Recently I gave a broader, regional outlook talk that included many attendees who were either from Washington or had clients or offices north of the border.
Overall there is not a massive difference between the states in terms of where they are in the business cycle, the risks to the outlook, and the like. Our office’s counterparts, the Washington Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, have the same general flavor in their forecasts, namely slowing economic, revenue, and population growth as the economy transitions down to more sustainable rates. Their labor market is similarly tight due to both the cycle and booming retirements.
There are differences in the specifics however. Washington is more exposed to the trade fisticuffs. E-commerce has grown more briskly (obviously). Washington’s prime-age EPOP is improving but remains lower than in Oregon and the US. Their population’s natural increase is shrinking but holding up better due to a significantly higher birth rate than in Oregon. (Although I suspect revisions to Washington’s population forecasts will incorporate a little lower births and higher deaths. But still a much higher birthrate than here in Oregon.) And Washington, or at least the Seattle MSA has been able to add more housing supply relative to population growth than has Oregon and the Portland MSA.
What did stand out to me in preparing for the talk was that all of the Northwest is expanding. And all of the region’s urban areas are at record employment levels. Tri Cities leads the pack, but Bend is close behind, showing both the largest employment losses in recession and the strongest growth since. And while Eugene and Grants Pass may be at the bottom of this chart, that is mostly about how far they fell in recession. Growth since the downturn is significantly faster than a handful of other PNW metros.
Now, the above focuses on urban or metro areas. We do see some differences when looking across the PNW rural counties. Like Oregon, Washington’s rural employment trends fall into two big categories. Instead of the north-south divide Oregon has in terms of economic growth this cycle, Washington sees an east-west divide. Jobs in Oregon’s northern rural counties and in Washington’s eastern rural counties are at historic highs. The same cannot be said for Oregon’s southern rural counties and Washington’s western rural counties. While I did not do a full decomposition to figure out what exactly is driving these trends, we do know one common variable across both regions is their historic strength in timber. While the sector is growing again, it does remain significantly smaller than prior to the recession, let alone 40 years ago.
Finally, there was a recent internet listicle that ranked both Grants Pass and Bellingham as among the 5 worst job markets across the country. That surprised me and seemed a bit harsh, so I went and pulled a handful of labor market indicators to see how true this may be. No doubt if you look at the relatively high unemployment rates (compared with all other metros, not compared with where unemployment rates have been historically), low average wages, and low prime-age employment rates, these metros do rank low across the country. However, that listicle also said they incorporated not just these snapshot rankings but also rankings of growth and improvement. Here, you can see that both Grants Pass and Bellingham are growing strongly in recent years. Job growth is picking up and above average, which drives the unemployment rate down at the same time, everything else equal. And while both metros have low average wages, their growth over the entire business cycle is among the best nationwide. None of this is to say Grants Pass and Bellingham are the best labor markets in the nation, but in digging into these various measures, I also have a hard time saying they’re the worst.