“We’re kind of caught in between periods of optimism and pessimism,” says Tim Duy, director of the Oregon Economic Forum. “Every time something good happens and you think, this is it, something else happens and pulls us back. That volatility is what’s creating the split between optimism and pessimism.”
In the first half of 2011, Oregon was outperforming the nation, says Joe Cortright, president and principal economist for Impresa, a Portland consulting firm. “But the recovery has lost momentum in the last six months or so, and we’re kind of in risky territory right now.”
Much of what was behind the mid-year and continued slumping was, essentially, more of what’s been hindering the economy all along. The housing market remains almost at a standstill compared to where it was a few years ago. According to the University of Oregon’s most recent Index of Economic Indicators, residential building permits fell below 600 in August — the first time that’s happened in more than a year. The state’s Office of Economic Analysis (OEA) also reported in September that housing-related industries had been adding just 50 jobs per month over the past year; in other recent years, that number was 575 jobs per month.
“The housing market is still very depressed,” Cortright says, adding that home prices are down about 5% this year and between 20% and 25% of homeowners in Oregon and the U.S. are underwater on their mortgages. Typical recoveries in the past have been powered largely by lower interest rates and a housing market that takes off. That hasn’t happened this time around.
Also fueling the slowdown were higher gas and commodity prices, continued pressure in the financial markets, uncertainty in foreign markets like China and Europe and what the OEA dubbed “public-sector pullback.” In most recessions, the public sector feels the impacts later than the private sector. This time was no different, particularly as federal stimulus funds helped maintain state and local government employees and services. Those funds, however, began to taper off this year, and the results have been noticeable in layoffs of teachers and government employees.
According to the OEA, the public sector normally adds 350 jobs each month, but over the past year it has cut 475 every month. Since September 2010 alone, the government sector has shed 7,900 jobs, according to the Oregon Employment Department.
“There had been federal money to put off those kinds of adjustments,” says Tom Potiowsky, a professor of economics and chair of the economics department at Portland State University. “That’s not here anymore. State and local governments are making serious cuts, and state and local government workers spend money in the economy just like everybody else.”