Although buffeted more than usual by the recent recession, metropolitan Washington's service-oriented economy appears to be in a stronger position than most to rebound from the downturn.
Still, manufacturing--which bore the brunt of the recession--is expected to lead the national recovery, and manufacturing accounts for only a small part of the area's economy.
Locally, where the recovery might be expected to take a more gradual pace, officials cite relatively strong performances among most leading economic indicators. At the same time, however, they acknowledge there is growing concern that interest rates could put a damper on their optimistic outlook.
Actually, high interest rates, which dampened consumer spending and stalled the housing market in some areas, and persistent high unemployment among District residents produced the only genuine weak spots in the region's economy at the height of the recession.
In sharp contrast to the national unemployment rate, which appears to be leveling off at 9.5 percent, the jobless rate in the District, which hit 11.3 percent in July, shows little or no sign of improving any time soon. If anything, say officials of the D.C. Department of Employment Services, the city's unemployment rate could edge higher before gradually declining next year.
Although area business and government leaders worry that interest rates might take off again, most sectors of the region's economy appear to be gaining strength as the recovery takes hold. Only high unemployment among District residents continues as a serious economic problem.
"We do not expect to see a major turnaround in the next few months in the District," said an official in the D.C. Department of Employment Services. "The rate will probably stay where it is or increase slightly."
Seasonably adjusted, the unemployment rate in the District rose from 10.2 percent in June to 10.6 percent in July, the last month for which statistics are available.
In Washington's suburbs, meanwhile, the employment situation has steadily improved. The latest figures show that the rate for the entire metropolitan area was around 5 percent in July, down 0.1 percent from the previous month.
But officials in most suburban jurisdictions now report unemployment in the range of 3 to 3.5 percent. In Montgomery County, for example, the decline has reached a level which prompted officials to declare last week that close to full employment existed in most areas.
In the first half of 1983, Montgomery gained about 3,500 jobs, an increase of roughly 1 percent. And "we suspect that the job market may grow in the next six months," said Daniel Lucas, assistant to the director of finance.
While 1 percent may not be considered a substantial gain, the average increase in employment in 1982 was the equivalent of 10 jobs, described by one county official as essentially unchanged.
Meanwhile, a survey which was just completed by a leading national employment firm indicates employers in metropolitan Washington expect to substantially increase hiring in the final three months of 1983. The quarterly employment outlook survey, conducted by Manpower Inc., shows that 32 percent of those polled plan to hire more workers. Only 8 percent said they expect to reduce their staffs.
A similar survey conducted about the same time last year showed that 24 percent planned to expand their workforces and 22 percent contemplated reductions.
While Manpower describes the employment outlook in the suburbs as optimistic or stable, it carefully avoids any mention of the situation in the District.
Even if there hadn't been a recession, the District would still probably have an unemployment problem, explained a city manpower official.
"After the last recession, the District had a continuing increase in unemployment," the official recalled. "In terms of the national turnaround, the recovery is being led by manufacturing. The District has no manufacturing."
Indeed, part of the problem lies in the fact that government, traditionally the biggest employer here, has been somewhat of a declining industry, the official added.
"I think, clearly, from looking at some of the data, layoffs by the federal government have had a dampening effect on employment in the District. About 90 percent of the decline in federal employment, which began between 1980 and 1981, has been in the District.
"Overall, going back to 1980, federal job loss in the area has been about 20,000, and about 18,000 of that has been in the District. Basically, what happened in the city over the last five years is, overall there was a slight decrease in jobs. During the recent recession, there were no significant layoffs; just no increases in jobs."
The problem is even more serious among youths and blacks--a combination that mirrors the serious unemployment situation in most large cities.
On a more positive note, however, local manpower officials note an increase in federal employment in recent months. On the other hand, what is described as "some downward movement" in private-sector hiring in the District is not an encouraging sign.
A more diversified employment base in the suburbs is cause for more optimism, however.
For example, construction activity has increased rather substantially in the suburbs, where the demand for housing is keeping pace with more acceptable interest rates. The short-term outlook for home sales in Washington's suburbs is considered favorable also for the same reasons.
In fact, the recent downturn had a "negligible impact" on housing sales in Northern Virginia, reported Joe Hayden, an official with the Northern Virginia Board of Realtors. But, Hayden cautioned, "there is a threshhold out there" in the interest rate people are willing to pay. He estimated it may be around 13.5 percent.
"As the interest rate moves up, it tends to choke off a lot of people," he said.
In Prince George's County, where officials are confident of a continuing boom for at least another year, "the biggest concern I hear about is interest rates," said County Executive Parris Glendening.
"I'm hearing that concern from Realtors and we feel that if interest rates go up to 14 percent again, there will be a slowdown," Glendening continued.
In Montgomery County, real estate sales volume has been increasing at a monthly rate of 80 to 90 percent, but officials expect sales to moderate in the next six months if interest rates continue to inch upward.
Sales of houses in the District during the past six months were also an indication that that sector of the economy remains fairly strong. Sales were up 42 percent before leveling off. But since late August, "we're seeing another surge, all of which indicates that the public is not afraid," said Betty June Ingham, president of the Washington Board of Realtors.
In the meantime, a recent survey of homebuilders shows that housing starts in metropolitan Washington will total more than 24,000 units in 1983, a 54 percent increase over last year.
And that should bode well for retail sales, which produced a "very strong spring season," according to the Greater Washington Board of Trade. Indeed, figures compiled by the Commerce Department for the Washington standard metropolitan statistical area (SMSA) show that, except for a slight dip in February, retail sales increased in each of the first six months of the year, resulting in a gain of better than 10 percent over the comparable 1982 period.
If retail sales have been relatively steady since the end of last year, the office leasing market, especially in downtown Washington, has been just the opposite. However, the market seems to be much healthier now, observed Ken McVearry, a vice president at Coldwell Banker.
Nationally, the office vacancy rate is more than 11 percent, but the overall rate for metropolitan Washington is slightly less than 8 percent. It's a different story downtown, but the current vacancy rate of just under 10 percent is a far cry from the 14 percent reported earlier in the summer.
The absorption rate for downtown Washington office buildings in the first eight months of 1983 was twice the one million square feet that were leased in all of 1982. "The surplus is dwindling and we feel that the overall vacancy rate is peaking," said George Voris, a Coldwell Banker vice president.
In the meantime, developers are going forward with plans to build downtown office buildings, confident that, despite the current surplus, demand is there.
In assessing the area's economy, officials in the private and public sector tend to agree with the conclusion offered by a Montgomery County official:
"I think the recovery will continue, but the rise in interest rates we've seen in the last two weeks will [also] continue," the official predicted. "I think that will have a dampening effect on some areas such as real estate sales, but I don't think we will see a crisis as we saw a year ago."