Saturday, December 18, 2010

Legacy Costs: Past As Prologue

The Sun Belt offers greenfields aplenty while the Rust Belt is shackled with too many brownfields. That's the dominant economic geography of the United States. Rust Belt cities in the Sun Belt also struggle, demonstrating the power of the legacy cost predictor. The latest from Bill Testa (Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago) illustrates this very point:

The local effects of the downward drift of manufacturing jobs can be seen with great clarity by comparing the performance of the Great Lakes major metro areas in juxtaposition with their own historic concentration in manufacturing. Eleven major metropolitan areas are charted in [Figure 4], running east to west from Buffalo and Pittsburgh to St. Louis and Minneapolis. A strong inverse correlation is evident in observing each MSA’s share of payroll employment in the manufacturing sector in 1969 as compared to subsequent growth in total job growth to 2006. Those metropolitan areas having the highest manufacturing job concentration in 1969—such as Detroit, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, subsequently experienced the worst total job growth. A similar relationship exists between growth in each MSA’s per capita income growth. For Great Lakes communities, manufacturing has been destiny.

Often, much is made of the variance of policy geography (e.g. right-to-work states). The more important issue is dependence on manufacturing. When you look at the Rust Belt's strongest performers (i.e. Indianapolis, Columbus, and Minneapolis), you could have placed a bet in 1969 on the regions with the smallest share of manufacturing jobs and made millions. As an aside, St. Louis and Indianapolis chimed with about the same share but there is a large difference in job growth between the two cities. That would be an interesting case study of diverging fortunes.

I think of Pittsburgh and other Rust Belt cities trying to get where Minneapolis and Columbus were in 1969. That means trading manufacturing jobs for ones in other sectors of the economy. It also demands a substantial improvement in rates of educational attainment. All of the above is tough to do with so much public debt and a decaying infrastructure. The deck is stacked against these regions.

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