In Our View: Economy Hard to Judge

Good news can have its bad side, and vice versa, but county sees improvement

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The tricky thing about economic news is that it often contradicts itself.

Take housing, for example. When housing prices in a region rise by a modest amount, this can be viewed as a positive. Equity is rising; the area is deemed desirable; and housing can be an engine that drives other aspects of the economy. Yet when housing prices rise, home sales often decline as some people are priced out of the market — and that can be viewed as a negative.

Or consider inflation, which, believe it or not, is good for the economy. It is far, far better than deflation, which is when prices are falling. That is, unless inflation is growing too rapidly, in which case it is definitely bad. Simple, right?

All in all, attempting to take the pulse of the economy can create quite a conundrum for those tasked with such an endeavor. But while economic news often points in contradictory directions, we’ll consider the first quarter of 2014 in Clark County to be mostly a bearer of glad tidings. Tepidly. Tepidly with a grain of salt.

There has been, for example, steady job growth, bringing the number of jobs in the area to more than we had at the start of the Great Recession. As Business Editor Gordon Oliver of The Columbian reported, the county now has 1,000 more jobs than at the start of the downturn, and the county’s job growth rate is double that of the state as a whole. The improvement has been slow in coming. While the recession officially ended some 3½ years ago, far too many people have been slogging through the muck of a slow recovery. Even the good news about jobs arrives with a caveat: State employment economist Scott Bailey points out that, because of population growth, the county would still need 5,000 more jobs to reach pre-recession employment levels. Still, a review of the first quarter of 2014 in Clark County shows that foreclosures have dropped by more than half from the previous year, and personal bankruptcies have declined by 14 percent.

These trends appear to put the region in line with much of the country. Last week, in her first major speech about monetary policy since taking over as chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen said that full economic recovery could take hold by 2016, which would mark the first time in nearly a decade that the nation’s business was running close to full steam. “If the economy obediently followed our forecasts,” Yellen said, “the job of central bankers would be a lot easier and their speeches would be a lot shorter.” But she also pointed out the most pressing issue for the residents of Main Street, rather than Wall Street: “Wage gains continue to proceed at a historically slow pace in this recovery, with few signs of a broad-based acceleration. … We have, indeed, had a disappointingly slow recovery, and our consistent expectations for a pickup in growth have been dashed over a number of years.”

Good and bad. Yin and yang. Clark County is a living example of both sides of the economic coin. Consider the departures announced during the first quarter of 2014: Sparks Home Furnishings in downtown Vancouver announced it will close, as did Steakburger in Hazel Dell and the Nordstrom outlet at Westfield Vancouver mall. Meanwhile, a couple of new grocery stores revealed plans for Clark County, and Vancouver-based Papa Murphy’s pizza chain explored the notion of going public.

That all serves to reflect the conflicting nature of economic news. And while there are both positive and negative trends in the works at this time, as recent history tells us, it could be worse.