At first glance, a new Greater Washington Research Center study of the local economy appears to confirm what most area business and government officials are fond of boasting: metropolitan Washington's economy is recession-proof.
The research center's findings, which the organization made public yesterday, certainly contained persuasive evidence of a robust economy. "Washington's economy booms at record pace," the research center announced in its newsletter, MarkeTrends. Not only was there a historic increase in jobs in 1984 and 1985, but earnings and income also grew, the center noted in a special issue of the newsletter.
Philip Dearborn, the center's vice president and author of the study, observed, "The rising earnings and personal income, together with the employment increase, paint a picture of a local economy that is not only healthy, but growing at an amazing rate."
That can be pretty heady stuff for the true believers. But closer reading of the study reveals that, for some segments of the local economy, the prosperity joy ride may be coming to an end, if only temporarily. The bullish account of the economy notwithstanding, the research center warns of a possible downturn that could be troublesome for some business groups as well as area governments.
As reported earlier in The Washington Post, there was a 12 percent increase in the number of jobs in the area from the beginning of 1984 until the end of 1985, according to the research center. That translates into approximately 200,000 new jobs, raising the total to 2 million at the end of last year.
The research center's study affirms earlier reports of substantial job growth in the area. The D.C. Department of Employment Services, for example, recently reported unprecedented growth in the number of jobs added to the city's economy last year. DCDES, which compiles and analyzes labor information for all of metropolitan Washington, documented substantial increases in new jobs in the suburbs in earlier reports.
Business and government officials are apt to be elated about what the research center describes as unprecedented economic growth. But that could change dramatically if there are major cuts in federal spending, which meant about $31 billion to the local economy in 1984, according to a previous issue of MarkeTrends. Dearborn, author of the latest study and vice president of the research center, notes that a slowing trend is already in progress and warns of the impact of reduced federal spending.
That has strong implications for business and government officials as they consider long-range plans in the context of unprecedented economic growth giving way to what appears to a slowdown.
Dearborn defends his conclusion that the economic boom of the past two years can't continue by noting that a labor force that's virtually fully employed can't continue to provide workers for more than 100,000 new jobs a year.
Dearborn also raises several provocative questions about the outlook for other segments that may have been taken for granted. He notes, for example, that even though housing construction has proceeded at a rapid pace in recent years, there probably aren't sufficient available development sites to accommodate an influx of new workers to fill the demand for new jobs. Moreover, the area's transportation and other public facilities are already showing signs of inadequacy, according to Dearborn.
A further indication of a slowdown, Dearborn notes, can be found in a forecast by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which calls for regional employment growth of 186,000 new jobs between 1985 and 1990 -- considerably less than the total for 1984 and 1985. That's in line with earlier DCDES projections that call for an annual employment growth rate of 2.3 percent between 1980 and 1990.
Given current trends, there "almost has to be a slowing in future years from the economic growth rates of 1984 and 1985," Dearborn concludes.
It remains to be seen, however, whether that point will have any bearing on the obvious euphoria that has been fueled by the economic boom. Is the argument persuasive enough, for example, to avert overbuilding of the area's office market? What does it mean for expansion-minded retailers and hoteliers?
Those businesses that are faced with planning ahead to accommodate expansion, or those that are dependent on growth, may face several difficult years, Dearborn cautions. Among those, he cites utilities and development and construction firms.
Area governments may also face challenges as a result of a slowdown, according to Dearborn. "The unprecedented prosperity in 1984 and 1985 has swelled tax revenues and permitted tax cuts and increased spending. The combination of a slowing of revenue growth and a reduction in direct federal aid may require retrenchment, probably similar to that faced by area governments in the early 1980s."