LITTLE ROCK, ARK. -- With the national economy now in a recession, residents of the capital city of this small, largely rural state have this to be grateful for: Arkansas has never been a national leader in things economic, and it is likely to remain that way now, too.
"Arkansas doesn't tend to boom like Texas and Oklahoma and it tends not to bust," explained Curt Bradbury, president of Worthen Bank & Trust Co., the city's second-largest bank.
"Arkansas is a slow responder to economic trends," said Rex Crane, the president of a local construction company.
A few years ago, Arkansas was at the forefront of one national economic trend: the collapse of the savings and loan industry. The 1985 failure of FirstSouth of Pine Bluff was the largest S&L failure in the country at that time. Later casualties included First Federal of Arkansas, the state's largest thrift headquartered here, and another large Little Rock institution, Savers Federal Savings and Loan. Both were taken over by federal authorities in 1989, the victims of a speculative binge of bad real estate loans, mostly in Texas and other so-called "hot" out-of-state markets. Today, virtually every surviving Little Rock thrift is under federal control.
That bitter experience, according to local business leaders and others, left the Little Rock financial community chastened but sufficiently forewarned.
"Arkansas banks are probably as healthy as any in the country," said Wythe Walker Jr., editor of Arkansas Business, a weekly publication that follows local business developments. "The biggest banks are making more money than ever."
Comparing the Arkansas capital with the nation's capital, Walker argued that the Little Rock area "is basically recession-proof" because of the large and stabilizing presence of the state government and a strong local service economy.
Most important of the service industries here is health care. The city now has five major hospitals serving not only the metropolitan area, but large parts of rural Arkansas as well. The hospitals, along with a large branch of the University of Arkansas, provide what Bradbury called a powerful "counter-cyclical" force in any recession.
National forecasters agree. According to DRI/McGraw-Hill Inc., the west-south-central region -- which is dominated by Texas but includes Arkansas -- will be the "exception to the rule" in the recession of 1991. "Here, job growth will actually increase, albeit slightly, during the three quarters of national decline," the firm said in a recent forecast.
At Park Plaza, an upscale shopping mall on the city's affluent West Side, Liz Gillespie, the mall's marketing director, said total sales in November increased 35 percent over 1989 and were showing an overall 30 percent increase for the year at that point. Fear of recession and war appeared to have affected only sales of luxury items -- jewelry sales were down 30 percent in November, Gillespie said.
An analysis prepared by economists at First Commercial Bank, the city's largest, also showed the local economy holding steady through 1990. Little Rock's December unemployment rate of 5.7 percent was below the national unemployment rate of 6.1 percent.
The value of housing and commercial building permits increased for the year. Most important, an increase in state sales tax receipts of almost 10 percent through October "is the most definite indicator that the recession has not yet been felt in Arkansas to any significant extent," the bank said.
After the savings and loan debacles of the 1980s, Little Rock's business leaders have trouble concealing their sense of satisfaction at the prospect that their small and often overlooked state could survive the recession better than most.
"The joke around here," said Barnett Grace, president of First Commercial Bank and chairman of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, "is that when there was a recession in the Southwest it was termed a regional recession, and now that the recession is in the East, where the national media is, it's a national recession."
Still, Grace and others say they see clear signs of an economic slowdown -- "loan demand is flat," Grace noted -- as a result of a drop in consumer confidence this past fall. He blamed tensions in the Middle East and general economic fears. And while the unemployment rate was still lower than the national rate, it was up sharply from the 5.2 percent rate posted in November.
Magazine editor Walker also recalled that for all its successes, 1990 was also the year Little Rock recorded the largest personal and corporate bankruptcy filings in the state's history when Tommy Hodges, a Little Rock real estate developer, and Fairfield Communities, a resort development company based here, sought protection from creditors. It was also the year the state's oldest law firm, House, Wallace and Jewell, closed its door after trying to expand too fast, he said.
Crane, whose construction company more than quadrupled its business to $30 million last year, said he foresees nothing approaching that kind of growth in 1991. With the savings and loan collapse now a national problem and the banking system undergoing growing strain, Arkansas financial institutions have grown even more conservative than usual in their lending practices, he said. The result has been generally slowing construction activity and the postponement of several projects, including two apartment and four shopping center jobs with a total value of $30 million. Crane said he expected to hold his own this year, but added, "That's not faith in the economy -- it's faith in my company."
Perhaps the most widely followed predictions come from the regional economic analysis division of the University of Arkansas here. Its official forecast, released earlier this month, calls for employment growth -- the best measure of how a state's economy is doing -- to slow to between 1 percent and 3 percent this year.
"It's not terrible, it's not the 1982 recession, but it is a slowdown," said John Shelnutt, the author of the university's report.