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All Over the Map

“First Fridays” these days find Wall Street investors and Washington policymakers and pundits holding their collective breath. At around 8:30 AM, on the first Friday of each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases the latest round of job and unemployment figures. And then the buying, selling, and spinning begins.

But this insider obsession begs the question: Do these numbers reflect what’s happening on the ground?

To get a better appreciation of how workers and firms across the country are experiencing the downturn--and whether they are on the cusp of recovery, still staring into the abyss, or somewhere in between--we conduct a quarterly assessment of economic conditions in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, which together account for about two-thirds of U.S. jobs. Today marked the release of the second MetroMonitor, which examined trends through the second quarter (April through June) of 2009. In looking at the 100-metro map of overall performance over the course of the recession (see below), a few patterns stand out:

South by Southwest. Many of the top metropolitan performers cluster in Texas, the Plains states, and the lower Mississippi River Valley. They benefit from some shared characteristics, such as specialization in the relatively stable energy and insurance sectors, continued stimulus from federal Gulf Coast Recovery funding, and a relative shortage of speculative homebuilding and subprime mortgage lending during the run-up to the housing crash. But they also draw added strength from their close trade and migration ties with one another. Houston does better when Baton Rouge does better—and vice versa. (That rule cuts the other way, of course, for despairing regions—see Florida’s eight metro areas.)


Portland’s complaint. A bad situation in Portland, Oregon seems like it’s growing somewhat worse. The metro area has experienced one of the largest rises in its unemployment rate over the past 12 months (6 points), its economic output has declined more than 4 percent in just 9 months, its home prices are falling and foreclosures rising, and job loss actually accelerated in the second quarter. Portland doesn’t exactly look like the other worst-performing metro areas (go-go housing areas in Florida and California; auto production centers around the Great Lakes). Part of its high unemployment may owe to its “young and restless” population, which is probably feeling more restless than ever these days, though maybe not enough to pull up stakes and head for better economic climes in middle America (unlike some neighbors to the north). Boise, Idaho seems to be on a similarly troubled trajectory.

Uh-oh [way to go] Ohio. Although the Great Lakes states have been pretty battered over the course of this downturn, due in part to their close ties to the auto industry, things actually looked up in a few Ohio metro areas in the second quarter of 2009. Akron led the nation in job growth, while Dayton and Columbus were not far behind with very modest job losses. Cleveland and Toledo saw inventories of foreclosed homes decline. Unfortunately, however, the state’s seven major metro areas all saw relatively steep declines in output in the second quarter, ranking among the 20 weakest metro areas on that measure. Whatever jobs they are adding or preserving are apparently not enough to offset their continued losses of high-value jobs in manufacturing and other industries. (To add insult to injury, the Buckeyes are probably out of the national championship picture after this weekend, too.)

And yes, that’s Pittsburgh, site of next week’s G-20 meetings, posting solid numbers across the board.

The Avenue, meanwhile, is fortunate to originate from one of the nation’s strongest-performing metro areas. Which makes it all the more important that policymakers here in Washington maintain focus on promoting a geographically broad-based recovery. If the economic case isn’t convincing enough, consider the politics of leaving behind the metro areas that propel Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Nevada… can you say, “swing states?”