Every year, communities around the country put on their swimsuits and line up for Money magazine's annual beauty contest that claims to select America's "Best Places to Live."

Local promoters and economic developers say that landing in the top 10 on Money's "best cities" list or similar rankings conveys valuable bragging rights that make it easier to attract companies and workers from other places.

Capturing a favorable rating may help an area boost its public image -- a challenge that has confronted the Washington region since the District's financial crisis in the mid-1990s.

But the ratings are mostly baloney, contends Edward J. Wall, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Wall argues that the city surveys by Money magazine and Places Rated Almanac are purely the authors' arbitrary views' about what makes a city livable or not. That's why the two lists of top 10 cities published by Money and Places Rated in 1997 had no overlap, he says.

"I think the entire notion of these rankings is suspect," Wall said. "It's terribly arrogant to take a bunch of [city] characteristics and add them up according to your preferences."

But if communities insist on a rating scheme to measure popularity, Wall says, they should consider how people "vote with their feet."

In the April issue of the St. Louis Fed's bulletin, Wall lists net inmigration rates for 59 metropolitan areas with populations of more than 1 million in 1997.

Inmigration rates count only the number of U.S. citizens who moved in and out of each metro area between 1990 and 1997. The calculation disregards foreign immigrants and local births and dates. The change in migration divided by the 1990 population produces an inmigration rate.

The areas with the highest inmigration rates include Las Vegas; Atlanta; the Phoenix-Mesa metro area; Austin-San Marcos, Tex.; and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle in North Carolina. The rates provide a clear indication that Americans on the move found these areas most attractive, he said.

The Washington metro area ranked 39th, having lost 2.4 percent of its resident population over that period, Wall says. That puts it among such major metropolitan areas as San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles, where more U.S. citizens moved out than in between 1990 and 1997.

Wall's approach can be criticized for its own limitations -- it doesn't distinguish between seniors moving south for retirement and young workers who move often for jobs in cities where the economic engine is roaring, for instance.

As is often the case, the standings depend heavily on what time period the analyst chooses. For example, Wall's analysis doesn't include the past two years, when this region's economy accelerated.

The national capital area, led by Northern Virginia, had one of the highest rates of job growth among major U.S. metro areas in the past year. Among metro areas with more than 1 million jobs, only the Tampa area grew at a faster pace than did Northern Virginia between April 1998 and April 1999, the Labor Department reports.

With the District's economy recovering as well, the Washington region's challenge isn't how to get things moving again, but how residents, companies and communities can cope with the pressures that economic growth and traffic congestion bring.

Voting With Their Feet

How selected major metropolitan areas compare in inmigration from other parts of the United States from 1990 to 1997.

Change in domestic

Rank Area inmigration

1 Las Vegas 38.0%

2 Atlanta 17.0

3 Phoenix-Mesa 16.6

4 Austin-San Marcos 15.2

5 Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill 14.6

35 Baltimore -1.3

39 Washington -0.5

44 Boston -3.6

53 San Francisco -7.1

57 San Jose -8.6

58 New York -13.3

NOTE: Comparison covers 59 Metro areas with populations of more than 1 million in 1997. Foreign immigration and local births and deaths are not counted.

SOURCES: Howard J. Wall, senior economist, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; Census Bureau.