Lackluster recovery straddles the thin line of good news, bad news

Contributing writerJune 30, 2013 

The devastating recession and lackluster recovery (the recessvery? The recoverssion?) that drags on through 2013 has taxed a lot of things - optimism, employment prospects, savings, patience, even tax revenues.

From a self-centered point of view, it has also taxed, to the point of depletion, business columnists' reserves of metaphors, similes and analogies.

We have used ad nauseum (and what an apt expression to describe the ongoing economic malaise) the metaphor of an automobile, its engine sputtering and coughing when we want it to send the sleek vehicle of the economy gliding down the highway (see how easy this stuff is?).

Or we revert to an old favorite, the weather, using terms such "storm clouds gathering" and "the sun coming out" to paint the picture of what is or isn't happening.

Just for variety's sake, we mix and combine transportation modes and meteorology, resorting to descriptions of boats on stormy seas and calm waters (with occasional mentions of ramming the iceberg).

But those have gotten as old and tiresome as this "supposedly not in recession but not exactly robustly growing" economy is getting for those who are trying to hold on to jobs, find employment or pay bills.

So as we conduct our regular six-month assessment of the local, regional and national economy, and embark on the second half of 2013, we're left searching for words and numbers that aptly describe where we are and where we're headed.

Perhaps the biggest problem in finding something both new and applicable is - if you can stand a return to highway metaphors for a moment - is that we don't seem to be anywhere at the moment, and we don't seem to be headed in any particular direction.

Or maybe it's that we're headed in several directions at once, a feat difficult for a vehicle to accomplish but, as we're seeing, quite achievable for an economy.

Just on numbers alone, it's easy to make a case that we are solidly in recovery mode - or that we're headed for more trouble. The Employment Security Department recently reported that the statewide seasonally adjusted jobless rate, at 6.8 percent for May 2013 (preliminary), marked the first time that figure was below 7 percent since November 2008.

But even that doesn't look so swell when noting, as the department did in its release, that the state has only regained 79 percent of the 205,000 jobs lost during the recession.

It looks even less appealing when considering unemployment rates at the local level. The May 2013 preliminary rate (not seasonally adjusted) for Pierce County remains stubbornly high, at 8.4 percent, nearly double that of King County and well ahead of the statewide rate of 6.6 percent. And Pierce County is not as bad off as others around the state, such as Lewis (11.1 percent), Cowlitz (10.2 percent) and Grays Harbor (12.2 percent).

But at least we're heading in the right direction, correct?

Umm, maybe not. The regional purchasing managers' indexes, compiled by the Western Washington chapter of the Institute for Supply Management, recently swooned. The current-conditions index for May fell to barely above 50, the dividing line between a growing economy and one in recession. The 90-day outlook came in with a survey score of 46, decidedly in downturn territory.

But, umm, maybe we are feeling better (oh good! Maybe we'll try a medical analogy!). Weyerhaeuser for several months has been talking about improvements in multiple business lines, most notably those tied directly to housing. At a recent presentation in Longview, company officials said they're adding jobs in the wood-products and liquid-packaging businesses, both for retirement replacements and to accommodate growth.

Then again, Kent-based industrial waterjet manufacturer Flow International said revenue growth has stalled because of uncertainty and caution in its customer base.

By now we're veering out of analogy territory and into comedy material, evoking the line about laying all the economists end to end and still not reaching a conclusion.

But then, how could they? The June report from the state's own Economic and Revenue Forecast Council - the one the Legislature has been hoping would magically conjure billions of dollars in new money out of thin air, thus avoiding the need for nasty fights over the budget - is a compendium of on-one-hand, on-the-other-hand numbers telling us either that the economy is on the mend or that we're headed for trouble and maybe never got out of it to begin with.

Combine all those contrasting ingredients (oh good! A cooking analogy!) with such flavorings as the millions being spent on energy-related rail-transportation projects in the state and the long-term concerns about Boeing's presence, and what you get is an unidentifiable stew whose taste and palatability no one can agree upon.

Which is not a good thing - we need growth to get people back to work - or maybe it is, considering the alternatives. Which would you prefer? We know you're hoping for the spicy dish of growth, but maybe what you'll get is the gruel of more uncertainty, more mudding along, more scattered occurrences of economic success but no true sense of forward momentum - or the really disgusting dish of another recession.

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Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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