Forecast: Sluggish economic growth expected to continue into 2014

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 11, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - For those waiting for the economic recovery to get out of first gear, don't expect it to happen in 2014.

That appeared to be the consensus from economic forecasters at the 24th annual U.S. Bank Economic Forum, held on Tuesday, Dec. 10, at the Bellingham Golf & Country Club.

The economy still will have unusual things happen, but the overall numbers will be similar to 2013. John Mitchell, a national economist, said inflation and interest rates should remain low, while economic growth stays sluggish as the federal government eases back on long-term asset purchases. Plenty of factors will play into the continued sluggish growth of the national economy, including policy uncertainty and a general lack of consumer confidence.

"If you liked 2013, that's good because you could have it again in 2014," Mitchell said.

Some of the more interesting economic stories could take place in Washington state in 2014. In his presentation, Michael Parks noted that this state could have a couple of economic earthquakes from Boeing and Microsoft, along with continued "volcanic activity" from the growth of Amazon.com.

If Boeing decides to build its latest plane, the 777x, outside of Washington state, it would have a major impact, said Parks. He studies state economic trends and was formerly the editor at Marple's Northwest Business Letter, which ceased publication earlier this year.

Perhaps one event not getting as much attention is the naming of a new CEO at Microsoft.

Parks said it is way too early to see what impact the new CEO would have, but it could lead to some fundamental changes at the company.

As for Amazon, it continues to grow at a tremendous rate. Parks expects the retail giant to overtake Boeing and Microsoft in the next few years in terms of annual revenue.

In Canada and British Columbia, the economy has started slowing down, but a potential housing bubble burst hasn't materialized, said Chris Lawless, chief economist at British Columbia Investment Management Corp. Commodity prices such as gold have gone down, as well as the strength in the Canadian dollar, which is currently valued at about 94 cents compared to the U.S. dollar.

Lawless expects the B.C. economy to experience sluggish growth in 2014, with the loonie hanging around 90-95 cents in comparison to the U.S. dollar.

The Whatcom County economy should continue to steadily improve, with the unemployment rate remaining around 6 percent and retail sales rising about 5 percent next year, said Hart Hodges, director of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University.

Hodges also talked about the bigger local economic picture, noting that this area has a similar job growth rate to the rest of the state in the past five years. In taking a closer look at where the job growth is coming from, the data indicates that professional and technical services, which tend to have higher-than-average wages, have shrunk in Whatcom County while that sector is growing significantly in the Seattle area.

According to the state Employment Security Department, this area employed 7,100 people in professional and technical services in October 2013, down 600 compared to October 2007, and only up 100 since October 2009.

He also looked at the age demographics and noticed Whatcom County is having trouble keeping people in their late 20s and early 30s and wondered if there's a connection.

"If things don't change, we will see a different market," said Hodges, adding that it could impact how companies look at the demographics in this area.

Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Business Blog at bellinghamherald.com/business-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

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