4 posts from September 2013

Housing recovery? Let’s say “improvement”

In the rush to put the bad days of recession and slow recovery behind us, there are many news accounts of recovering housing markets. But recovery is a matter of economic context. Recovered compared to what? Housing sales, prices and construction have all been rising of late, but it helps to see the path recently taken.

Through August of this year, for example, Ninth District states have seen single-family housing permits rise by 22 percent over the same period a year ago, just a tick off the national average of 24 percent. Performance of individual states ranged from North Dakota (9 percent growth) to Montana (37 percent). North Dakota’s modest growth belies surging growth in housing; the state didn’t have near the drop in permits experienced by other states during the recession and is currently at record levels, having seen strong annual growth since 2009.

But North Dakota aside, permits fell so far during the recession that it’s hard to deem the most recent period a recovery. In 2004, for example, almost 21,000 single-family housing units were authorized in Minnesota through August of that year—the most ever at the time or since. By 2009, it was barely 4,000. This year, it’s back up to more than 7,000 so far through August. That’s certainly an improvement, but not likely back to full health.

Part of the problem is not knowing what a healthy housing market looks like. Post-recession, it would appear that the pre-recession housing boom was not normal or healthy. And if that’s the case, then a full recovery might not be as far off as pre-recession permit levels might suggest.

Building permits thru August -- 9-26-13

Little GDP engines that could: District metros see strong growth

Metropolitan regions now account for more than 90 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Given their economic and geographic diversity, metros offer a more detailed look at growth across states and the nation—one which shows that metros in the Ninth District are generally seeing faster growth.

Nationwide, 305 of 383 metropolitan regions (80 percent) saw economic growth in 2012. In the Ninth District, 13 of 15 metros grew last year, or almost 87 percent, and two of three district metros beat the national average of 2.5 percent (see left chart). A large region encompassing much of the lower half of Minnesota—including the Twin Cities, St. Cloud, Rochester and Mankato metros—saw growth over 3 percent (see map, at bottom).

But as has become the norm, North Dakota metros were leading the metro pack, with Bismarck at the top at 8.5 percent growth last year, one of the top rates in the country. The region is seeing spillover effects from strong growth in the Bakken oil shale region to the west. Other shale regions are also seeing explosive growth; in the Eagle Ford oil shale region of Texas, the metros of Midland and Odessa both saw growth of 14 percent.

There were two district metros whose economies shrank last year: Duluth, Minn., and Great Falls, Mont. The source of contraction is hard to determine exactly. In the case of Duluth, the city and broader region experienced a major flood in June, which likely dampened economic activity, particularly tourism; the previous two years it had experienced annual growth near 3 percent.

Last year’s growth among district metros continued a general trend in outperforming metros elsewhere. Over the previous three years, 11 of the district’s 15 metros had faster annual growth than the national average (see right chart).

GDP of metros -- CH1-2

GDP metro MAP - 9-18-13

Manufacturing outlook: U.S. catching up with Ninth District

It took all summer, but the nation’s manufacturers appear to have finally caught the sector’s good vibe already present for the better part of a year in three Ninth District states.

The Mid-America Business Conditions Index, put out monthly by Creighton University, shows that the overall outlook of manufacturers in district states where the poll is conducted continues to be upbeat, with Minnesota scoring the highest at 59 (above 50 indicates expansion, and below 50 indicates contraction). After declining steadily through the first half of the year, the overall U.S. score turned notably upward in July and August, ending at almost 56.

Employment sentiment has been more volatile, especially in the Dakotas, where the manufacturing base is comparatively small but reaping the benefits of strong state economies. U.S. employment sentiment has risen almost to the level of district states, which have declined of late, with all scores falling between 53 and 55.

Mid-America -- September survey -- 9-11-13

West-central Minnesota is manufacturing strong job growth

While pundits and policymakers loudly mourn the general loss of manufacturing jobs, the west-central region of Minnesota has quietly enjoyed robust job growth in this sector.

From 1990 to 2012, the nation saw a continuation of the downward trend in manufacturing jobs. That trend was exacerbated by the Great Recession, which hit manufacturing states like Minnesota and Wisconsin hard. Minnesota has experienced a small uptick in manufacturing jobs in recent years, but not nearly enough to offset the losses just from the Great Recession.

But a nine-county region in west-central Minnesota—a federally designated economic development planning district bureaucratically referred to as Minnesota EDR4—has seen job growth above and beyond the recession’s downturn. These nine counties (Becker, Clay, Douglas, Grant, Otter Tail, Pope, Stevens, Traverse and Wilkin) have seen their manufacturing job base increase by 53 percent from 1990 to 2012. That contrasts with a national decline of 33 percent over the same period (see Chart 1).

Much of that growth occurred during the 1990s; in Minnesota, manufacturing jobs grew by almost 60,000 during the decade, and the “R4” region similarly grew by about 2,500 jobs, hitting close to 10,000. But over the next decade-plus, Minnesota manufacturing saw a steady decline, shedding about 95,000 jobs—about one in four—by 2012. But the R4 region grew another 15 percent over the same period.

Wages have also grown in the region, though their performance is less compelling. Since 1990, average weekly (inflation-adjusted) manufacturing wages have grown by about 36 percent both nationwide and for the R4 region (see Chart 2). However, there remains a considerable gap in actual weekly pay in the region compared with the national average for manufacturing workers.

West-central MN manufacturing jobs CH 1-2 -- 9-3-13

What makes for this island of good manufacturing activity? There are likely many reasons, including industry composition, available labor, transportation access and prevailing wage scales, which are lower in the region compared to the national average.

West Central Initiative (WCI), a nonprofit organization that provides financial support for worker training in the region, credits part of the success to intensive workforce development and training by employers. Regular surveys on business outcomes from employee training are conducted in the region by an independent firm and facilitated by Enterprise Minnesota, a manufacturing consulting organization and one of 59 federal Manufacturing Extension Partnership affiliates. These surveys suggest that training efforts often paid off for companies. Another recent study of labor turnover from 2006 to 2011, commissioned by WCI, also found that average labor turnover among regional firms participating in training programs was lower and statistically significant in 22 of 23 quarters studied. Sources in the region credit organic growth as well as growth from acquisition.

WCI identified about 30 companies with 100 or more employees in the region, and that size has allowed some to grow by acquisition.

“Growth accelerates with growth,” according to Bill Martinson, a business development adviser with Enterprise Minnesota. “As companies get bigger, they accumulate more human and capital resources with which to do things. A big boost is the ability to do acquisitions. We didn’t see acquisitions until the last few years.” Martinson added that many of the companies are now supplying multinational corporations, “which makes them less susceptible to a weakened U.S. economy.”