“The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”
— William Gibson
William Gibson’s observation about the future was a reference to the idea that people have different access to new technology based on wealth and location. That visionary quote kept coming to mind as I have been traveling around the United States to meet with clients this past year. My itinerary gave me a good perspective on the U.S. economic recovery.
Like the future, it, too, is not evenly distributed.
Why is that? The economy is, in a word, “lumpy.” It is strong in some regions, anemic in others. Strength by economic sector varies widely. There are myriad reasons for this: Some parts of the country were much harder hit by the real estate collapse; some sectors naturally rebound more quickly; some innovations lend themselves to more rapid growth.
The kind of recovery that you personally are experiencing is highly dependent upon many factors, but today I want to focus on three: education, market sector and geography. The data suggest these elements matter a great deal. Look closely, and you can see how your personal economic recovery is doing — and why.
Let’s take a closer look at what matters most:
• Education: If there is a single lesson you need to learn from this crash and recovery, it is that education matters a lot. The data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics makes clear the direct correlation between increased education and lower unemployment rates and higher wages.
We have a full year’s worth of data for 2014. Across all workers (over age 25 and working full time), the unemployment rate was 5 percent. For workers who had a high school degree or some college, the unemployment rate was a little higher than average (6 percent); with an associate’s degree, it was a little lower (4.5 percent). Schooling is where we really see a difference: Workers without a high school diploma had an unemployment rate of last year of 9 percent, double the average of workers with an associate’s degree.
Have a bachelor’s degree? Great, your peer group had an unemployment rate of only 3.5 percent. Master’s degree holders saw that fall to 2.8 percent, while doctoral graduates were at only 2.1 percent unemployment. Professional degree holders’ unemployment rate was the lowest at 1.9 percent.
Anyone who believes school doesn’t matter should recognize that enormous unemployment range of 1.9 to 9.0 percent.
If that does not convince, then look at compensation. Weekly wages are very similar in their distribution to unemployment: the average was $839 per week for all workers, but only $488 for those without a high school diploma. Those who held a professional degree averaged more than triple that amount at $1,639 per week. Bachelor’s degree holders averaged more than double at $1,101 per week.
• Geographic location/market sector: I’m putting these two together because in my experience they’re so closely related. Since I have not visited every city in the United States, this is a somewhat anecdotal analysis. My experiences are not the same as a true data read. Even so, it is clear that some areas in the country are doing much better than others and give you a leg up in experiencing a robust recovery. Here is my short Top 5 list:
New York: Following a huge collapse, there is nothing like a trillion-dollar bailout to jump-start your economic recovery. In the face of an AWOL Congress whose fiscal stimulus was marginal by historical crisis standards, the Federal Reserve became the only game in town. Between TARP, ZIRP and QE, the Big Apple has been the recipient of much taxpayer largesse. Even Fed money that was destined for the rest of the country still passed through NYC. That worked to the advantage of the owner of the corner deli and the Porsche dealer alike.
The actions of the Fed not only cushioned the blow from the collapse but set the stage for the next round of expansion. In particular, finance and real estate sectors have been on fire in New York. Note that this is a theme in every city experiencing a boom. There always seem to be at least two hot sectors: (1) real estate and (2) something else. One drives the other.
Washington, D.C.: If finance is driving the New York economy, the “business of politics” is driving the District. From lawyers to lobbyists to government contractors, the city is swollen with activity. We see it reflected in the real estate prices in the surrounding communities. Washington may talk about shrinking government, but leaders have been expanding all of the related industries that feed into — or off of — the seat of U.S. power and money.
Seattle: This could very well be the hottest, fastest growing city in North America right now. It’s much more than just Amazon and Boeing and Microsoft (now in the midst of a Satya Nadella-led turnaround). There is Costco Wholesale, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Nike, T-Mobile US, Micron Technology and Expedia.
Intellectual capital abounds. What makes the place so vibrant is the huge number of new tech start-ups and expanding existing firms. One is reminded of how Silicon Valley was in the early 1990s. Despite rising real estate prices, it is a very civilized place to live, with great outdoor activities and beautiful scenery. Most important of all, there is an energy and enthusiasm and optimism among all of the people I met in town.
San Francisco/Silicon Valley: Another full-on boomtown. Technology is running on all eight cylinders, or, perhaps more accurately, a fully charged Tesla PowerWall. Whereas the dot-com boom was frivolous and frothy, filled with pie-in-the-sky business models, this is more substantive and functional. Lots of wild ideas are still getting funded, but in this cycle, revenues count. The infrastructure built around software and semiconductors is much more mature than it was back in the 1990s. Apps, alternative energy, big data and relentless innovation are keeping the city and its even more important surrounding technology suburbs humming.
Of course there is some froth, as that is inherent to the venture investing process. On occasion, silly ideas get funded and good ideas see ludicrous valuations (and vice versa). Most technorati will admit — after you pour enough alcohol into them — that venture investing looks like a huge crapshoot. For each Uber there are still 100 Pets.coms. But so long as the community of engineers and programmers keeps finding new and disruptive ways to do things better, the economy here is going to keep growing.
Boston: With about the same population as Seattle, Boston has quietly managed a very nice economic recovery. It may not be quite as booming as some of the others I’ve mentioned, but it is growing smartly. Boston has a foot in biotech, medicine and health care, finance, high-technology research and development, and education. About the only things that are not nicely inflated in this town are the New England Patriots’ footballs.
Of course, this is a very biased sample set: I visit cities where we have clients, and, by definition, wealth management clients tend to be fairly wealthy. Hence, my sample set of cities is likely to be doing better than a randomly selected group of metropolitan locales.Iowa, which also enjoys a diverse economy plus a huge agricultural footprint, also maintains a very low unemployment rate. Utah, Colorado and Minnesota have also been strong. So too has Texas, which is no longer as energy-centric as it once was. In the 1980s, a fall in oil prices was catastrophic; its diverse economic base is better able to weather a commodity crash these days.
That said, lots of other parts of the country have also been doing well. Warren Buffett’s home state of Nebraska boasts the lowest unemployment rate in the United States, at 2.6 percent. (It eclipsed North Dakota, which has seen a modest uptick in unemployment as crude oil prices were cut in half since last September). The state has a big agricultural sector and food processing, notably beef production. But the state is fairly diversified, including electrical machinery and manufacturing, telecommunications and information technology.
So if you can put it all together — if you have a good education, choose your field wisely and live in a thriving area — the economy’s looking pretty good to you right now. If not, well, my experience suggests that you should take a hard look at those factors.