The national recession is over, but it may be hard to realize it for some time to come.
That was the general message from two economic experts at the first Robins Regional Forecast luncheon held Thursday at the Galleria Conference Center in Centerville. About 150 people gathered to hear the forecast from Trip Shinn, professor of economics at Macon State College, and Michael Chriszt, assistant vice president for the research department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. The event was sponsored by the Warner Robins Area Chamber.
Employment is a good indication of what’s been going on and what’s likely ahead, Shinn said.
“Everybody is calling this a jobless recovery,” he said.
Employment has been steadily declining since January 2008, and nationally the country has been losing an average of 500,000 jobs every month, he said. So the figures from last month came as a big surprise.
“The figure for November was down 11,000,” Shinn said. “That might give us some hope that things eventually will turn around.”
While the unemployment rate in Bibb and Peach counties has steadily increased to about 10 percent, the rate in Houston County “tends to be in better shape,” at about 7 percent to 7.5 percent in October, he said.
The housing sector “is not doing all that great,” Shinn said. Unemployment in construction is down about 17 percent nationally, and housing foreclosures are expected to continue for awhile.
“Building permits are somewhat a leading indicator of what’s going on in the economy,” he said. And while those numbers are down, in many cases the number of building permits are more than twice in Houston County than in much of the surrounding area, he said.
“Unfortunately, we think residential and commercial construction activity will remain stagnant at least for awhile,” he said.
There are some hopeful signs, Shinn said.
Much of the federal stimulus money went into education and there has been job growth in that sector both locally and statewide.
“One thing that will get us out of this is confidence ... and that’s both consumer and business confidence,” he said. But it’s difficult to say which will come first, consumer confidence or business confidence.
“That’s a chicken and egg question,” Shinn said.
Much of Chriszt’s message was similar to Shinn’s.
“The outlook for next year is for a slow recovery,” Chriszt said. “We get asked all the time: ‘Is the worst over?’ As far as the financial crisis goes, yes, definitely.”
And in terms of economic growth, the answer is yes, but there are conditions attached, he said.
“The financial markets have stabilized,” he said. “But unfortunately all things are not well and good.”
A poll of small businesses found that six out of 10 who applied for credit got it, but 25 percent didn’t get what they needed, he said.
“Access to credit remains a significant issue,” Chriszt said.
While the national recession is over and the economy is growing, unemployment remains “very high,” he said. Some people are working part time when they want to work full time. Construction and manufacturing “remain under pressure,” he said.
At the end of the presentation, a member of the audience asked about the prospects for spring college graduates.
“College graduates are a little pessimistic, as you can imagine,” Shinn said. “They had a tough time this summer and I think they will have a tough time next summer.”
Chriszt responded by saying that many employers who let employees go over the past year or so did it pretty quickly.
“Things ground to a halt late last year,” he said. “Businesses are very hesitant to add employees (on a permanent basis) but those who hire temporary workers are increasing ... as employers realize they need help.”
Houston County homebuilder Billy Schwanebeck said after the meeting that he was encouraged by what he heard.
“It was more optimistic than I thought it would be,” he said. “It was great to hear that we have reached a plateau.”
Schwanebeck said he was fortunate to be able to fall back on his drafting abilities when homebuilding declined. Things began picking up about three weeks ago.
“I got three plans this week,” he said. “I am just really excited.”