Whatcom’s economy grew in 2017. Will it continue in 2018?


There’s a saying that economic expansions don’t die of old age, but this current one has some pondering how long it can go.

Three economists delved into the topic Tuesday at the 28th annual U.S. Bank Economic Outlook Forum, held at the Bellingham Golf & Country Club. The forum featured 2018 economic forecasts for Whatcom County, Western Washington, British Columbia and Canada.

John Mitchell summed up how people feel about the U.S. economy by jokingly comparing some work done by actors Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise. Nicholson was in a movie called “As Good as it Gets,” while Cruise was in “Top Gun,” which featured the song “Danger Zone.”

It was Mitchell’s way of illustrating that with full employment and strong gross domestic product numbers, the U.S. economy is performing well. A lot of changes are happening, however, which provide risks to an economic expansion that has lasted 102 months, the third-longest ever in the U.S.

Mitchell is a former economist for the west region of US Bancorp., parent company of U.S. Bank.

At the Whatcom County level, the economy should continue to plug along in 2018 with about 2 percent employment growth and OK, but not great, wage growth, said Hart Hodges. Hodges is a director at Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research.

Whatcom County will continue to be on a different path when it comes to economic growth than the Seattle area because the two economies is different, Hodges said. Seattle’s current job growth is driven by what’s happening with high-tech companies and professional services, while Whatcom County’s job growth is coming from construction and manufacturing. Both economies are experiencing strong retail job growth.

Something that is worth watching in the coming years is the changing demographics of Whatcom County, Hodges said.

Population data indicates that between 2010 and 2016, Whatcom County has seen a significant increase of people in their 60s and 70s. During the same time there’s been a decrease in the number of people in their 20s and 40s. King County posted increases in nearly every age group, including strong increases for people in their 20s and 30s.

In Canada the economy performed better than expected in 2017, said Chris Lawless, chief economist at British Columbia Investment Management Corporation. In British Columbia he expects economic growth to continue in 2018, but at a slower pace than 2017. A possible real estate bubble and high consumer debt are the big concerns for the economy.

Across the U.S., GDP growth should be in the 2 percent range in 2018, with interest rates continuing to rise slowly to head off possible inflation, Mitchell said.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz