Picking Up Steam?
Economy Gains Momentum, but There Are Still Some Hills to Climb
As the director of Economic and Public Policy Research for the Donohue Institute at UMass, Dan Hodge has been involved in a number of initiatives in — and involving — Springfield.
He had a role in the post-tornado initiative called Rebuild Springfield, for example, and has been both a close observer and color commentator of sorts with regard to the many different types of development that have emerged over the past several years.
Summing up the mood, or attitude, he believes is taking shape in the City of Homes, he said, “people are asking, ‘when are things going to happen here?’”
The answer, he went on, is now, or very soon.
Indeed, 2014 could be a watershed year, especially for Springfield, but also for the surrounding region, he said, noting such initiatives as the long-awaited redevelopment of Union Station and the recent announcement that UMass Amherst will proceed aggressively with establishment of a so-called satellite center at Tower Square, a $25 million undertaking.
And then, there’s that casino project that MGM Resorts International wants to build in the city’s South End. It is, at the moment, the only bidder for the coveted Western Mass. casino license still on the table. If MGM’s plan wins the favor of the Mass. Gaming Commission, and if the entire gaming initiative isn’t delayed — or waylaid — by a statewide referendum question now picking up speed (two big ‘ifs’), then cranes could start appearing on Main Street by next fall.
And in some ways, the same can be said for the economy itself, said Hodge, noting that after four and a half years of tepid — at best — recovery, this region, and the state as a whole, is poised for something more substantial.
In fact, things started to improve late this year, said Alan Clayton-Matthews, senior contributing editor for MassBenchmarks and an associate professor of Economics and Public Policy at Northeastern University.
Massachusetts gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an annual rate of 3.5% in the third quarter of 2013, nearly a percentage point higher than the country as a whole, he noted, adding that this improvement (the state grew at only 1.7% in the second quarter) was due to slow but better job growth, rising wages and salary incomes, and a higher rate of spending on items subject to sales taxes. A recovering housing market and more robust consumer and business spending are driving economic growth and providing much-needed relief from what he called “considerable fiscal drag” in the form of mandated sequestration spending cuts and higher payroll taxes than last year.
Fourth-quarter numbers won’t be out for a few weeks, but Clayton-Matthews expects those trends to continue into next year, for which he projects further improvement to the employment picture, which is the real driver of additional spending.
“There are positive signs that private demand is picking up, and there is some backlog in demand that is now being felt in the market because of improving employment and household incomes, and improving wealth in households thanks to rising home prices and rising stock markets,” he said. “The net effect is that the economy is growing, and that will probably continue.”
However, discussion of the state and national economy and projections for brightening skies have come with a host of caveats in recent years, and 2014 will be no exception, said Michael Goodman, co-editor of MassBenchmarks and associate professor of Public Policy and chair of the Department of Public Policy at UMass Dartmouth.
Such caveats include the global economy, which continues to be weak, with several European countries still struggling with massive debt issues, and especially that aforementioned ‘drag,’ which has the potential to become significant and slow the pace of progress, he said, before using some terms more suited for driving to effectively get his points across.
“When it comes to monetary policy, we have the pedal to the metal,” he told BusinessWest, referring to Federal Reserve policies intended to fuel confidence, bolster the markets, and generate growth. “But with fiscal policy, we have the emergency brake on.”
Indeed, while a year that gave us the dreaded fiscal cliff, sequestration, and a government shutdown is drawing to a close, he noted, the turmoil, partisan politics, and what he called “brinksmanship” on Capitol Hill remain, and there will be more recovery-threatening decisions to be made in the weeks and months to come.
“So how far is that car going to go?” he asked, returning to his analogy. “Given the recent track record, which isn’t incredibly encouraging, I think more of the same is the most sensible outlook.”
For this issue, BusinessWest takes its annual year-end look at the economy and the prospects for the future. The consensus is that, while this region appears to be picking up steam, there are still some big hills to climb.
As he talked with BusinessWest about the economy, the ongoing but limited recovery, and the forces that will shape the foreseeable future, Goodman summoned that old Chinese proverb (some would call it a curse): ‘may you live in interesting times.’
Some would use a different adjective to describe this period, but that term works, he said, adding that this has certainly been an intriguing time in which to watch the economy, discuss developments in the classroom, and attempt to make projections about what will happen next.
Clayton-Matthews agreed, and set the tone for his analysis by saying, “this has been a nightmare of a recession.”
And by that, he meant both the actual downturn, the so-called Great Recession, which officially ended toward the middle of 2009, and the often-painfully slow recovery that followed.
In many respects, it has been like the recession of the late ’80s and early ’90s — noted in Massachusetts for the loss of an entire industry (minicomputers), multiple bank failures, a 12% reduction in GDP, and an equally long and slow recovery period — but in some ways, especially the force of the turbulence confronting progress, it’s been worse.
But is the nightmare over?
That’s the $64,000 question, said Clayton-Matthews, adding that there are definitely signs that it might be.
These include three consecutive months of payroll growth registered in August, September, and October, he said, adding that, while the gains were outwardly not significant (perhaps 1.5%), they are made more impressive by the “significant headwinds coming from the federal government,” as he called them, referring to everything from sequestration to the shutdown.
“Considering all that, it’s nice that we’re having any payroll growth,” he said. “This is much faster growth than I was expecting.”
Clayton-Matthews said the payroll figures contradict, to some extent, household-survey results, which indicate that that there are fewer Massachusetts residents working now than at this time last year, but overall, he considers the payroll numbers more reliable, and he believes they translate into improving confidence and increased spending.
“It appears that both the national and state economies have been growing — not at a rapid rate, but they’ve been growing,” he said. “And that has been resulting in higher levels of employment and, therefore, household income, and the ability to spend and the willingness to spend.”
Cliff Noreen, president of Babson Capital, which has more than $188 billion in assets under management, agreed, offering this broad summation: “the U.S. economy continues to heal, but is not yet healthy.”
Elaborating, he said he has a host of numbers he can summon that would seem to justify optimism about the economy and where it’s heading, but also give credence to his belief that the healing process is far from over.
Meanwhile, government debt, which exceeded more than $1 trillion a year ago, is now down to $650 billion, he noted, adding that, while this number is still historically high, the drop is encouraging. Meanwhile, there was more good news in the November jobs report, which revealed that the economy is up 2.1 million jobs this year and unemployment fell to 7% for the first time in five years.
“It does seem like the economy is finally getting stronger,” he told BusinessWest. Every year, we sit here and we hear that the economy will be stronger next year, and it doesn’t get stronger. But this year, it appears the economy is actually strengthening, and we should be into a better economic environment in 2014.”
Looking ahead, based on data in the New England Economic Partnership forecast for Massachusetts, Clayton-Matthews expects employment growth to continue and accelerate through 2014 into 2015, largely because of those rising numbers for employment and income and the resulting trickle-down effect, and expectations that the drag from the federal government, while still a factor, will be less impactful.
By 2015, payroll growth in the Bay State is expected to hit 2%, he went on, adding that the growth will come across many sectors of the economy, but especially construction (especially as the housing market improves), professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, education, healthcare, and the ‘information,’ or technology, sector.
After 2015, payroll growth is expected to taper off, due mostly to the escalating number of retiring Baby Boomers (a phenomenon that presents another challenge for the Commonwealth and its employers), but the immediate future is looking more promising.
Work in Progress
But while the economic skies would seem to be brightening, there are many forces that could impede progress, said Goodman, adding quickly that many of these forces originate outside the borders of this state, and the country, for that matter.
And with that, he returned to what he called “ongoing political shenanigans” on Capitol Hill, and his analogy to hitting the gas at the same time the emergency brake is on.
“The Fed is doing everything in its power to encourage growth,” he said. “It’s keeping interest rates low, it’s making it more attractive to borrow, it’s increasing the monetary supply through quantitative easing … the Fed is just trying to snap us out of this by encouraging investment and sparking economic growth.
“But at the same time, we’ve been engaging in these austerity-related budget policies,” he went on. “We have sequestration, the inability of the federal government to even pass a budget, moving from continuing resolution to continuing resolution, which injects all kinds of uncertainty into important parts of the economy, and the periodic brinksmanship, which has had such a demonstrably negative impact on economic activity in the periods leading up to those moments of truth.”
Although the Senate eventually passed a budget last week, other challenges loom. In another eight to 10 weeks, the latest continuing resolution that allows the federal government to continue operating will come to an end, said Goodman, adding that the debt ceiling is also nearing its limit. Which means there are more moments of truth to come, and they make it extremely difficult to project what will happen nationally and regionally.
Meanwhile, the same is true for what’s happening — or not happening — overseas, he said, adding that the international economy remains weak, and its overall health is certainly something well beyond the control of state and national leaders.
But it bears watching because of the Bay State’s strong export economy and its vulnerability to adverse conditions in Asia and especially Europe, where more than 40% of the state’s exports wind up.
“That’s been a growth driver for the entire state, and it has allowed us to do, until quite recently, a bit better that the country as a whole,” he said, referring to what’s generally referred to as the ‘innovation economy.’ “We’ve grown a bit faster until very recently, and we’ve had quite a difficult time with employment, housing, and other areas, even though we’ve certainly had challenges.
“All of that is driven by businesses and consumer markets around the world purchasing our products and services,” he continued, listing everything from healthcare to computer technology. “All of these things have been driven by demand from around the world, and we don’t know what’s going to happen with that demand.”
Compounding this vulnerability is the general uncertainty, not to mention actual cutbacks, in federal spending resulting from sequestration and other austerity measures, he went on.
“The fuel for the innovation economy has been not just that international and national private demand, but also federal funds in the form of research dollars, government contracts, and government expenditures,” Goodman explained. “When we think about the Pioneer Valley and its precision-manufacturing base and its reliance on government funding, the changes that are taking place, with many of them resulting from government policy choices, are putting some downward pressure on demand and creating a lot of uncertainty.”
At the same time, there are some other forces at play with regard to the economy, he went on, noting, for example, that many of those aforementioned products and services being exported but also sold in this country are enabling businesses to effectively do more with less, meaning fewer employees, which is certainly contributing to tepid gains in employment.
Also, noted Hodge, Massachusetts is facing the difficult challenge of creating employment opportunities for those without a college education, who increasingly face the prospect of being left behind in this innovation economy.
Elaborating, he said the state’s unemployment rate is at essentially the same level as the rest of the country — 7%. But because this state has a higher percentage of people with college degrees than other states, its unemployment numbers are skewed toward those who are less educated.
“This is a big challenge for the state,” he said, adding that there are several initiatives being undertaken, and a workforce study involving the Donahue Institute and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission has been launched in an effort to identify strategies for enabling more members of this demographic to enter the workforce and stay in it. “One of the things we keep hearing is that there are some good programs out there, but they’re just not reaching enough people.
“The unemployment rate in Springfield is still over 10%, and it’s the same in Holyoke,” Hodge went on. “And the longer people are detached from the workforce, the less they see a future, and the harder it’s going to be for them. This is a big segment of the population, and it’s a largely untapped resource.”
The Bottom Line
When asked if it’s difficult to make a projection for the future of the regional and state economies, Clayton-Matthews laughed.
“It’s not difficult to make a projection,” he said, responding to the specific wording of the question. “But it is difficult to make an accurate projection.”
That’s because, while many arrows are pointing up, there are those headwinds to consider, as has been the case since the recession officially ended and the recovery, such as it is, began.
If all goes well — or at least better than it has — then that emergency brake Goodman mentioned may finally be taken off, and if it does, then the economy might actually be able to pick up some speed.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]