Unless this report indicates otherwise, all years referred to are calendar years. Federal fiscal years run from October 1 to September 30 and are designated by the calendar year in which they end. Numbers in the text and tables may not add up to totals because of rounding.
The 2020–2021 coronavirus pandemic caused severe economic disruptions last year as households, governments, and businesses adopted a variety of mandatory and voluntary measures—collectively referred to here as social distancing—to limit in-person interactions that could spread the virus. The impact was focused on particular sectors of the economy, such as travel and hospitality, and job losses were concentrated among lower-wage workers.
Over the course of the coming year, vaccination is expected to greatly reduce the number of new cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. As a result, the extent of social distancing is expected to decline. In its new economic forecast, which covers the period from 2021 to 2031, the Congressional Budget Office therefore projects that the economic expansion that began in mid-2020 will continue (see Table 1). Specifically, real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) is projected to return to its prepandemic level in mid-2021 and to surpass its potential (that is, its maximum sustainable) level in early 2025. In CBO’s projections, the unemployment rate gradually declines through 2026, and the number of people employed returns to its prepandemic level in 2024.
CBO is using this economic forecast as the basis for updating its budget projections for 2021 to 2031. The agency plans to release those budget projections later in February and a more detailed report about this forecast later this winter. The forecast incorporates economic and other information available as of January 12, 2021, as well as estimates of the economic effects of all legislation (including pandemic-related legislation) enacted up to that date.
In CBO’s projections, which incorporate the assumptions that current laws governing federal taxes and spending (as of January 12) generally remain in place and that no significant additional emergency funding or aid is provided, the economy continues to strengthen during the next five years.
- Real GDP expands rapidly over the coming year, reaching its previous peak in mid-2021 and surpassing its potential level in early 2025. The annual growth of real GDP averages 2.6 percent during the five-year period, exceeding the 1.9 percent growth rate of real potential GDP (see Figure 1).
- Labor market conditions continue to improve. As the economy expands, many people rejoin the civilian labor force who had left it during the pandemic, restoring it to its prepandemic size in 2022. The unemployment rate gradually declines throughout the period, and the number of people employed returns to its prepandemic level in 2024.
- Inflation, as measured by the price index for personal consumption expenditures, rises gradually over the next few years and rises above 2.0 percent after 2023, as the Federal Reserve maintains low interest rates and continues to purchase long-term securities.
- Interest rates on federal borrowing rise. The Federal Reserve maintains the federal funds rate (the rate that financial institutions charge each other for overnight loans of their monetary reserves) near zero through mid-2024 and then starts to raise that rate gradually. The interest rate on 3-month Treasury bills closely follows the federal funds rate. The interest rate on 10-year Treasury notes rises gradually as the Federal Reserve reduces the pace of its asset purchases and investors anticipate rising short-term interest rates later in the decade.
CBO’s projections of economic growth have been boosted by various laws enacted in 2020. Most recently, in late December, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (Public Law 116-260), appropriated funds for the remainder of fiscal year 2021, provided additional emergency funding for federal agencies to respond to the public health emergency created by the pandemic, and provided financial support to households, businesses, and nonfederal governments affected by the economic downturn, among other measures. CBO estimates that the pandemic-related provisions in that legislation will add $774 billion to the deficit in fiscal year 2021 and $98 billion in 2022. Those provisions will boost the level of real GDP by 1.5 percent, on average, in calendar years 2021 and 2022, CBO estimates; the bulk of the impact will occur in 2021.
In CBO’s projections, the economy continues to expand from 2026 to 2031. Real GDP grows by 1.6 percent per year, on average (see Table 2). Real potential GDP grows slightly more rapidly (see Table 3). For most of the period, the Federal Reserve allows inflation to remain above its target level; the level of real GDP likewise remains above the level of real potential GDP for several years. Eventually, less accommodative policies on the part of the Federal Reserve help push GDP back toward its historical average relationship with potential GDP.
A mild increase in productivity growth causes potential output in CBO’s projections to grow more quickly over the 2021–2031 period than it has grown since the 2007–2009 recession. However, potential output still grows more slowly than it has grown since 1950, mainly because of an ongoing, long-term slowdown in the growth of the labor force.
CBO’s projections reflect an average of possible outcomes under current law. But these projections are subject to an unusually high degree of uncertainty, and that uncertainty stems from many sources, including the course of the pandemic, the effectiveness of monetary and fiscal policies, and the response of global financial markets to substantial increases in public deficits and debt. As a result, the economy could expand substantially more quickly or more slowly than CBO projects. Labor market conditions could likewise improve more quickly or slowly than projected, and inflation and interest rates could rise more rapidly or slowly as well. Also uncertain is the impact of the pandemic on the economy over the longer term, including its effects on productivity, the labor force, and technological innovation.
CBO currently projects a stronger economy than it did in July 2020, in large part because the downturn was not as severe as expected and because the first stage of the recovery took place sooner and was stronger than expected (see Table 4). GDP and employment are projected to be higher and to be accompanied by modestly higher inflation and higher interest rates than they were in CBO’s July projections. The fact that the downturn was less severe and the recovery stronger than previously projected also changed the projected pattern of growth: CBO’s current projections of GDP growth are stronger, on average, for the 2021–2025 period than they were in July but weaker for the 2026–2031 period.
CBO made those changes to its economic projections even though it expects social distancing to be more pronounced and to last longer than projected in July. The projected effects of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, played a part in improving the economic outlook.
1. The labor force is the number of people age 16 or older in the civilian noninstitutionalized population who have jobs or who are available for work and are actively seeking jobs.
2. See Congressional Budget Office, The Effects of Pandemic-Related Legislation on Output (September 2020), .
3. Those provisions are contained in divisions M, N, and EE of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021.
4. For the July projections, see Congressional Budget Office, An Update to the Economic Outlook: 2020 to 2030 (July 2020), .
This document is one of a series of reports on the state of the economy that the Congressional Budget Office issues each year. In keeping with CBO’s mandate to provide objective, impartial analysis, this report makes no recommendations.
CBO consulted with members of its Panel of Economic Advisers during the development of this report. Although those advisers provided considerable assistance, they are not responsible for the contents of this report.
Robert Shackleton wrote the report. Leigh Angres, Christina Hawley Anthony, Sebastien Gay, Theresa Gullo, Deborah Kilroe, John McClelland, and Mia Williams provided helpful comments. The economic forecast and related estimates were prepared by Aaron Betz, Yiqun Gloria Chen, Erin Deal, Daniel Fried, Edward Gamber, Ronald Gecan, Mark Lasky, Junghoon Lee, Michael McGrane, Jaeger Nelson, Sarah Robinson, Jeffrey Schafer, John Seliski, Robert Shackleton, and Christopher Williams. Many other analysts at CBO contributed information about the pandemic and the effects of actions taken in response to it. Erin Deal and Sarah Robinson fact-checked the report. The writing of the report and the preparation of the forecast were supervised by Jeffrey Werling, John Kitchen, Robert Arnold, and Devrim Demirel.
Phillip L. Swagel
The Congressional Budget Office has corrected this report since its original publication. Both the PDF and online versions were corrected, but for ease of reference, this list indicates the locations of the corrections in the PDF.
The following changes were made on February 9, 2021:
Pages 7 and 8: “January 2021” was changed to “February 2021” throughout Table 4.