The monthly Economic and Revenue Trends report released by District financial officials has been a reliably cheery read in recent months. Some sample headlines:
• “DC 5 years after the start of the Great Recession: more people, jobs, income — and unemployment” (March 2013)
• “Hotel stays are 6% higher than 5 years ago” (December 2012)
• “A key DC housing price index has rebounded back to 1.9% higher than its 2007 pre-recession peak” (February 2013)
So the headline of July’s report, authored by the District government’s top economists, drops with a bit of a thud: “Is the DC economy stalling?”
The report cites federal labor statistics indicating that the number of jobs in the city has plateaued after a period of strong post-recession growth. Same goes for the number of employed District residents: After 20 months in which resident employment grew 10 percent, the last three months of data indicate a 0.3 percent decline.
“Especially because the full effects of federal spending cutbacks mandated by the sequester have not yet materialized, data suggesting that employment in the District of Columbia has begun to decline are particularly worrisome,” writes Senior Economist Stephen Swaim.
Could it be that D.C.’s widely touted “boom,” supposedly driven by post-9/11 government spending, is coming to an end? Slowing job and wage growth would be a leading indicator of a broader economic slowdown.
But maybe not. The city’s economists are quick to caveat the apparent stall, saying it is “too soon to draw firm conclusions from this data about the near-term outlook for the District’s economy.” The feds could revise the labor statistics upward, as they often do, and other indicators show the city economy humming along nicely.
Aside from the sobering employment statistics, the July report showed encouraging numbers for home sales, office rentals, hotel bookings and tax collections. Also, it should be noted that city financial officials remain bullish in one important measure: city tax and fee revenue, estimates for which were upgraded in June to the tune of $600 million over the next five years.
In the end, the employment figures are delivered in the context of the latest in a series of warnings about the uncertain effects of federal spending cutbacks. Swaim warns that the fate of the city’s economy depends in large part on whether the private sector can pick up the slack left by a decline in public-sector jobs, which makes this fact particularly worrisome: “For much of the past two years private sector employment increases more than offset federal declines. Over the past 7 months, however, this has no longer been the case.”