What’s ahead for Oregon’s economy? The forecast is mixed.
By Jon Bell
The classic Oregon winter: pale, sometimes oppressive gray clouds, endless chilly drizzle, a surprise storm here or there, and the occasional fleeting sun break that someday — someday — will win out and usher in true spring.
Metaphorically, what some might dub Oregon’s drabbest season stands in nicely for how the state’s economic climate and business scene is likely to shape up in the coming 12 months. Like heavy gray skies that linger too long, the worst of the Great Recession — unemployment, weak housing, tight credit — will continue to hang around, dampening and darkening the near term.
Unexpected natural disasters or global pressures that turn for the worse could stir up the seas again.
But a few small bright spots — think manufacturing and hospitality jobs, solid exports and continued dominance in athletic apparel — will help pierce the gray and provide at least a little relief, even if another cloud is just about to roll in.
About 12 months ago, the economy in Oregon was showing signs of relative strength. Though economic recovery was slow and weak, it was nonetheless recovery. Job losses were down and federal stimulus spending was still shoring up state and local governments, preventing layoffs and maintaining services. But about halfway through 2011, the economy began to sputter.
“We’re kind of caught in between periods of optimism and pessimism,” says Tim Duy, director of the Oregon Economic Forum. “Every time something good happens and you think, this is it, something else happens and pulls us back. That volatility is what’s creating the split between optimism and pessimism.”
In the first half of 2011, Oregon was outperforming the nation, says Joe Cortright, president and principal economist for Impresa, a Portland consulting firm. “But the recovery has lost momentum in the last six months or so, and we’re kind of in risky territory right now.”
Much of what was behind the mid-year and continued slumping was, essentially, more of what’s been hindering the economy all along. The housing market remains almost at a standstill compared to where it was a few years ago. According to the University of Oregon’s most recent Index of Economic Indicators, residential building permits fell below 600 in August — the first time that’s happened in more than a year. The state’s Office of Economic Analysis (OEA) also reported in September that housing-related industries had been adding just 50 jobs per month over the past year; in other recent years, that number was 575 jobs per month.
“The housing market is still very depressed,” Cortright says, adding that home prices are down about 5% this year and between 20% and 25% of homeowners in Oregon and the U.S. are underwater on their mortgages. Typical recoveries in the past have been powered largely by lower interest rates and a housing market that takes off. That hasn’t happened this time around.
Also fueling the slowdown were higher gas and commodity prices, continued pressure in the financial markets, uncertainty in foreign markets like China and Europe and what the OEA dubbed “public-sector pullback.” In most recessions, the public sector feels the impacts later than the private sector. This time was no different, particularly as federal stimulus funds helped maintain state and local government employees and services. Those funds, however, began to taper off this year, and the results have been noticeable in layoffs of teachers and government employees.
According to the OEA, the public sector normally adds 350 jobs each month, but over the past year it has cut 475 every month. Since September 2010 alone, the government sector has shed 7,900 jobs, according to the Oregon Employment Department.
“There had been federal money to put off those kinds of adjustments,” says Tom Potiowsky, a professor of economics and chair of the economics department at Portland State University. “That’s not here anymore. State and local governments are making serious cuts, and state and local government workers spend money in the economy just like everybody else.”
Such factors have set the stage for a coming year that’s not likely to show marked improvements over this one. For starters, housing is expected to continue to lag, and with that comes continued hits to jobs in construction, financing, real estate and other ancillary fields.
“In 2012, I think housing is just going to limp along and maybe marginally improve,” Potiowsky says. “You’re not going to see any huge increase in building.”
That will extend some of the pain that many of Oregon’s smaller forest products communities have been feeling for years.
“As a whole, the wood products industry is still dependent on the larger economy,” says Larry Holzgang, a business development officer for Business Oregon in Josephine, Jackson, Lake, and Harney and Klamath counties. “Some of our wood products and secondary wood products companies are still struggling, and that’s not going to turn around until the entire housing and construction industry in the entire United States does.”
Unemployment, which was at 9.6% in September, had dropped from 10.7% the year before, but it still remained flat through this past summer and above the national rate of 9.1%. Potiowsky says that’s not likely to change much in the months ahead and job growth on the whole will be slow.
Economists and policymakers are also concerned about conditions in foreign markets and how they could impact Oregon. For starters, the European debt crisis, involving countries such as Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy, threatens to spiral out of control. If it does, Oregon’s European export trade could be constricted. Duy sees an even bigger problem if the European debt crisis results in further tightening of international credit markets.
Another foreign market of concern is China. At present, China is Oregon’s biggest export destination; about $4 billion of Oregon’s $17.7 billion in exports in 2010 went to China. Any slowdown in the Chinese economy could impact Oregon, and there are concerns that China may be harboring a real estate bubble and a bigger economic slowdown than the country is letting on. In addition, political tensions over the value of Chinese currency could potentially lead to higher tariffs on Oregon exports to the country.
Despite many of the more pessimistic factors coloring the coming year — and not considering any major unexpected events, such as the Japanese tsunami that rippled through the world economy in 2011 — the overall outlook still calls for very modest economic growth in the U.S. and in Oregon in 2012 of about 2% to 3%. The prospect of another recession has some economists, like Duy, worried. Others are a little more optimistic if still a bit wary.
“We are pretty much two years into this recovery,” Potiowsky says. “I don’t believe that we’re going to fall back into a recession, but this slow, agonizing growth is going to be with us through 2012.”
In Oregon, there are several bright areas that have not only done well in recent times, but are likely to continue to remain strong in the year ahead. The state’s exports are almost back to their pre-recession level and in 2010 were up more than 18% over the prior year. Exports of computer processors and integrated circuits from the likes of Intel continue to top the list by far, but other exports, such as aircraft parts, scrap metal and wood, have all increased as well. That growth could taper a bit in 2012, but it should still remain strong.
Manufacturing has also seen some uptick as well. According to the Oregon Employment Department, there were 167,500 manufacturing jobs in Oregon in September 2011, an increase of almost 4% over last year. At the end of October, Daimler Trucks North America announced it was hiring 350 new factory workers and 75 people for its Portland headquarters after sales of its heavy trucks increased. Similarly, Precision Castparts, a Portland manufacturer of metal parts for the aerospace and other industries, announced a surge in second quarter sales and plans for new hiring in the near future. Intel, too, has surged ahead with construction of its new research facility in Hillsboro, which will employ up to 8,000 construction workers over the next two years and create 800 to 1,000 new jobs when it opens in 2013.
“A lot of our leading traded sector companies are more bullish by the day,” says Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association. “They are expanding, not retrenching. It’s more like the late 1990s.”
Deckert, who met with officials from Facebook in October to talk about their investment in Oregon and their operation in Prineville, says the state’s apparel cluster — comprising companies like Nike, Adidas, Columbia Sportswear, Keen and Icebreaker — shows no signs of slowing down.
“The customers are out there, and [the companies] are winning the battles with the competition everywhere,” Deckert says. “Our sports apparel companies are just really good. Customers from around the world have choices, and they like our brands.”
Leisure and hospitality jobs have been on the rise, and Potiowsky says some pent-up consumer spending might continue to help that sector in 2012. That’s good, Duy notes, but the flip side is that those jobs are relatively low-wage.
Although housing is down and will continue to be in 2012, there have been some gains in multi-family housing as the demand for rental units has increased.
“We’re seeing a little bit of life in new apartment construction,” Cortright says. “It’s small, but it’s something.”
Dennie Houle, a business development officer working on the northern Oregon Coast for Business Oregon, says the smaller coastal towns have their own struggles, but promising opportunities have begun to sprout. A stronger fishing industry in Alaska and across the Pacific has recently helped spark the coast’s ship repair business. Portland General Electric has proposed a new natural-gas-fired generation plant in Clatskanie, and the Port of Newport is in the middle of a $10 million project that will add a new commercial fishing dock and a log crane to help load logs being exported from Oregon.
“In some ways, folks are cautiously thinking that the corner maybe has been turned,” Houle says. “I think they see some growth in the next year.”
In Southern Oregon, Holzgang sees a similar outlook and scene. Although Panel Products, a Milwaukie plywood company, closed its Rogue River mill in 2009, Eugene-based Murphy Co. bought it in early 2010 and has since reopened it. It now employs more than 100. Radio Design Group, a small radio frequency products company, also broke ground on a new headquarters and manufacturing center in Grants Pass in April. When completed, the new building will accommodate Radio Design’s plans for growth, including 15 new employees.
“There are little pockets of bright spots where people are having some luck,” Houle says. “I think that we’ll continue to find those as we move into the new year.”
Other companies, he adds, may not be hiring or doing as well as they once did, but they’ve continued to invest in equipment and facilities so that they’re ready to go if and when the tide does finally turn.
One other factor that could also impact the business and economic climate in Oregon in 2012 is the Legislature. Revenue for the biennium was forecasted at $13.9 billion in September and was expected to remain flat or just slightly lower at the next forecast in November. Beyond that, however, Deckert says a few major votes could have long-term impacts.
The first concerns Oregon’s efforts at health-care transformation and would approve the creation of Coordinated Care Organizations to serve the state’s Medicaid population. The CCOs could alter how health care is delivered in Oregon and potentially save a decent sum of cash. The Legislature is also expected to review and potentially approve the business plan for the state’s health insurance exchange [see Diagnosis Unknown], which might also play a role in curbing health-care costs long-term. Deckert says the Legislature also will likely consider proposals and legislation brought by the Oregon Education Investment Board. Established last spring, the OEIB is charged with creating a new governance system for investing in and delivering public education, which will ultimately have impacts on businesses and the economy here as well.
“Some state in this country is going to have to show that you can govern effectively and still take on tough issues that can have a huge impact on the economy and on businesses,” Deckert says. “We think Oregon can be the state that does that.”