Forum: Economists optimistic about Whatcom, regional economy heading into 2015

After years of observing sluggish economic growth following the financial crisis in 2008, a panel of economists are seeing signs that next year might actually be brisk.

An upbeat tone carried much of the 25th annual U.S. Bank Economic Forum, held Tuesday, Dec. 9, at the Bellingham Golf & Country Club. Each panelist gave a forecast for the local, state, Canadian and U.S. economy. At each level, broad-based growth is expected in 2015. The one concern for John Mitchell is if global issues intensify and impact measures like exchange rates, interest rates and commodity prices.

Mitchell, a national economist, pointed to the recent employment gains, the net worth rebound for older citizens and rising disposable income as some of the reasons for the upbeat forecast. In his presentation about net worth, he noted that while those over the age of 40 on average have recovered through assets and the stock market, younger families are dealing with more education debt.

Michael Parks was very optimistic about the state economy heading into 2015, with the Seattle area, particularly Boeing and Amazon, leading the way. State government revenues also continue to improve, but not by enough to solve some of the budget problems, particularly education.

“Seattle is hot in a way that I’ve not seen in the past 40 years,” said Parks, a veteran financial journalist. A couple of risks he sees for the state would be if the rising U.S. dollar began hurting Washington exports or a general global slowdown, which could erode Boeing’s nearly nine-year backlog of projects.

The British Columbia economy has steadily improved in recent years and is expected to do so again in 2015, said Chris Lawless, chief economist at British Columbia Investment Management Corp. The B.C. gross domestic product growth rate should be around 2.5 percent in 2015, right around the previous four years. The Canadian dollar could continue to weaken if oil prices continue to fall, he said, but predicted that next year the loonie will hover around 85 cents compared to the U.S. dollar.

When looking at the Whatcom County economy, Hart Hodges incorporated demographics along with other economic data. Hodges is expecting a slight increase in the population rate and a 1.5 percent employment growth rate in 2015. Wages could go up about 3 percent if the strong job growth takes place, particularly in professional and technical services. Hodges is the director at the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University.

Even the audience was fairly upbeat. In an annual survey, 62 percent of those who responded said they expect to increase capital spending at their businesses next year. The survey also found that 74 percent expect to increase sales in 2015, while 48 percent expect to add employees.