Pence says economic fundamentals strong despite outbreak impact

Vice President Mike Pence said Friday that the fundamentals of the U.S. economy remain robust despite the coronavirus pandemic that has tanked markets and led to unprecedented layoffs of millions of Americans. 

“While the stock market has ebbed and flowed, and even this week made dramatic moves, President Trump and our entire economic team believe that all the fundamentals continue to be strong,” Pence said on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.” “And that, as we deal with the coronavirus that this economy will come roaring back once we see our nation through this challenging time.” 

Pence also said that the likely spread of the disease would be less severe than early forecasts projected, suggesting early models are “now being understood to have been really wrong.” He said that based on data that has become available in recent days, the extent of the virus “does appear to be significantly lower than a lot of the early projections were.”

Markets were falling on Friday after a three-day winning streak, a day after the U.S. surpassed China and Italy in its number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. America is now the hardest-hit nation in the world based on the size of its outbreak. The plunge in the major indexes came despite hopes for a $2 trillion rescue package from Congress, which was expected to pass the House of Representatives later in the day. 

Pence, who heads the White House task force leading the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, said he was intent on opening up portions of the country where there was “frankly, little outbreak of the virus.”

But Pence said his recommendations to President Donald Trump on when to do so would be based on data, pouring some cold water on the notion that the nation would be buzzing by Easter. Trump said on Tuesday that he was hoping for “packed churches” by April 12, the date Easter falls on this year, but Pence called the deadline “aspirational,” echoing the language used by White House health authorities in recent days. 

Public health officials have cautioned that the U.S. is far from ready to begin opening its economy. Former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb said on Tuesday that the “optimistic case” was for a peak of infections in three to four weeks in regions that have been the hardest hit like New York. 

“This is going to be a long fight,” Gottlieb said on CNBC. “I think we need to keep this going for several more weeks, but there is an end to this, and we know where it is.”

More than 85,000 have been sickened in the U.S. by the coronavirus, with at least 1,300 dead, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, weekly jobless claims are shattering records from the 2008 financial crisis, with more than 3 million Americans seeking benefits according to data released on Thursday. 

The president, who faces an election in November, has been eager to get the economy back on its feet.

On Thursday, Trump announced a plan to start classifying counties into three risk levels as a mechanism for opening up some parts of the country ahead of others, calling it the “next phase” in the fight against COVID-19. 

“I would love to have the country opened up, and rarin’ to go by Easter,” the president said during an interview with Fox News on Tuesday. 

The president’s efforts to boot up the economy piece by piece seems to run counter to the advice of some of the experts advising him.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the coronavirus task force and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Thursday that the United States “can start thinking about getting back to some degree of normality when the country as a whole turns that corner” of reducing the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.