In the math of global economics, a foreign tourist staying in the United States is essentially purchasing an American services export. Travel exports were only $18 billion in the first four months of 2021, down from $67 billion in the same period of 2019.
Meanwhile, flush American consumers have shifted their spending away from services and toward goods. In the first four months of the year, imports of consumer goods were 29 percent higher than in 2020, a $57 billion jump.
“The only thing people could consume was goods,” said Constance Hunter, chief economist at KPMG. “You couldn’t have a wedding, you couldn’t go to a baseball game. So what did people buy? They bought goods, and that’s much more of a global market than services.”
In effect, the United States and China are acting as the drivers of the global economy, while most of the rest of the world is further behind in recovery from the pandemic.
In the I.M.F.’s World Economic Outlook published in April, the United States’ 2021 G.D.P. was forecast to be 3 percent above its 2019 level, while China was forecast to be 11 percent above its 2019 level. But the euro area and Japan were each on track to have economies 2 percent smaller than in 2019, with Britain, Canada, Brazil and Mexico also forecast to be in negative territory.
That is unfortunate for the people in those places experiencing sluggish recoveries, but is probably helping to keep supply shortages in many sectors from being even worse. Already, a shortage of semiconductors has held back production of automobiles; shortages of building materials have suppressed housing construction; and a shortage of shipping containers has sent prices skyrocketing for moving goods across oceans.
“If everybody was stimulating simultaneously, and everybody was enjoying peak growth simultaneously, you could see more congestion,” said Nathan Sheets, chief economist at PGIM Fixed Income and a former top international economist at the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury.