June is normally an occasion for mid-year economic reviews. This year, the cynics can rightfully say there isn't much of an economy to review.
There is evidence of recession around the globe for the balance of 1980, with the U.S. economy performing at the second-worst levels since World War II. With an election five months away, the Carter administration is stirring up a concoction of economics and politics to help guarantee four more years in power.
A look at metropolitan Washington at midyear, however, indicates that the local region is escaping a steep decline. Indeed, there may be no recession here at all. Business and economic activity remains strong in many sectors and is weak elsewhere. There are even geographic divisions at work, with Northern Virginia continuing a rather healthy growth, D.C. stagnant and suburban Maryland affected more by the national downturn because of massive industrial layoffs throughout the Free State.
Black & Decker, General Motors, Chessie System, Bethlehem Steel, Mack Trucks and Kelley-Springfield Tire all have had layoffs in Maryland. mThe Eastern Shore poultry business is weak. In Virginia, Norfolk & Western has trimmed its payroll temporarily.
But overall there is no real economic decline in the metropolitan area and Washington once again may prove it is recession-proof, as promotional brochures like to say it. That's one side of a two-edged sword.
On the other side, it can be said that the Washington area also is boom-proof. The era of great expansion is the 1960s and early 1970s is over and the local economy is in the midst of what appears to be a prolonged period of painfully slow economic expansion.
This scenario, which shows up in economic data for recent years and in a new study by Eunice and George Grier for the Greater Washington Research Center, poses many problems for local businesses and government planners. For example, we are not likely to see in the 1980s the explosion of regional shopping malls that Washington experienced in the past decade.
Local retailers will try to improve the sales and profitability of existing units but will search outside the District and its suburbs for real expansion. uExamples include Woodward & Lothrop's march into the Baltimore market, Hechinger opening stores in Richmond and Garfinckel's entry into Annapolis.
Analysts for the big mortgage banking firm of Walker & Dunlop have found much good news in these trends. Rising incomes and smaller households that typify Washingtonians today offer "significant opportunities for business growth and local government efficiency," states the company in its quarterly newsletter.
"The relatively sharp growth in households compared with population (which is growing very slowly) as a whole is good for housing -- particularly energy-efficient higher-density, smaller units -- and good for the core jurisdictions of the metropolitan area -- the District, Alexandria and Arlington," Walker & Dunlop adds.
The new households, often with one or two persons, call for fewer expensive public services such as schools, but contribute heavily to government revenue through income and property taxes, often from two wage earners. Some 400,000 area households, more than a third of the area total, earn more than $30,000 a year. In the other nine largest U.S. markets, the number of households with income in excess of $30,000 averaged just 18.6 percent.
These households spend far above the national and already high local per capita averages on consumer goods, food, entertainment, clothes and real estate, and are attracted to employment and cultural activities here.
Some of these propensities show up in recent economic data on the Washington area. Among key indicators of the local economy:
Retail sales overall were up about 10 percent in the first quarter of 1980 compared with last year, although sales were off in April. The area consumer price index, due out tomorrow from the Labor Department, is likely to show that area prices rose at a slightly higher level during the past year.
Although Washington has a reputation for inflation and affluence that go hand-in hand, area prices rose at an annual rate of 11.8 in the most recent six months compared with 12.8 percent nationally.
Savings money has started to flow back to area thrift institutions, and the savings and loan associations, in turn, have more money to lend for mortgages so they have lowered their interest rates.
According to the Metropolitan Washington Savings and Loan League, data for 21 D.C. and Maryland members show that savings receipts in May of $333.8 million topped withdrawals of $302 million by $42.6 million -- a reversal of massive withdrawals since last year. More than $46 million of new mortgages were settled in May, down sharply from $101 million a year ago because of high rates.
Area S&Ls, banks and mortgage firms surveyed by Victor Peeke & Associates last week had posted average mortgage rates of 12 3/8 percent for 80 percent financing, down from 16 1/2 percent two months ago. No.1 Perpetual Federal S&L listed an 11 7/8 percent mortgage rate, down from a peak at 17 percent, while National Permanent Federal went to 11 3/4 percent.
Construction activity has remained strong but down from last year, with 3,647 new housing units started in the first quarter and total construction started valued at $209 million. Employment in all construction is down to 72,900 from 79,300 a year ago, with commercial-industrial building activity having slowed sharply over the winter before rebounding in recent months.
Sales of new houses rose sharply in May after a dull April to a level higher than in 1979. Resale housing volume also gained but was still down 37 percent from a year ago. With the prime rate sinking below 12 percent, builders are moving to renew construction of some delayed projects.
Tourism is down slightly in the metropolitan area, with hotel room sales off about 4 percent from last year -- 62 percent occupancy in the first quarter vs. 66 percent a year ago. But hotel food sales rose 7 percent and beverage sales rose 10 percent, according to Laventhol & Horwath's monthly surveys.
Moreover, the U.S. Travel Data Center said that attendance at private tourist attractions in the greater Washington region rose 25 percent in the first quarter, the largest increase in the nation.
Stock prices of major Washington area corporations, as measured by a 30-stock index of Johnston, Lemon & Co. Inc., have been climbing steadily since April after a sharp decline early this year. On Friday, the J-L 30 index was 121.809 vs. 120.595 a week earlier and under 100 in April. Standard & Poor's Corp., in its midyear review, said last week that stocks will reach a record high near the end of 1980 -- after some erratic ups and downs in between.
One of the most basic measures of the local economy is overall employment, which has remained unusually strong. Area joblessness declined by 3,700 between March and April to 3.8 percent of the work force. Employment is up 26,000 from a year ago to 1,535,600.
The major area problem remains D.C., where unemployment was 6 percent in April; still, D.C. employment is up 1,600 in the past year to $294,700. Areawide gains in services, transportation, communications, utilities, finance, insurance, manufacturing and real estate more than offset declines in construction, retail/wholesale trade and government.
Looking ahead, help-wanted measures point to slow job growth in coming months but no decline. The Conference Board's help-wanted newspaper classified ad index plummeted in April; the D.C. area index declined to 124 (1967100) from 154 in march and 1970 a year ago.
A new survey released this morning by Manpower Inc., the Milwaukee-based temporary help firm, shows that just 20 percent of area employers plan to hire additional workers in the next three months compared with 30 percent a year ago. Staff reductions are planned by 7 percent (vs. 3 percent last year) and 64 percent plan no change (vs. 62 percent)
Significantly fewer D.C. employers plan to expand payrolls: 15 percent as compared with 42 percent a year ago. In suburban Maryland, Montgomery County employers are more optimistic -- 25 percent plan to hire, up from 18 percent -- than their counterparts in Prince George's County; (14 percent plan to expand, down from 25 percent, while 8 percent plan layoffs).
As in other measurements, Northern Virginia is the strongest component of the area's economy when it comes to hiring plans: 30 percent plan to add to payrolls in the next three months (off from 40 percent last year), according to the Manpower survey.
Separately, the executive recruiting firm of Boyden Associates Inc., reports that Washington has barely been affected by the economy, in terms of demand for executive employment and in contrast with manufacturing centers, where a decline is evident. The D.C. area momentum is based on demands for corporate government affairs specialists, Boyden said.
The data do not add up to recession now or in the near future, although the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government issued an "economic alert" last week that claimed recession had begun.COG's effort represents the beginnings of the first detailed, regular quarterly report on area economic statistics -- something long missing but needed here.
And the report stated that the region's economy had moved into mild recession during the six months from October to March, based on a comparison of seven indicators with similar data for the nation as a whole. The measures included are mortgage rates, employment, retail sales, retail employment, construction employment, commercial construction activity and the consumer price index.
Partly because the COG data used national indexes as comparisons when describing the onset of mild recession here, that description should be taken with a grain of salt. Washington area economic trends often are at variance with the nation as a whole and are highly seasonal in nature; (real estate activity normally declines over the winter, along with retail sales, for example).
At mid-year, it is fair to say that we've gone through a sharp slowdown in business and economic expansion locally but not a real recession.