Muddling through Clark County’s murky 3Q

National, global forces determine economy’s direction, but local choices still play a role

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

Published:

 

Top Clark County business stories of third quarter 2011

JULY

Clark County’s only Borders bookstore closes; Jantzen Beach Barnes & Noble shutters a month later.

Farwest wins $48 million in federal tax credit to finance Vancouver growth plans.

AUGUST

Hewlett-Packard Co. moves operations into current Nautilus Inc. headquarters.

Nautilus says it will relocate to smaller Vancouver building.

SEPTEMBER 

Downtown Vancouver Burgerville demolished to make way for apartments.

1,603 people line up to apply for 350 New Seasons jobs.

Owner of Chuck’s Produce & Street Market buys site for Hazel Dell store.

Longshoremen block Vancouver train tracks in dispute over Longview grain terminal.

Lisa Nisenfeld named head of Columbia River Economic Development Council.

Clark County’s economy managed to tread water in the third quarter of 2011, but struggling businesses and unemployed workers were still at sea in the July to September period. And even normally optimistic economists don’t expect the county — or the state or nation — to come ashore in the foreseeable future.

Staying afloat at least beats drowning, which the pessimists fear.

“The best I can hope for is that we don’t go into another recession,” Arun Raha, Washington’s chief economist, said Wednesday in Vancouver. “Sideways is the new up.”

Bill Conerly, a business consultant from Lake Oswego, Ore., agrees.

“We’re in this muddled period,” Conerly said. “The most important thing to keep in mind: When the economy is going sideways, you’ll get some indicators positive and some negative. We do not have a very clear up trend.”

Among the positive third-quarter economic indicators:

• Considerably more Clark County houses are selling than a year ago (though they’re going for less).

• Early indicators suggest retail sales continue to climb.

• And developers have made a handful of big investments, moving ahead on two high-end grocery stores and a downtown Vancouver apartment complex.

Outweighing the good news, however, county unemployment remained high, gas prices continued to squeeze budget-conscious shoppers, and several business announcements suggest that local employers continue to struggle. The county’s only Border’s bookstore closed, as did Jantzen Beach’s Barnes & Noble. Hewlett-Packard Co.’s relocation and Nautilus Inc.’s planned move both reflect shrinking staff size at those companies. Home construction, once a major source of local employment, fell from already dismally low levels. And the manufacturing sector, which grew rapidly last year, slowed its growth nationwide.

Unfortunately, there’s not much that people in Clark County can do to break free of these treacherous currents.

In today’s globalized world, Europe’s debt crisis threatens the entire U.S. economy, and could pull this country back into recession if it is not resolved, Conerly and Raha both said. Political gridlock in Washington, D.C., is another major threat, according to Raha.

Frustration with a stagnant economy and poor prospects for near-term improvement have helped fuel the “Occupy” movement that has brought protesters to the streets in New York, Portland and Vancouver, said Scott Bailey, regional economist with the Washington Employment Security Department.

The chance of a second recession is substantial, Bailey said. “The longer-term outlook is not good, because policymakers have failed to address the problems with our financial system.”

While Clark County’s economic fate may lie in the hands of Washington, D.C., and European politicians, Clark County workers and business owners can make informed decisions to protect themselves — in part by looking at how local sectors fared during the third quarter of 2011.

“I advise my business clients to track factors specific to their business and their industry,” Conerly said. Rather than worrying about gross domestic product — a broad measure of the nation’s economy — business owners should watch metrics specific to their niches.

Worried workers can make informed decisions about whether to save more or keep spending by thinking like their bosses.

“An everyday family should understand how they get paid, and what spending leads to them getting paid. You can’t just say, I work for XYZ company,” Conerly said. “You should understand who’s buying the products that XYZ company makes. Prudent financial planning at an individual level involves understanding the risk of the industry that you’re in.”

Work in retail? Locally, recent results have been better than expected — but consumer confidence is weak, so be careful. At a semiconductor company? Despite a slight third-quarter decline, industry leaders think gadgets will keep the sector strong. In government? Tight budgets suggest you may want to pinch pennies.

With unemployment above 12 percent through the third quarter, Clark County residents who work anywhere may want to count their blessings, and remember that no matter how long we must tread water, eventually we’ll get to shore.