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Iowa Never Locked Down. Its Economy Is Struggling Anyway.

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As far as the law is concerned, there is no reason that Amedeo Rossi can’t reopen his martini bar in downtown Des Moines, or resume shows at his concert venue two doors down. Yet Mr. Rossi’s businesses remain dark, and one has closed for good.

There are no restrictions keeping Denver Foote from carrying on with her work at the salon where she styles hair. But Ms. Foote is picking up only two shifts a week, and is often sent home early because there are so few customers.

No lockdown stood in the way of the city’s Oktoberfest, but the celebration was canceled. “We could have done it, absolutely,” said Mindy Toyne, whose company has produced the event for 17 years. “We just couldn’t fathom a way that we could produce a festival that was safe.”

President Trump and many supporters blame restrictions on business activity, often imposed by Democratic governors and mayors, for prolonging the economic crisis initially caused by the virus. But the experience of states like Iowa shows the economy is far from back to normal even in Republican-led states that have imposed few business restrictions.

A growing body of research has concluded that the steep drop in economic activity last spring was primarily a result of individual decisions by consumers and businesses rather than legal mandates. People stopped going to restaurants even before governors ordered them shut down. Airports emptied out even though there were never significant restrictions on domestic air travel.

States like Iowa that reopened quickly did have an initial pop in employment and sales. But more cautious states have at least partly closed that gap, and have seen faster economic rebounds in recent months by many measures.

ImageCourt Avenue in downtown Des Moines attracted little foot traffic on a Saturday night in October.
Credit…Kathryn Gamble for The New York Times

Economists say it is hard to estimate exactly how much economic activity is still being restrained by capacity limits, social-distancing rules and similar policies, many of which have been lifted or loosened even in places governed by Democrats. In most states, restaurants, retail stores and even bars are allowed to operate.

Perhaps the most widespread government action that has hindered economic growth is the decision by many school districts to adopt virtual learning at the start of the school year, which appears to have driven many parents, particularly women, out of the labor force to care for young children who would otherwise be in class.

But as the pandemic flares again in much of the country, most economists agree this much is clear: The main thing holding back the economy is not formal restrictions. It is people’s continued fear of the virus itself.

“You can’t just open the economy and expect everything to go back to pre-Covid levels,” said Michael Luca, a Harvard Business School economist who has studied the impact of restrictions during the pandemic. “If a market is not safe, people won’t participate in it.”

Iowa was one of only a handful of states that never imposed a full stay-at-home order. Restaurants, movie theaters, hair salons and bars were allowed to reopen starting in May, earlier than in most states. Gov. Kim Reynolds has emphasized the need to make the economy a priority, and has blocked cities and towns from requiring masks or imposing many other restrictions.

Even so, Iowa has regained just over half of the 186,000 jobs it lost between February and April, and progress — as in the country as a whole — is slowing. Many businesses worry they won’t be able to make it through the winter without more help from Congress. Others have already failed. Now, coronavirus cases are rising there.

Vaudeville Mews, the small performance hall that Mr. Rossi opened in Des Moines in 2002, was a labor of love even in the best of times. The venue attracted a fan base with its willingness to book independent acts, but it often lost money. Mr. Rossi had been saving up in hopes of buying a new space, but the pandemic ended that dream.

Legally, music venues in Iowa were allowed to reopen in June, but with social-distancing requirements that significantly reduced their capacity. Even if those rules were lifted, Mr. Rossi said, he couldn’t see a path toward reopening safely and profitably anytime soon. This month, he announced that Vaudeville Mews would be closing permanently.

“We couldn’t pay our rent, and it was piling up, and we were constantly still getting drained by internet bill, insurance bill, utility bill,” he said. “Who wants to go into huge debt to float a business that we don’t see any end in sight?”

Mr. Rossi’s nearby bar, the Lift, is officially still in business, but aside from a brief experiment with deliveries, it hasn’t served a drink since March. He has considered welcoming a small number of customers on a reservation-only basis, but so far hasn’t figured out how to reopen in a way that would both be safe and not cost him even more than staying closed.

Credit…Kathryn Gamble for The New York Times
Credit…Kathryn Gamble for The New York Times

“We felt it would be worse for us to reopen,” he said.

At Court Avenue Restaurant & Brewing Company, around the corner from Vaudeville Mews and the Lift, the lack of nightlife is taking a toll on business. So is the lack of the normal lunchtime crowd, with many office employees still working from home. Court Avenue reopened in May, but has regained just 30 to 40 percent of its pre-pandemic sales, according to the owner, Scott Carlson.

“Even if the governor said, ‘Hey, we’re taking away all restrictions and all mandates and all recommendations,’ our numbers wouldn’t change, not very dramatically,” he said.

Iowa has outperformed many other states economically during the pandemic, at least by some measures. The unemployment rate capped out at 11 percent in April — below the 14.7 percent hit by the country as a whole — and it has fallen quickly, to 4.7 percent in September.

But economists attribute Iowa’s success primarily to its favorable mix of industries. The state relies more heavily than most on agriculture and manufacturing, which were comparatively insulated from the virus.

Vulnerable industries like tourism, hospitality and retail sales are struggling in Iowa as they are everywhere else. Data compiled by researchers at Harvard and Brown Universities from private sources shows that consumer spending has rebounded more slowly in Iowa than in neighboring states.

“Retailers are still having a tough go of it in Iowa,” said Ernie Goss, a Creighton University economist who studies Iowa and the Midwest. “You’re talking about individuals who regardless of regulations are not going back in a restaurant right now.”

Mike Draper owns a chain of T-shirt shops with three stores in Iowa and others in Omaha, Chicago and Kansas City, Mo. Customer traffic is down 30 to 50 percent in all of them, he said, with no consistent patterns based on the rules local governments have imposed.

“It has almost nothing to do with regulations,” Mr. Draper said. “It’s really driven by people’s mentality more than regulations.”

Credit…Kathryn Gamble for The New York Times

There is little doubt that restrictions are restraining some economic activity, particularly in parts of the country that have strictly limited restaurant capacity and indoor gatherings. Local business owners say that restaurants are noticeably busier in Davenport, Iowa, than across the Mississippi River in Moline, Ill., where rules on mask-wearing and social distancing are stricter and more consistently enforced, although business is not back to normal on either side of the river.

But greater activity can also come with a cost, to both public health and the economy. When college campuses in Iowa reopened in August, students packed into bars and nightclubs — and coronavirus cases quickly began to rise. Governor Reynolds shut down bars in several college towns for more than a month.

For some workers, Iowa’s situation is the worst of both worlds: They are back at work, putting them at risk of contracting the virus, but don’t have enough customers to make a living.

Credit…Kathryn Gamble for The New York Times
Credit…Kathryn Gamble for The New York Times

Ms. Foote, 24, had worked at the beauty salon for just a few weeks when it shut down because of the pandemic. The job was the fulfillment of a longstanding dream — after years of juggling school and low-wage jobs, she was finally working full time and on track to get benefits.

Even so, when the salon reopened in the spring, she was scared to return to work. And once she did go back, there was little work for her.

“I just kind of sit around and don’t do anything,” she said. “People are scared to go into the salon and sit for an hour.”

Ms. Foote said she was taking home just $200 for each two-week pay period, meaning she again needs to supplement her income with part-time jobs. But she isn’t sure she should be rooting for business to pick up.

“I don’t see how me going to the salon more often and exposing myself is going to make things better,” she said. “I don’t think that’s safe, personally.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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