News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

February 9, 2011

MARK BENNETT: There was a flicker of light in Tuesday’s economic presentation

TERRE HAUTE — Blame it on our recession reflex. Everything seems like a bad omen.

Maybe I was the only person who sensed such a karmic moment at the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce’s annual Groundhog Day Economic Forecast before sun-up Tuesday morning in the Hulman Student Union at Indiana State University. But I doubt it.

Just as Indiana business analyst Gerry Dick was about to declare his outlook for the state economy in 2011, the lights in the Dede I meeting room suddenly dimmed to utter darkness. “If you could, give me some light,” Dick politely pleaded to the ISU technical crew. “I can’t see my notes.”

The illumination returned quickly, and Dick said, “I think the bottom line is, we’re beginning to see improvement.”

Despite our impulses, let’s chalk that one up to random irony. After all, Dick — host of the weekly “Inside Indiana Business” TV show — and ISU economics professor Robert Guell both said they saw legitimate bright spots on this year’s horizon. And when Guell said, “I think this is the most optimistic I’ve been in doing this,” the room wasn’t again plunged into darkness.

Guell’s comment was notable. He’s been delivering the Chamber’s Groundhog Day forecast for more than a decade. His blunt and typically gloomy predictions have earned him the nickname “Dr. Doom.” Guell’s 2011 assessment won’t exactly change that label to “Professor Sunshine,” but Tuesday’s prognostication offered shades of the H-word — hope.

Shades.

That’s significant in the economic world. Hope can beget confidence for businesses, which begets investment and expanded production, which begets hiring. Around the Wabash Valley, the latter hasn’t been begotten much since the recession hit in December 2007. Vigo County’s unemployment rate was 10 percent in December, almost identical to the December 2009 rate of 10.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In nearby Vermillion County, the December jobless rate was 12.5 percent, the second highest in Indiana.

In that stubborn economic atmosphere, a bright spot is welcome.

Dick, who grew up in Vermillion County, based his positivity on a survey of managers of companies around the state by the Indiana Business Council. Of those businesspeople polled, 88 percent believed their companies were headed in the right direction. Seventy percent expect an increased demand for their products and services. Unfortunately, their plans for hiring don’t rise to the same level; only 40 percent of those surveyed anticipate expanding their work force in 2011.

“The question is, where are the jobs?” Dick said.

The expectation by some businesses to handle increased demand without adding employees “underscores that companies have gotten a lot more efficient during the recession,” Dick concluded.

Still, possibilities exist for growth that results in more Hoosier jobs. “Deals are beginning to slowly get done,” Dick said, rattling off plant openings and economic development prospects. That list included a nearly $1-billion investment by Chrysler to retool its auto parts plants in recession-battered Kokomo. The federal government’s rescue of that beleaguered automaker enabled that boost to Kokomo.

But the U.S. economy also has shown signs of vitality beyond the bailouts and stimulus package, Guell said. In the fourth quarter of 2010, the national economy grew at an annual rate of 3.2 percent. In that same stretch, consumer spending increased 4.4 percent.

The dark side — yes, it still follows us — is that unemployment refuses to wane. The U.S. jobless rate has remained above 9 percent longer than at any period since the Depression. More than 1 million Americans, discouraged by their inability to find jobs, gave up and left the labor market. “We need them back in for their productivity,” Guell emphasized.

Without that infusion of workers, the recovery can’t be as robust as those after past recessions. Instead of “robust,” we’re getting “stable” right now. “We entirely missed the fun part of a normal economic recovery,” Guell said.

In the meantime, we can focus on those 40 percent of Indiana companies that plan to increase their number of employees. Maybe their optimism will spread to other businesses. It’s a glimmer of hope. But don’t get rid of your flashlight just yet.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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