After all the bells and sirens denoting trouble in the area's economy, recent reports of national and regional economic activity appear to be dampening some of the alarms.
At least most reports tend to confirm what has been apparent in the Washington-Baltimore region for several months: Slow to moderate economic growth is the order of the day.
Nationally, the government's index of leading economic indicators rose 0.8 percent in May, the Commerce Department reported last week. The increase is said to be a new sign that the nation's longest peacetime expansion will last through the end of the year. Nevertheless, economic activity continues to be weak in most areas.
Reports of economic activity in the Washington region also appear to be mixed, though the slow-to-moderate-growth scenario is expected to remain in effect for at least another year. Most experts seem to agree at least that no major changes are in store this year for the region's economy.
Meanwhile, a recent report by the Federal Reserve confirmed what already had been noted by other usually reliable sources of economic information. In the Federal Reserve district that includes Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, housing construction is down and demand for business loans decreased in May.
At the same time, retail sales were flat and manufacturing is softening in most areas of the Richmond Fed district. Those are just some of the indications of slow growth and weak economic activity that have been documented in most areas of the country.
Just last week, Grant Thornton, the international accounting and management consulting firm, reported that its economic index for 24 major metropolitan areas rose in all but three in the first quarter -- Baltimore, Boston and Detroit.
Grant Thornton reported that its composite of seven economic indicators for the Washington area edged up a moderate 0.76 points but that the index slipped 0.15 points for Greater Baltimore.
Grant Thornton's characterizations notwithstanding, the simple fact is economic activity in the Washington and Baltimore areas didn't differ too much during the first quarter. The evidence suggests that it was flat in both areas, though not nearly as bad as dire warnings of a credit crunch have indicated.
In fact, the story of economic growth in metropolitan Washington and Baltimore remains pretty much the same as it has for several months: sluggish retail sales, a tight labor market, higher office building vacancies, a slowdown in housing construction and tighter credit restrictions being imposed as a result of an overbuilt commercial real estate market.
In a brief statement supporting its findings, Grant Thornton essentially concluded much the same thing. Weakness in construction permits and retail sales tempered the rise in the index for Washington in the first quarter, Grant Thornton explained. Declines in nonfarm employment and retail sales contributed to the drop in metropolitan Baltimore's quarterly index value, according to the firm.
But the reasons for declines in those sectors aren't nearly as important, it seems, as the tone of the Grant Thornton index, which doesn't support the doomsday rhetoric of some in the area's private sector.
Another important though generally overlooked aspect of these quarterly measurements is that there really hasn't been too much difference between the indexes for metropolitan Washington and Baltimore.
It could be argued, in fact, that the absence of any sharp differences in performance strengthens the argument for making metropolitan Washington and Greater Baltimore a combined statistical area (CSA).
The CSA designation would confirm that the two areas are linked not only by population growth and cross-commuting patterns but by common threads in their economies. The designation of the two areas as a unified economic market is expected to be made in the next two or three years by the Bureau of the Census and the Office of Management and Budget.
Grant Thornton doesn't address that issue in its quarterly index, of course. Nor does it point out that the slight decline in the first-quarter index for Baltimore varies considerably from the pattern observed in earlier Grant Thornton indexes.
In the first quarter of this year the Washington index edged up to 111.7 while the Baltimore index slipped to 110. To help put the difference in perspective, consider this: In the fourth quarter of 1989, the index for metropolitan Washington rose a mere 0.23 points. It moved up 0.63 points in the same quarter in the Baltimore area.
For all of 1989, the Grant Thornton index increased 0.46 points in the Washington area and rose 0.52 points in Greater Baltimore. Both economies, in fact, reached their highest levels in five years in 1989, based on the economic measures used by Grant Thornton.
Thus, the moderate rise in the Washington index and the slight decline in the Baltimore measures ought to be considered in the context of last year's figures as well as the framework of a general slowdown in the national and regional economies.
In the final analysis, however, the latest figures bolster the contention that weaknesses notwithstanding, the economies of both metropolitan areas remain relatively strong.