This is the week of the winter solstice for 2020, and the solstice has been a noteworthy occurrence for mankind since before recorded history. Our early ancestors paid particular attention to the winter solstice because it marked the time the days would stop getting shorter, and the daily amount of sunlight would start to increase. It meant that spring was just one quarter away. I have always felt a connection to these early observances because if you think about it, they were some of the earliest known examples of quarterly macroeconomic forecasts.
The 2020 version of the winter solstice is especially poignant for at least two other reasons. The first of these is that if I stare hard at the charts and squint my eyes, I can vaguely make out a peak in the COVID-19 statistics. It is a bit too early for me to proclaim this is the all-time high in the data, but it is certainly possible we are at or very near the true peak.
I can say this because of the second reason this solstice is remarkable: Now is the moment they are starting to roll out the vaccines for COVID-19. So despite the shutdown and all of the other restraints that currently impede our traditional holiday festivities, I am forecasting more sunlight and fewer infections next quarter. I am even planning for a robust celebration of the vernal equinox next quarter.
And to mark this outlook for next quarter, I want to finish 2020 with a deeper dive than usual into my bag of forecasts. We have all spent a lot of time in recent months analyzing the ways in which the plastics industry has been affected by the U.S. economic shutdown. Naturally, our focus during this time has been on the obvious sectors of medical, packaging and automotive. But the impact of our industry is so widespread there is hardly a segment of the entire American economy that is not touched by plastics in some way or another. To quote ZZ Top, "We bad, we nationwide."
For my last column of this momentous year, I want to spend a bit of time reflecting on the recent trends in the entire U.S. manufacturing sector and offer a glance at some of the other segments that have not been at the center of all the recent attention. For this purpose, I have included a table that shows the annual changes in total output of U.S. manufactured products and a breakdown of these products into their major categories.
The major takeaway from this table is that with only a couple of exceptions, this was a difficult year for the vast majority of U.S. manufacturers. There have been stories of bright spots, especially in the plastics industry, but the net result of the shutdown has been a severe decline in overall manufacturing activity. The decline this year was not as severe as the drop during the Great Recession in 2009 due to the enormous relief package appropriated by Congress last spring.