View Ahead Is One Of Guarded Optimism

June 4, 2002
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No one can question that 2001 has been a year of nasty shocks. Even by this time last year, the Federal Reserve Board — alarmed by a sudden collapse in industrial purchase orders — already had chopped the prime rate half a point.

The die-off among dot-coms was well into its sixth month and had yet to complete its course. And despite passage of some miniscule tax cuts, the economic brakes stayed on and the stock market shed its so-called irrational exuberance.

A pump-priming federal income tax rebate was about half distributed when terrorist hijackers re-awakened Americans to the fact that the world is a jungle stalked by tigers. The attack caused the markets to temporarily resume their plunge and the entire airline industry suddenly was in deep trouble, despite promises of massive infusions of taxpayer cash. One-size-fits-all security measures seemed guaranteed to hamper the very industry it was designed to protect, with more and more people — among them business travelers — taking to the road rather than put up with tedious baggage inspections of dubious value.

Yet it’s difficult — despite the threats and pledges of more terrorist attacks — not to detect a certain business-as-usual sense, if not outright optimism. For one thing, the American military surprised the world’s tigers by repaying terror with a lightweight but devastatingly exact touch.

Moreover, as one commentator put it days after the Sept. 11 attacks, “The terrorists killed a lot of innocent people and destroyed a symbol, but they couldn’t do lasting damage to an economy that’s so vast and decentralized.”

Recently buttressing the notion of economic decentralization was George Erickcek, senior regional economic analyst for the W.E. Upjohn Institute. He told his Grand Rapids listeners the recovery will begin in the second quarter, but that (see story on Page B1) 2002 will be nothing to write home about. In part, however, that’s just because, by comparison, the economy of the last few years has been something to rave about, he said. An economy running in overdrive basically has downshifted. We won’t have a 17 million-unit automotive year; we’ll just have to make do with a “mere” 15 million to 16 million units next year.

Fortunately, though, he also thinks we are part of a regional economy that seems to be poised to do more than merely recover.

Erickcek noted that what ought to be called the Grand Rapids-Shoreline SMA places second just behind Minneapolis-St. Paul in long-term trends for wage and salary earnings. Too, he said, this region places first nationally in terms of both long-term employment growth and in manufacturing employment growth. Likewise, he said, West Michigan ranks first in productivity.

“In order to produce numbers like this you must be one of the most productive manufacturing areas in the world,” Erickcek added.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t people in Grand Rapids and on the shoreline who aren’t hurting right now. To the person without a job, it hardly matters whether the local economy is good, bad or recovering; times are tough at home and the stress and uncertainty are fierce and unremitting.

Yet if one must be laid off, it’s perhaps best to be networking and seeking employment in a region which bears such sterling economic credentials and which seems poised on the brink of resurgence.           

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