VLADIMIR: He didn't say for sure he'd come. ESTRAGON: And if he doesn't come? VLADIMIR: We'll come back tomorrow. ESTRAGON: And then the day after tomorrow. VLADIMIR: Possibly. ESTRAGON: And so on. "Waiting for Godot," by Samuel Beckett, Act I.
Like characters in a play by Beckett, Business leaders in the Washington region are waiting for The Recession of 1979 and 1980.
But this particular drama, which features the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries as the identified villain, may never be staged in Washington. For one thing, James Earl Carter Jr., who has the leading role as ever-hopeful hero, doesn't think much of this city.
In defending the current production, which has not been received well by the critics, Carter has stated that Washington is an "island," isolated from the true America.
While critics may have valid comments about this uneven recession drama, which can be sobering to some witnesses but a real and very painful experience to others, it is quite likely that the winds of autumn economic decline being felt throughout most of America will be only a zephyr in the Washington metropolitan area.
Business here looks good, even though costs of borrowing money are at record levels. Businesses based here expect some decline in growth rates for sales and profitability but nothing approaching the disastrous recession earlier in the decade, when local firms learned they had to tighten their belts a bit because Washington did not have quite the recession-proof economy of previous years.
Typical is the fiercely competitive local retail drug store business. The area's three major chains -- Peoples, Drug Fair and Dart -- have invested heavily to modernize their stores since the earlier recession, swallowing losses in the process of creating more productive and more profitable individual units.
Peoples Chairman Sheldon Fantle said last week his company "feels confident with the economy, not that we don't recognize the seriousness of all the negative signs on the horizon, but we are anticipating a minimal effect on our business," which he described as sort of a consumer necessity with neighborhood locations that are attractive for people who have to cut down on gasoline consumption.
Fantle, whose chain includes 399 stores from Ohio to Georgia, said the economic problems over the coming winter may require heavier promotions by Peoples to maintain or increase market shares, "but we do not see any significant softening at all."
Sales gains are ahead of projections and Fantle said Peoples is working on marketing strategies to maintain that pace in 1980.For example, Peoples units next month will move into promotion and sales of energy-saving devices and home health care items, "important since people will have less spendable income and they will do more in the confines of their home," Fantle said.
One device to be added in the Peoples aisles will be a blue-flame kerosene stove, approved by Underwriters Laboratories, and retailing at $39.99. In the health field, Peoples is adding electronic devices similar to acupuncture.
"There's less business to get. We've got to get more," said Fantle, with a true retailer's optimism.
Back up his assessment, virtually all of the key economic indicators here look healthy. The only major soft spots are automobile, restaurant and general retail sales.
Both Marriott Corp. and the Macke Co., which owns the Family Fish House chain, report a continued slowdown in restaurant business. Macke Chairman Meyer Gelfand said gasoline worries started the restaurant slowdown trend and the higher costs of food have continued the weakness. "But the rest of our business has not yet shown any significant impact of recession . . . although we do expect some problems in fiscal 1980," starting in October, he said. Cheverly-based Macke, engaged in food services and vending, expects a record year for the 12 months ending Sept. 30.
Marriott's Roy Rogers and Big Boy units also have suffered from a slowdown in business, which is evident across the country at both fast-food outlets and dinner houses. Some price-cutting at fast-food units has resulted.
In contrast, construction activity has been hectic here. Tourism and convention business has remained steady, even though summer gasoline worries cut down on some travel to the nation's capital. Employment is strong. Profits have been rising and many area companies have increased dividends they pay stockholders. Mergers, acquisitions and takeovers are topics at many board meetings, reflecting an environment of optimism about future business prospects.
Specifically, among key barometers of the local economic health:
RETAIL TRADE: Sales have not kept pace with an 11.4 percent increase in Washington area consumer prices over the past 12 months. For the first six months of the year, estimated sales at 104 area department stores rose just 6 percent to $674 million. Downtown D.C. department store sales were up by a similar amount and retailers do not expect a boom year. (See story, Page F14)
CONSTRUCTION -- REAL ESTATE: The honeymoon of soaring house prices here may be over but don't look for a decline in housing values. Record mortgage rates ranging from 11 percent to 12 percent have reduced traffic for local real estate brokers but more than 12,600 new housing units were started in the first seven months of 1979, 10,000 of which were single-family residences. The total value of all construction started in the area for the first seven months was $1.07 billion compared with about $800 million in the same period last year. (See story, Page F10)
DOWNTOWN: A true development boom is spreading across the District, at the heart of the metropolitan region, fueled by the rise of Washington as a capital for trade associations and professional offices. The office expansion, and a convention center for which groundbreaking is proposed next year, hold out hope that the once ailing D.C. economy can expect strong recovery in the 1980s. (See story, Page F13)
TOURISM: As gasoline shortages developed early in the summer, there were fears that Washington's tourism business would decline sharply. During July, tourism fell 15 percent on weekends compared with last year. Overall tourism revenues declined 5 percent that month. But a rebound began in August, and advance bookings indicate an unusually strong October-November convention season. Last week, 10,000 persons attended the American Chemical Society convention here. Overall, the number of visitors may be close to the record levels of 1978, said Austin Kenney of the Washington Convention and Visitors Association. Through July, D.C. hotel business was off only one percent from last year.
EMPLOYMENT: Area unemployment stood at 4.6 percent of the work force during July, better than the 4.8 percent level of a year earlier. In D.C., the rate of unemployment remains much higher, at 8.1 percent, but that was down from 8.5 percent a year ago. Altogether, an estimated 77,000 area residents couldn't find jobs in July, 27,300 of them D.C. residents. Overall area employment rose 26,000 over the recent year to 1.54 million civilian jobs.
A bonus to this generally healthy environment is the planned visit to Washington early next month by Pope John Paul II. While many hotel rooms remain available for the Pope's weekend trip on Oct. 6-7, area tourism business normally is very weak on fall weekends. The expected arrival here of thousands of visitors will add to revenues not only for hotels and restaurants but also taxi drivers and souvenier sales people, filtering throughout the region's economy.
If just 300,000 visitors came to see the Pope's mass on the Mall, and each spent an average of $30 during their stay, that means $9 million of business and tax revenues -- more than offsetting the estimated costs to the city and federal governments of under $2 million for such services as extra police duty. And the actual count of visitors could be much higher.
As Thomas Owen, chairman of Perpetual Federal Savings and Loan Association, said last week: "The local economy is very, very strong. New savings flows are terrible, but that's not all that unusual when competing interest rates are so high. I'm very pleased to be a businessman in the Washington metropolitan area."
At Southern Railway, a Washington firm whose business base is quite a bit broader -- the country's southeastern states -- President Stanley Crane had a similar assessment. "Although everyone predicted a downturn in business, and we had thought there would be one, too . . . there is no strong evidence up to this point." Rail freight shipments are marginally above 1978 levels through early September, added Crane, whose firm continues to study a proposed merger with the Norfolk & Western.
Of course, average Washingtonians and businesses here are not immune to the powerful punch of inflation, which has fueled national recession. Inflation has eroded the resources of every business and family. As spendable income has gone downhill, area residents have started to be more careful about what they buy. Savings account money is being withdrawn, often to finance current bills.
While business at restaurants is off substantially, consumers also are cutting back on some grocery store purchases to offset price increases for necessities, thus holding overall food spending steady by purchasing fewer items. The combined effect of these developments would appear to show that Washingtonians are now eating less food than a year ago -- a weird juxtaposition, perhaps, of the inflation impact as well as dieting and more active physical exercise, such as jogging.
The sluggish retail sales growth probably means there will be less employment of part-time workers for the traditional holiday sales season.
For this reason, as well as the absence of major retail expansion at this time, which helped boost area payrolls in previous years, overall metropolitan unemployment is expected to follow national trends and begin inching higher.
Few persons with jobs here today are expected to be out of work as recession moves through the broader national economy. But persons looking for work, especially young blacks in the District, face a bleak winter. Relatively poor citizens in the overall affluent environment of Washington will find recession just as painful as Americans out of work or on low incomes anywhere else.
As D.C. resident Wilma Jones explained to a Washington Post reporter, when interviewed at the supermarket about coping with food price increases: "Prices go up every week . . . my children say, 'Momma, all ya buy is liver and hamburger.' But there aint's nothing we can do. People gotta eat."
In addition, continued increases in minimum wages are having an adverse impact on employment. One of the area's largest private employers, Mariott, has reduced employment hours dramatically to help balance the higher labor costs for its young workers at the lowest wage scales.
Thomas Burke, vice president for corporate affairs at Mariott, said his firm cut 2 million man-hours off its employment schedules last year. The average Marriott restaurant employe (counting full- and part-time) worked 30 hours a week in 1977 but now is on the job only 25 hours a week.
The problem is national and local. Over a four-year period, under a law enacted by Congress, the federal minimum wage rose to $2.90 an hour last year, goes to $3.10 on Jan. 1 and $3.35 at the beginning of 1981. In D.C., the minimum wage for part-time restaurant workers is the highest in the country at $2.93 an hour.
Marriott, a large hotel, restaurant and airline catering firm with international revenues of more than $1 billion a year, "has contracted across the board," Burke stated. In D.C., about a dozen restaurant units have been closed in the past two years as profits were reduced substantially by higher wage costs. Several hundred persons have lost jobs with Marriott and other workers have had their hours and take-home pay reduced.
"Jobs available have been reduced and we have stopped filling some positions," added Burke, whose firm has about 60,000 employes -- more than 10,000 in the D.C. area.
Manpower, Inc., a large temporary employment firm, has recently gathered data for a quarterly survey of hiring trends in the Washington area and throughout the country.
According to preliminary information from the survey, to be published in about a week, large employers anticipate little hiring in the final three months of the year. About 55 percent of employers see no change in their payrolls, 12 percent expect layoffs (up from 9 percent a year ago) and 26 percent plan to add personnel (down from 30 percent).
According to Manpower spokesman James Casale, the trend toward a slowdown in hiring plans became evident six months ago and has accelerated in forecasts for the October-December quarter. All sectors of the economy are affected except mining, wholesale-retail trade (which normally adds to payrolls for the holiday season) and education (where employment always picks up in winter months).
In addition to general economic trends, Washington area businessmen have little enthusiasm for the Carter administration. They blame overall economic woes, to a large extent, on what they perceive as an absence of government leadership. It would be fair to describe the local business community as pessimistic and resigned -- not about the resilient local economy but about future prospects for the country as a whole.
A prominent local businessman, whose favorite politician was Adlai Stevenson, recalled last week that a colleague had expressed surprise when the executive said he would welcome former Texas governor John Connally as next resident of the White House. "I don't have to like him or agree with him, but he would be a president . . . there would be leadership," said the businessman, who actually prefers George Bush.
Potomac Electric Power Co. Chariman W. Reid Thompson described this mood in a talk with D.C. area bankers earlier this summer. He looked back over the 100-year history of the light bulb, in which technological advances went "beyond the dreams" of Americans 100 years ago.
Given the same opportunities for future advance today, but little evident optimism and few dreams, what America suffers is not a money crisis, an oil crisis or a technology crisis, but "a crisis of the spirit," Thompson stated.
Last week, as the prime rate for major bank customers such as Pepco rose to a startling 13 percent, Thompson said he sees "no relief for many months ahead" in terms of high interest rates (he predicted they would climb even higher) and "no signs of amelioration of inflation."
The federal government is in "substantial disarray" but the problems of energy and inflation are "exceedingly difficult," the utility executive added. Thompson said he is "not sure" how these difficulties can be solved but he would "like to try" having a government that would make an attempt at solutions.
While waiting for recession and trying to measure its potential impact, local business leaders appear to be waiting for a change in government before they expect any new approaches to the inflationary spiral that has caused the current malaise.