By Ben Jacklet
Not long ago the New York Times ran a collection of informational graphics about the revolutions under way in the Middle East. One of the statistics they focused on was the unemployment rate. As you may have guessed, the jobless rate in nations such as Yemen, Libya and Syria is high — nearly as high as it is in rural Oregon.
For more than two years, Oregon’s unemployment rate has hovered above 10 percent (lower than Tunisia’s 13 percent but higher than Egypt’s 8.9 percent). But it is finally falling.
By the end of March, Oregon’s jobless rate had fallen to 10 percent. Chances are good it will drop into single digits by the end of April for the first time in more than two years. The state gained 42,000 jobs over the past year.
The Portland area unemployment rate is also falling. It dropped by a half percentage point to 9.1 percent in March as the city added 13,400 jobs year over year.
Another key indicator also has returned to single digits after a rocky three-year run. That’s the number of months worth of housing inventory on the Portland market. At the current rate of home sales, the market would be cleared out in 7.1 months. (Imagine that – a clean slate!) Compare that figure to the 19.2 months worth of housing inventory on the market in January 2009, and you get a sense of where we’ve been and where we’re heading.
But not so fast. Bear in mind that housing numbers can be tricky to interpret, if not downright misleading. Especially when you have large reserves of hidden inventory, when sellers take their homes off the market when demand is weak only to put them back up for sale as soon as sales pick up. Not to mention large reserves of hidden losses, properties that have not gone back to lenders because banks are in no hurry to take them back and write off new losses.
The housing mess is nowhere near resolved. As a recent post from the Portland Housing Blog points out, Portland was just named a “seriously unaffordable” housing market, based on that truth-telling metric of median home price as compared to median income. Home prices are down by 10 percent over the past year in Oregon for the simple reason that people could not afford to pay more. The bubble burst for a reason.
Still, hiring is picking up. In fact, other than the recent closure of the Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City, the business news out of Oregon has been uncharacteristically rosy lately. Intel is building a $2.5 billion factory in Hillsboro and just announced its most lucrative quarter ever. Facebook is pouring millions into its Prineville data center. Google is investing $100 million in Eastern Oregon wind power. Crop and beef prices are up for farmers and ranchers. Crab and salmon prices are up for fishermen. There will be a salmon fishery off the coast this summer. Exports are growing, with the weak dollar playing in Oregon’s favor. Bank of the Cascades, MBank and other financial institutions have avoided the wrath of the FDIC. New businesses are popping up in downtown Bend. Vestas, McMenamins, and the Portland Timbers are bringing new energy into downtown Portland. Statewide, trucking is up 26 percent year over year, online job ads are up 23 percent, and business and personal bankruptcies are down 3.4 and 8 percent respectively.
To me, this adds up to a preponderance of evidence. The U.S. recession allegedly ended in June 2009. And now it is finally ending in Oregon.
Ben Jacklet is managing editor of Oregon Business.