'07's Nearly Perfect Predictor

By Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008

James C. Dinegar won the 2007 Local Economy Challenge, as he best predicted how the region would fare last year. When he entered the contest last January, he was the newly named leader of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which represents business interests in the region.

Apparently, he learned fast. His prediction of unemployment rates in the District and Maryland was perfect, and he was only off by 0.1 percentage points on Virginia's rate. He correctly predicted that job growth would slow significantly.

"I spent the first four months on the job talking to a lot of people. Bankers, economists, nonprofit leaders," Dinegar said. "Maybe I just picked it up by osmosis. This spot does give you a fairly good read on where things are going."

There appears to be something in the water at the board. The second most accurate projections came from Tim Priest, who then headed the Greater Washington Initiative, a marketing affiliate of the Board of Trade. (Priest has since left the organization for a job in Oregon.) And the No. 4 finisher in the contest was William Couper, president of Bank of America in the Washington regon, and this year's Board of Trade chairman.

There is no trophy or prize for winning the challenge, just a year's worth of bragging rights. "I accept this awesome responsibility," Dinegar said of his newly won crown. "I will not hire an agent, because I'm sure demand will be manageable. Perhaps infinitesimal."

Dinegar wasn't the only winner. We also invited readers to enter their projections at washingtonpost.com. The most accurate People's Challenge participant was Bryan Osborn, 28, of Silver Spring, who made near-perfect predictions of regional economic growth, the Maryland unemployment rate, the number of housing permits and local inflation.

Osborn is a scientific programmer for Metron, a Reston-based defense contractor. His background is in physics. So did he come up with a sophisticated computer model to predict how the region would do?

"I just sort of looked at the questions and used common sense," he said. "I do read the Economist. I read it cover-to-cover before I had kids. Now I'm lucky to get to the leader."

So what do the winners predict for next year? They can't both be right. Dinegar is the most optimistic of our 23 entrants, forseeing an acceleration of job growth and a generally good year. Osborn is one of the most pessimistic, expecting joblessness to rise and significantly lower home prices.

But maybe we shouldn't lend too much credence to their projections. Kathleen Walsh Carr, president of Cardinal Bank of Washington, won the 2006 challenge but was one of the less-accurate predictors of 2007. Katherine Bierlein, the young lawyer who won last year's readers' contest, came in last place.

It is, apparently, the local economics version of the Sports Illustrated cover jinx.

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