own behaviors, or are markets
mostly ignoring what they are saying? The answer to that question
will only become clear as 2021 unfolds.

Consumer surveys remain as popular as ever, especially during
the pandemic, despite the common criticism that people’s
behavior is often inconsistent with their stated intentions. For
instance, holiday surveys often show that respondents intend to be
disciplined with their holiday spending—only to subsequently
blow through their budget during the season. An intention
doesn’t necessarily translate into a consistent behavior.
Regarding COVID-19, a slew of credible surveys tells us that
consumer behaviors won’t be the same on the other side of the
pandemic. Let’s see what they are saying on the big issues.

  • — A survey of 10,000 adults conducted by Pew Research
    Center in September indicated that the percentage of respondents
    who would definitely or probably get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were
    available has dropped sharply compared to May. Only 51% of
    respondents said they definitely (21%) or probably (30%) would get
    the vaccine compared to 72% back in May. Those who said they
    definitely would get the vaccine dropped from 42% in May to 21%,
    while those who said they definitely wouldn’t get the vaccine
    more than doubled to 24% in September from 11% in May. There were
    some notable response differences by political affiliation, age and
    race/ethnicity, but the percentage of respondents willing to get a
    vaccine declined across all groups compared to the May survey. Most
    interestingly, respondents’ specific reasons for not getting a
    vaccine varied widely, ranging from concerns about safety, side
    effects and effectiveness to concerns about the speed of the
    vaccine development process. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine
    that the many millions of Americans who refused to wear masks at
    the height of the pandemic will be lining up for a vaccine.

  • Another survey conducted by Pew Research in September indicated
    that 51% of respondents said they expect their lives “will
    remain changed in major ways” after the pandemic is over
    compared to 48% who said their lives “will basically go back
    to normal.” Women (54%) were more likely to say their lives
    will remain changed in major ways than were men (47%), while 60% of
    Democraticleaning respondents said their lives will remain changed
    in major ways compared to 40% for Republican-leaning respondents.
    White respondents were more likely to say their lives will go back
    to normal than were non-white racial/ethnic groups. By age cohort,
    the “change in major ways” response was strongest among
    young adults (57%) compared to Gen X and Young Boomers (50%) and
    Seniors (47%).

  • The Passenger Confidence Tracker developed by Inmarsat based on
    surveys of 10,000 global airline passengers indicated that:

    • 83% of respondents said their travel habits will change
      post-COVID-19, including 41% who said they will travel less by any
      means. For U.S. respondents, only 11% said their travel habits will
      not change postCOVID-19 compared to 17% for all respondents.

    • Among business travelers, 47% said they would be traveling less
      by any means post-COVID-19, while 40% said they would travel less
      by air.

    • These responses have implications beyond just airlines,
      including lodging and hospitality and other travel & leisure
      segments.

  • A U.S. consumer survey by Jefferies conducted in September
    indicated that 47% of respondents intend to do at least one-half of
    their total spending online post-COVID-19 compared to 40% prior to
    COVID. About 20% of respondents intend to do at least 80% of their
    total spending online going forward compared to approximately 13%
    prior to COVID-19. It’s nearly inevitable that accelerated
    online shopping trends will stick after the pandemic has
    passed.

  • In the same Jefferies survey, 46% of respondents who never
    worked from home prior to COVID-19 plan to do so more frequently
    going forward, including 33% who plan to work from home either two
    to three days per week (10%) or four to five days per week
    (23%).

The prevailing theme that most of us won’t be returning to
our pre-COVID lifestyles even when it is safe again underlies many
survey findings on the topic. Anecdotally, most of us have had
months to reflect on why we ever crammed into those packed planes,
subways and gyms with regularity in the first place. That is not to
say we won’t ever be doing these things again, but we won’t
likely be doing them nearly as often, and these shifts, if
realized, have tremendous economic implications. It would suggest
that sudden overcapacity in the consumer discretionary sector in
2020 — whether that means too many airplanes, rental cars,
hotel rooms, restaurants, office buildings, shopping malls, movie
theatres, etc. — will remain a critical issue well beyond the
end of the year. This excess capacity eventually must be
rationalized. That won’t happen immediately, as affected
businesses hold out hope that Americans will eventually return to
their old ways with enough time. For the most exposed industries,
nobody knows exactly if or when the current glide path moving back
towards normal will plateau short of pre-COVID levels of
activity.

Should most people stick to their intentions, such a scenario
would entail prolonged economic pain as these businesses contract
to meet lower demand. Novel solution providers that have filled the
gaps during the pandemic (and perhaps permanently), such as Zoom
Video, Instacart or Etsy, tend to be technology driven and cannot
come close to generating the economic activity or replacing the
human capital drained from displaced incumbents. This retrenchment
scenario would entail a lengthy period of elevated business
failures, ongoing rounds of layoffs by afflicted industries, and
the specter of several million working-age Americans permanently
displaced from the labor force. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell might
have said it best and most succinctly when he commented recently
that, “We’re recovering, but to a different
economy.”

Consumer sentiment remains in the doldrums, above its lows of
midyear but far below its pre-pandemic levels. Financial markets
couldn’t care less, and the contrast with the recession of
2008-2009 is stunning (Exhibit 1). Are survey responses about a
post-COVID-19 world akin to New Year’s resolutions, that is,
intentions of future behavior with little follow-through? We’ll
have a better idea in about a year or so.

Exhibit 1: University of Michigan’s Surveys of
Consumers

Footnotes

1 U.S. Public Now Divided Over Whether to Get the
COVID-19 Vaccine, Pew Research Center, September 17,
2020.

2 About Half of Americans Say Their Lives Will be Changed
in Major Ways When the Pandemic is Over, Pew Research Center,
September 17, 2020.

3 Passenger Confidence Tracker, Inmarsat Aviation,
November 2020.

4 Cooped Up But Coping: A Fresh Look at Consumer
Intentions, Jefferies LLC/ Jefferies Research Services LLC,
September 10, 2020.

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