Seattle has retained many of its strengths, including the 11th highest share in the nation of working-age people with at least a bachelor's degree, and coming in as the nation's 10th largest metro exporter. But risks exist.
After a recession the likes of which we’ve never seen, don’t expect a predictable recovery.
The best snapshot I’ve found as to how metro Seattle is faring comes from the Brookings Institution’s latest Metro Monitor report. The upshot: “Seattle has relatively decent performance,” said Mark Muro, fellow and policy director at the think tank’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
The region’s output, or gross metropolitan product, has fully recovered, growing 3.4 percent above its pre-recession peak in the third quarter of 2008. That ranks metro Seattle eighth nationally. For the first quarter of 2010, output rose 1.1 percent.
Employment rose in the first quarter by 0.3 percent, making Seattle one of only 30 metro areas to see growth amid a dismal jobs market (the report studies the 100 largest metros). But employment is down 6.4 percent from its peak, even though Seattle’s jobless rate has risen less than in most other areas.
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The housing bust arrived here later than most places, and Seattle lacked the overbuilding that continues to ravage Sun Belt cities.
Even so, Seattle comes in among the bottom quintile in year-over-year housing prices — they’ve fallen 13.5 percent since last March. In addition, our stock of foreclosed, bank-owned houses is 55th among the 100 metros.
Seattle has retained many of its strengths, including the nation’s 11th highest share of working-age people with at least a bachelor’s degree, and coming in as the nation’s 10th largest metro exporter.
This last yardstick is no small thing. “There’s no growth in America,” Muro told me. “You have to plug into growth around the world.”
He went on: “Overall, we believe the next economy is going to be export oriented, lower carbon and innovation driven. Those are the sources of the next round of prosperity given the breakdown of the last order. Seattle is quite well positioned on these dimensions, and that explains the region’s relative resilience.”
So what are the risks to the scenario?
Muro warned that export power could be undercut by infrastructure and transportation problems, a point also made by local port and logistics executives. Another challenge is failure to keep innovating.
“You have to see continuous breakthroughs, but also incremental creative innovations,” he said. “It’s not totally clear how the region is set on that. It’s been an entrepreneurial place, but you can always lose that.”
Yet another issue is whether the region and state can do a good job educating all its residents. The new decade will likely see less mobility, Muro said, so the ability of the in-state work force becomes more important.
Muro made another point worth considering, as uncomfortable as it will be for many Americans.
“One of the great challenges this country faces is from highly concerted nations, mainly in Asia, that are unsaddled by our laissez-faire market worship and are very strategically building industries.”
One thinks of China’s aggressive effort to corner sustainable-energy sectors. “Here, there’s a complacency about what it takes to accelerate innovations into the marketplace and build industries … New industries are beginning and being locked in right now in other places,” Muro said.
Indeed, market failures happen — we just lived through a doozy. Development of key industries doesn’t just happen. And in the new world, where China’s state-directed capitalism is giving us the competitive run of our lives, it’s far from clear what models will be successful.
(America certainly has its history of state-directed capitalism, in the defense sector, for example, or even with farm subsidies.)
So with a fairly low bar, metro Seattle has entered the recovery fairly strongly.
Arun Raha, Washington state’s chief economist, also sees much of the state’s strengths in the Puget Sound region: Aerospace, exports and software are holding up.
Yet continued turmoil in the markets have forced him to revise his expectations of a U-shaped recovery — a rapid fall and a quick exit.
“Now we’re crawling along on the bottom of the U,” he said of the state as a whole. “Eventually we will get out.”
Of course, John Maynard Keynes famously quipped, “In the long run, we are all dead.”
“America is in for a long, difficult crawl back from the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” Raha said. “Of particular concern is a jobs trough that may not be refilled until the middle of the decade or later. So, too, are state and local fiscal crises.”
Like Muro, I think Seattle’s future is in Asia. But it’s difficult to see how America’s larger economic troubles won’t be a drag.
Raha’s one incontestable forecast is this: “This recovery is going to be uneven. There will be further shocks.”
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org