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Sandy unlikely to damage US economy, analysts say

Tuesday - 10/30/2012, 6:45am  ET

Sand bags protect the front of the New York Stock Exchange, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. Hurricane Sandy continued on its path Monday, forcing the shutdown of mass transit, schools and financial markets, sending coastal residents fleeing, and threatening a dangerous mix of high winds and soaking rain. There had been plans to allow electronic trading to go forward on the New York Stock Exchange but with a storm surge expected to cover parts of lower Manhattan in water, officials decided late Sunday that it was too risky to ask any personnel to staff the exchanges. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER
AP Economics Writers

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Airlines have canceled thousands of flights, stranding travelers around the globe. Insurers are bracing for possible damages of $5 billion. Retailers face shrunken sales.

Hurricane Sandy took dead aim at New Jersey and Delaware on Monday, with sheets of rain and wind gusts of more than 90 mph knocking out electricity and causing major disruptions for companies, travelers and consumers. But for the overall economy, damage from the storm will likely be limited. And any economic growth lost to the storm in the short run will likely be restored once reconstruction begins, analysts say. Americans may even spend more before the storm when they stock up on extra food, water and batteries.

Preliminary estimates are that damage will range between $10 billion and $20 billion. That could top last year's Hurricane Irene, which cost $15.8 billion. If so, Hurricane Sandy would be among the 10 most costly hurricanes in U.S. history. But it would still be far below the worst -- Hurricane Katrina, which cost $108 billion and caused 1,200 deaths in 2005.

"Assuming the storm simply disrupts things for a few days and it doesn't do significant damage to infrastructure, then I don't think it will have a significant national impact," Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, said Monday.

The economic impact could be more severe if the storm damages a port or a major manufacturing facility such as an oil refinery, Zandi noted.

The economy expanded at an annual rate of 2 percent in the July-September quarter. Zandi said he isn't changing his forecast for similar growth in the current October-December quarter of 1.9 percent. Economic activity in October and November might slow if factory output declines and some workers are laid off temporarily and seek unemployment benefits. But the economy could strengthen in December as companies rebound.

Here's how the storm has begun to affect key areas of the economy:

-- AIR TRAVEL:

Flights in the Northeast are all but stopped for at least two days. Airlines have canceled nearly 12,500 flights for Monday and Tuesday from Washington to Boston. The disruptions spread across the nation and overseas, stranding passengers from Hong Kong to Europe.

Total airline cancellations have already surpassed those from Hurricane Irene last year and are on par with the 14,000 that were scrapped due to the snowstorm that pounded the East Coast early last year. The Airports Council International, a trade group, said that even if the storm damage turns out to be minor, it could be a week before operations are back to normal at major East Coast airports.

Eric Danielson was trying to fly Monday from San Francisco to Norfolk, Va., to start a new job.

"It was supposed to be only a two-hour layover here in Atlanta, Ga., and now it's beginning to be a 28-hour layover until tomorrow," Danielson said.

Wall Street analysts expect carriers like JetBlue, United and Delta to suffer a short-term hit to earnings as they spend money to shuffle crews and planes away from and then back to the East Coast.

-- RETAILERS:

The nation's big stores are expected to lose billions, and the losses could extend into the crucial holiday shopping season. Sales at department stores, clothing chains, jewelers and other sellers of non-essential goods are expected to suffer the most.

The industry is entering the holiday season, when many retailers collect up to 40 percent of annual revenue. Retailers, excluding restaurants, could lose at least $25 billion in sales this week, estimates Burt Flickinger III of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group.

Even home improvement chains and grocers that will benefit from shoppers stocking up on emergency supplies before the hurricane and cleaning and repair items afterward could lose sales in the long run if overstretched consumers feel they must scale back.

"If you're spending $400 on a generator, that could hurt discretionary purchases," said Brian Sozzi, chief equities analyst at NBG Productions.

Flickinger now estimates that holiday sales in November and December will rise 2.1 percent over last year instead of the 3.2 percent he had originally predicted.

A better idea of Hurricane Sandy's effect will come Thursday, when some major retailers like Target Corp. and Macy's will report sales figures for October.

The storm is affecting small retailers as well as large ones. For many small businesses, opening depended on whether employees lived close by or could work remotely. Businesses vulnerable to wind and water damage and power outages were forced to close. The storm also ruined business trips, meetings and presentations.

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