How Is Your Personal Economic Recovery Going?

Are you not feeling the economic recovery? This could be why.
Barry Ritholtz
Washington Post, May 17 2015




“The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”
—William Gibson


William Gibson’s observation about the future was a reference to the idea that people have different access to new technology based on wealth and location. That visionary quote kept coming to mind as I have been traveling around the United States to meet with clients this past year. My itinerary gave me a good perspective on the U.S. economic recovery.

Like the future, it, too, is not evenly distributed.

Why is that? The economy is, in a word, “lumpy.” It is strong in some regions, anemic in others. Strength by economic sector varies widely. There are myriad reasons for this: Some parts of the country were much harder hit by the real estate collapse; some sectors naturally rebound more quickly; some innovations lend themselves to more rapid growth.

The kind of recovery that you personally are experiencing is highly dependent upon many factors, but today I want to focus on three: education, market sector and geography. The data suggest these elements matter a great deal. Look closely, and you can see how your personal economic recovery is doing — and why.

Let’s take a closer look at what matters most:

Education: If there is a single lesson you need to learn from this crash and recovery, it is that education matters a lot. The data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics makes clear the direct correlation between increased education and lower unemployment rates and higher wages.

We have a full year’s worth of data for 2014. Across all workers (over age 25 and working full time), the unemployment rate was 5 percent. For workers who had a high school degree or some college, the unemployment rate was a little higher than average (6 percent); with an associate’s degree, it was a little lower (4.5 percent). Schooling is where we really see a difference: Workers without a high school diploma had an unemployment rate of last year of 9 percent, double the average of workers with an associate’s degree.



Source: BLS


Have a bachelor’s degree? Great, your peer group had an unemployment rate of only 3.5 percent. Master’s degree holders saw that fall to 2.8 percent, while doctoral graduates were at only 2.1 percent unemployment. Professional degree holders’ unemployment rate was the lowest at 1.9 percent.

Anyone who believes school doesn’t matter should recognize that enormous unemployment range of 1.9 to 9.0 percent.

If that does not convince, then look at compensation. Weekly wages are very similar in their distribution to unemployment: the average was $839 per week for all workers, but only $488 for those without a high school diploma. Those who held a professional degree averaged more than triple that amount at $1,639 per week. Bachelor’s degree holders averaged more than double at $1,101 per week.

Geographic location/market sector: I’m conflating these two together because in my experience they’re so closely related.

Since I have not visited every city in the United States, this is a somewhat anecdotal analysis. My experiences are not the same as a true data read. Even so, it is clear that some areas in the country are doing much better than others and give you a leg up in experiencing a robust recovery. Here is my short Top 5 list:

New York: Following a huge collapse, there is nothing like a trillion-dollar bailout to jump-start your economic recovery. In the face of an AWOL Congress whose fiscal stimulus was marginal by historical crisis standards, the Federal Reserve became the only game in town. Between TARP, ZIRP and QE, the Big Apple has been the recipient of much taxpayer largesse. Even Fed money that was destined for the rest of the country still passed through NYC. That worked to the advantage of the owner of the corner deli and the Porsche dealer alike.

The actions of the Fed not only cushioned the blow from the collapse but set the stage for the next round of expansion. In particular, finance and real estate sectors have been on fire in New York. Note that this is a theme in every city experiencing a boom. There always seem to be at least two hot sectors: (1) real estate and (2) something else. One drives the other.

Washington, D.C.: If finance is driving the New York economy, the “business of politics” is driving the District. From lawyers to lobbyists to government contractors, the city is swollen with activity. We see it reflected in the real estate prices in the surrounding communities. Washington may talk about shrinking government, but leaders have been expanding all of the related industries that feed into — or off of — the seat of U.S. power and money.

Seattle: This could very well be the hottest, fastest growing city in North America right now. It’s much more than just Amazon and Boeing and Microsoft (now in the midst of a Satya Nadella-led turnaround). There is Costco Wholesale, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Nike, T-Mobile US, Micron Technology and Expedia.

Intellectual capital abounds. What makes the place so vibrant is the huge number of new tech start-ups and expanding existing firms. One is reminded of how Silicon Valley was in the early 1990s. Despite rising real estate prices, it is a very civilized place to live, with great outdoor activities and beautiful scenery. Most important of all, there is an energy and enthusiasm and optimism among all of the people I met in town.

San Francisco/Silicon Valley: Another full-on boomtown. Technology is running on all eight cylinders, or, perhaps more accurately, a fully charged Tesla PowerWall. Whereas the dot-com boom was frivolous and frothy, filled with pie-in-the-sky business models, this is more substantive and functional. Lots of wild ideas are still getting funded, but in this cycle, revenues count. The infrastructure built around software and semiconductors is much more mature than it was back in the 1990s. Apps, alternative energy, big data and relentless innovation are keeping the city and its even more important surrounding technology suburbs humming.

Of course there is some froth, as that is inherent to the venture investing process. On occasion, silly ideas get funded and good ideas see ludicrous valuations (and vice versa). Most technorati will admit — after you pour enough alcohol into them — that venture investing looks like a huge crapshoot. For each Uber there are still 100 Pets.coms. But so long as the community of engineers and programmers keeps finding new and disruptive ways to do things better, the economy here is going to keep growing.

Boston: With about the same population as Seattle, Boston has quietly managed a very nice economic recovery. It may not be quite as booming as some of the others I’ve mentioned, but it is growing smartly. Boston has a foot in biotech, medicine and health care, finance, high-technology research and development, and education. About the only things that are not nicely inflated in this town are the New England Patriots’ footballs.

Of course, this is a very biased sample set: I visit cities where we have clients, and, by definition, wealth management clients tend to be fairly wealthy. Hence, my sample set of cities is likely to be doing better than a randomly selected group of metropolitan locales.Iowa, which also enjoys a diverse economy plus a huge agricultural footprint, also maintains a very low unemployment rate. Utah, Colorado and Minnesota have also been strong. So too has Texas, which is no longer as energy-centric as it once was. In the 1980s, a fall in oil prices was catastrophic; its diverse economic base is better able to weather a commodity crash these days.

That said, lots of other parts of the country have also been doing well. Warren Buffett’s home state of Nebraska boasts the lowest unemployment rate in the United States, at 2.6 percent. (It eclipsed North Dakota, which has seen a modest uptick in unemployment as crude oil prices were cut in half since last September). The state has a big agricultural sector and food processing, notably beef production. But the state is fairly diversified, including electrical machinery and manufacturing, telecommunications and information technology.

So if you can put it all together — if you have a good education, choose your field wisely and live in a thriving area — the economy’s looking pretty good to you right now. If not, well, my experience suggests that you should take a hard look at those factors.


Ritholtz is chief executive of Ritholtz Wealth Management. He is the author of “Bailout Nation” and runs a finance blog, The Big Picture. On Twitter:@Ritholtz

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  1. VennData commented on May 23

    I nibbled on the market after Obama was elected. I had a lot of cash, bonds, what stocks I had were down. I even bought a little on May 6th of Vanguard’s Small cap value. I continued to re-allocate for the next year.

    So I’m doing great.

    Lesson. The odds of Republican predictions coming true is low. Bet against them,

    • intlacct commented on May 23

      Remember Romney’s quip: Obama was picking winners? Yes, he picked the stock market and it’s up 200%. Heh

  2. James Cameron commented on May 23

    > Despite rising real estate prices, it is a very civilized place to live, with great outdoor activities and beautiful scenery. Most important of all, there is an energy and enthusiasm and optimism among all of the people I met in town.

    Inextricably linked with that growth is some of the worse traffic in the country and housing costs that are pricing more and more people out of the city . . . it is not all nirvana.

  3. boveri commented on May 23

    Was aware of Boeing and Microsoft in Seattle but had no idea of the others. There must be something about the climate that stimulates.

    • ironman commented on May 24

      The absence of a corporate or personal income tax in the state of Washington plays a big factor, while Washington also ranks very highly in the business tax climate of all U.S. states. As long as we’re discussing something about the climate that stimulates….

  4. Joe commented on May 23

    Let’s toss in another factor on the SF frothiness; as a lifelong (and even born and raised inna City) observer, the dotcom Boom was insane. But the credit boom was even insanier. And ultimately more damaging. The dotcom boom emptied the city of barrista’s and waiters as the startups employed and titled every warm body who could claim some familiarity with computers or software and kept everybody in a support endeavor (electricians, real estate agents, graphic artists, and movers) at a dead run. But it stopped 5 miles out from the SF/San Jose corridor. Everybody else gritted their teeth and said, “Why not me.” Jeesus, the magazine spreads of instant millionaires were insane, including the janitor at Netscape and if you wanted commerial space, you gave the landlord 2% of the company to secure the deal. Then it crashed and there was schadenfreude all over everywhere.

    The credit boom was absolutely statewide and touched EVERYBODY. And when it crashed, there was little to no schadenfreude, just a lot of tears because if it didn’t hammer you flat, it hammered someone close to you..

    The current boom is a 12 step organization thrown bachelor party. The janitor service will clean it up, not the hazmat people.

    Damn, I meant to swap Alfred Bester tales w/ you…..

  5. Internet Tourettes commented on May 23

    I’d have to disagree about the Washington DC analysis. Washington has a countercyclical economy when compared to the rest of the country. The sequester is still going with 85 Billion being removed from from the budgets each year from 2013. Although not all that money is spent in the DC area, most of the local counties are heavily dependent and the reduction of federal dollars has been trickling down causing a lot of stealth layoffs. The Legal industry here has not really recovered from the reduction in billing and there a lot fewer associates being hired. Office vacancies, which used in 2001-2010 were about 5% and now at ~20% and rising and with the base realignment and closure (BRAC) certain locations are seeing a +35% vacancy rate. With all of the speculative building that has taken place over the last couple of years, both office rents and (believe it or not) residential rents are stable or declining. The lobbyist/Government affairs sector is still pretty strong every other sector is a bit week. Since the article references education levels, I can speak from experience that a lot of PhD’s are either not doing so well due to reductions in Life Sciences grants from both NIH and NSF and any PhD’s associated with the “Death Sciences” are finding that defence contracting has been reduced and will continue to shrink with the “end” of the US direct involvement in the middle east. I’m not trying to say that the DC economy is going down the toilet but rather growth has slowed and other regions will grow much quicker.

  6. DeDude commented on May 24

    Yep – the NFL team in Boston is playing softball – but their economy is hardcore

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