U.S. Economy Seems to be Stuck in Neutral

By John W. Schoen
|  Thursday, Jan 21, 2010  |  Updated 12:30 AM EDT
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U.S. Economy Seems to be Stuck in Neutral

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A job seeker reads a book as he waits to use a phone at the Richmond Works One Stop Career Center in Richmond, California.

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The nationwide recession may have ended last summer, but most states and cities continue to struggle and have not yet begun to recover, according to the latest Adversity Index from Moody's Economy.com and msnbc.com.

A few more cities and states moved into recovery in November, according to the latest data, but most areas were still in a "moderating" recession, meaning the situation was still deteriorating, but more slowly, according to Andrew Gledhill, an economist with Moody's Economy.com.

“For a lot of these areas it hasn’t gotten measurably better, it just stopped getting worse," he said. "But there still hasn’t been the distinct uptick we’d like to see. This recession has been so deep, it’s going to take a long time to get back to where we were pre-recession.”

After the last recession in 2001, the swing to expansion was more rapid, according to the Adversity Index data, which goes back to 1994. In March 2002, most states were just coming out of recession; by September of that year expansion had taken hold widely.

This time, though the steepest part of the downturn ended in most states last June, most remained mired in a “moderating recession” as of November. Only scattered areas were in “recovery” and none yet show “expansion.”

Like all recoveries, this one has been felt unevenly across the country. One bright spot in the November index was Texas — which has moved into the recovery category. Rising energy prices have helped boost the number of drilling rigs in operation. Dallas and Houston were among 28 metropolitan areas that moved into the recovery category in the latest survey.

Heavy government spending on the economic stimulus program and a slowdown in the level of inventory drawdowns helped boost the nation's economic output in the second half of 2009.  But most economists expect growth to remain weak thorough this year.

“This recession was so consumer-driven, and that engine has really not yet picked up,” said Gledhill.

Weak job, housing markets
Until the housing and job markets turn around, it’s going to be tough to get consumers in a spending mood. Though job losses have been easing, payrolls continued to shrink in almost every state in November.

The only areas showing employment levels the same as a year earlier were North Dakota and Washington, D.C. In the hardest-hit states — Arizona, Michigan and Nevada — payrolls fell by more than 6 percent from November 2008 to November 2009.

After recovering from a steep slide, housing starts were still down by more than 20 percent during that period in Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Nevada, Ohio and Wyoming. But housing starts were higher than a year ago in 17 states plus the District of Columbia. Those states are Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.

Each month, the Adversity Index uses government data on employment, industrial production, housing starts and home prices to label each state and metro area as expanding, at risk of recession, in recession or recovering. The index was developed by msnbc.com and Moody's Economy.com, which sells in-depth economic forecasts on metro areas.

"Recovery" doesn't mean that an area's economy is above where it was at the beginning of the recession, just that the area has begun to dig its way out of the hole.

No metro area yet is showing "expansion," the most positive category; that label is triggered when a metro area's economy grows past its previous peak. Most of the recovering areas are far from that level.

Nearly one in three metro areas have started to recover, but most major cities are still in a moderating recession. (The full list is below.)

Of the nation's 384 metro areas 146, or 38 percent, were in recovery as of November, up from 31 percent in October, according to the Adversity Index.

A much larger group, 237 metro areas, were in a "moderating recession" in November, meaning their economies were still shrinking but not so severely as earlier this year.

That leaves just one metro area still spiraling downward in a full recession: Las Vegas.

‘Play’ the index
Here are several ways to explore this month's Adversity Index:

  • An interactive map above this story shows the economic health of every state and metro area. You can "play" the map to watch the economy's ups and downs over 15 years, or select any state to see data for each metro area for each month. You can also see the map on its own page.
  • A month-by-month chart shows when the current recession enveloped each metro area.
  • The updated index will be published every month at http://adversity.msnbc.com. There is a lag of about six weeks, so November data will be out in January.
  • An explainer tells how the Adversity Index assesses the economy.
  • This list shows which counties are within each metro area.

State by state
Looking at the state-level data, three more states moved into the recovery category in November: Arkansas, South Carolina and Texas. It joined Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington, D.C. Within those states some metro areas are still in "moderating" recession.

Nevada was the only state left classified as being in a full recession in November, according to the Adversity Index. All other states were in a moderating recession or recovery.

Metro areas in recovery
Here are the 146 metro areas where the Adversity Index shows a recovery under way in November. Several of the metro areas cross state lines and are listed more than once.

  • Alabama (6 out of 12 metro areas in recovery): Birmingham-Hoover, Columbus (Georgia-Alabama), Decatur, Florence, Huntsville, Mobile.
  • Alaska (1 out of 2): Anchorage.
  • Arizona (1 out of 6): Yuma.
  • Arkansas (5 out of 8): Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers (Arkansas-Missouri), Fort Smith, Hot Springs, Little Rock-Conway, Pine Bluff
  • California (0 out of 28).
  • Colorado (1 out of 7): Colorado Springs.
  • Connecticut (1 out of 4): Norwich-New London.
  • Delaware (1 out of 2): Dover.
  • Washington, D.C. (0 out of 1): The broad metro area, which includes parts of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, is still in recession, though the narrower District of Columbia itself is listed in recovery.
  • Florida (1 out of 22): Pensacola-Ferry Pass-Brent.
  • Georgia (9 out of 15): Albany, Augusta-Richmond County (Georgia-South Carolina), Brunswick, Columbus (Georgia-Alabama), Gainesville, Hinesville, Macon, Savannah, Warner Robins.
  • Hawaii (0 out of 1).
  • Idaho (4 out of 6): Idaho Falls, Lewiston (Idaho-Washington), Logan (Utah-Idaho), Pocatello.
  • Illinois (6 out of 13): Bloomington-Normal, Danville, Davenport-Moline-Rock Island (Iowa-Illinois), Kankakee-Bradley, Springfield, St. Louis (Missouri-Illinois).
  • Indiana (10 out of 16): Anderson, Bloomington, Elkhart-Goshen, Evansville (Indiana-Kentucky), Fort Wayne, Gary, Indianapolis-Carmel, Kokomo, Lafayette, Terre Haute.
  • Iowa (9 out of 9): Ames, Cedar Rapids, Davenport-Moline-Rock Island (Iowa-Illinois), Des Moines-West Des Moines, Dubuque, Iowa City, Omaha-Council Bluffs (Nebraska-Iowa), Sioux City (Iowa-Nebraska-South Dakota), Waterloo.
  • Kansas (3 out of 6): Kansas City (Missouri-Kansas), Manhattan, St. Joseph (Missouri-Kansas).
  • Kentucky (5 out of 9): Clarksville (Tennessee-Kentucky), Elizabethtown, Evansville (Indiana-Kentucky), Lexington-Fayette, Owensboro.
  • Louisiana (3 out of 8): Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner.
  • Maine (0 out of 3).
  • Maryland (2 out of 7): Salisbury, Bethesda.
  • Massachusetts (2 out of 8): Cambridge-Newton-Framingham, Worcester.
  • Michigan (0 out of 16).
  • Minnesota (3 out of 8): Fargo (North Dakota-Minnesota), Grand Forks (North Dakota-Minnesota), Rochester.
  • Mississippi (3 out of 5): Gulfport-Biloxi, Jackson, Pascagoula.
  • Missouri: (8 out of 9) Cape Girardeau, Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers (Arkansas-Missouri), Jefferson City, Joplin, Kansas City (Missouri-Kansas), Springfield, St. Joseph (Missouri-Kansas), St. Louis (Missouri-Illinois).
  • Montana (2 out of 3): Billings, Missoula.
  • Nebraska (3 out of 3): Lincoln, Omaha-Council Bluffs (Nebraska-Iowa), Sioux City (Iowa-Nebraska-South Dakota).
  • Nevada (0 out of 3).
  • New Hampshire (1 out of 2): Manchester-Nashua.
  • New Jersey (2 out of 10): Edison-New Brunswick, Newark-Union (New Jersey-Pennsylvania).
  • New Mexico (1 out of 4): Las Cruces.
  • New York (3 out of 13): Buffalo-Niagara Falls, Ithaca, Utica-Rome.
  • North Carolina (4 out of 15): Fayetteville, Goldsboro, Greenville, Winston-Salem.
  • North Dakota (3 out of 3): Bismarck, Fargo (North Dakota-Minnesota), Grand Forks (North Dakota-Minnesota).
  • Ohio (3 out of 16): Columbus, Sandusky, Toledo.
  • Oklahoma (1 out of 4): Lawton.
  • Oregon (0 out of 6).
  • Pennsylvania (6 out of 16): Erie, Johnstown, Lebanon, Newark-Union (New Jersey-Pennsylvania), Reading, State College.
  • Rhode Island (0 out of 1).
  • South Carolina (6 out of 10): Augusta-Richmond County (Georgia-South Carolina), Charleston-Summerville, Columbia, Greenville, Myrtle Beach-Conway, Spartanburg.
  • South Dakota (3 out of 3): Rapid City, Sioux City (Iowa-Nebraska-South Dakota), Sioux Falls.
  • Tennessee (4 out of 10): Clarksville (Tennessee-Kentucky), Cleveland, Johnson City, Memphis.
  • Texas (19 out of 26): Amarillo, Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, Brownsville-Harlingen, College Station, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth-Arlington, Houston, Laredo, Longview, Lubbock, McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Odessa, San Angelo, San Antonio-New Braunfels, Victoria, Waco, Wichita Falls.
  • Utah (2 out of 5): Logan (Utah-Idaho), Provo-Orem.
  • Vermont (0 out of 1).
  • Virginia (5 out of 11): Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford, Charlottesville, Danville, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg.
  • Washington (3 out of 13): Kennewick-Richland-Pasco, Lewiston (Idaho-Washington), Mount Vernon-Anacortes.
  • West Virginia (2 out of 9): Morgantown, Weirton-Steubenville (West Virginia-Ohio).
  • Wisconsin (7 out of 15): Appleton, Eau Claire, Janesville, Madison, Oshkosh-Neenah, Sheboygan, Wausau.
  • Wyoming (0 out of 2).  

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