3 signs the 'pandemic economy' ended in 2022—even though Covid is still around

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By all technical definitions, the U.S. is still in a pandemic. As of September, the World Health Organization has only declared the end of the pandemic "in sight," but not here yet — especially as Covid cases rise and threaten another harsh winter wave. 

Some pandemic lifestyle changes like mask-wearing in the U.S. remain common, especially as the Center for Disease Prevention and Control recommends wearing masks in areas with high infection rates including New York and Los Angeles.

America's money habits, however, have almost completely gone back to pre-pandemic trends. After nearly two years of significant disruption — for better or worse — these are three examples of how the pandemic economy ended in 2022: 

1. Consumers are back to spending on things to do versus things to have

Major retailers like Walmart and Target made headlines this year for excessive inventories hurting their bottom lines as consumers shifted their spending habits. After stocking up on electronics and other home goods for much of the last two years, consumers are back to spending on services including travel and entertainment.

Consumer expenditures on durable goods were up about 6% in October from the previous year, compared with a more than 8% increase in services spending according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis

Two of the industries that suffered the most at the onset of the pandemic — travel and hospitality —  have made near-full recoveries. Consumers returned to the skies with global airline passenger traffic nearing 74% of September 2019 levels this past fall according to the International Air Transport Association.

And whether in their hometowns or while they were traveling, Americans found themselves eating at restaurants even more than they did in 2019, data from reservation platform OpenTable shows. 

Though airlines and restaurants alike continue dealing with labor shortages amid an overwhelming surge in customer demand, the long lines and sold-out reservations that defined the industries this year reflect a return to normal leisure activities for much of the population. 

2. Spending rebound makes saving more difficult

Consumers may have been expecting to spend more this year in light of returning to working in person and going out for fun. But persistently high inflation and fears of a coming recession made it difficult for folks to keep their spending in check and maintain good saving habits.

The government's financial aid that helped consumers meet those goals through the height of the pandemic didn't exist in 2022, changing the way people use their money again, according to Angeli Gianchandani, an expert in consumer behavior as a practitioner in residence for the brand marketing and executive MBA programs at the University of New Haven.

"The stimulus checks and the unemployment benefits allowed people to spend — they were spending money, because they had it," she says. Those government subsidies allowed folks to spend more, but they were also saving money not commuting to work, shopping for clothes or getting their hair done.

"The spending shifted, and now the pendulum has swung so far to the other side with inflation," she says. "We're seeing this impact that's just such a change and creating a burden for people."

After paying off loads of credit card debt and saving at higher rates than ever before during the height of the pandemic, many consumers are back to relying on credit to cover everyday purchases.

3. Investing isn't all fun and games anymore

It wasn't just events like the GameStop frenzy that made the stock market exciting in 2021, but also the fact that the markets seemed to be fully recovered and poised to keep growing as the world continued to re-open. But that optimism began to slide at the end of last year and has continued its descent throughout 2022.

Not only will the major stock indexes end the year on a sour note, but other major investments like buying a house got more painful this year as the Fed hiked interest rates to help curb inflation.

A combination of pandemic-induced factors — more downtime at home, pent-up savings and low interest rates — allowed consumers to spend and invest more freely throughout the height of the pandemic. Now, with prices high, the economy's health uncertain and a number of other crises still bubbling (war in Ukraine, climate change, U.S. political tension), people are looking for stability.

"This uncertainty we may be going through, you're gonna see again consumers are going to change habits," Gianchandani says. From where they shop to where they work and where they invest, she says folks are looking for companies to take a stand and show how they create value for their shareholders beyond just returns. "Companies need to be able to speak to their customer be transparent and forthcoming, and help them build that trust to overcome any of these challenges."

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