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Lehigh Valley economy on upswing, economists say

By Tom De Martini, WFMZ.com Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Jan 21 2014 04:31:13 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 21 2014 07:26:42 PM CST

We're a few weeks into 2014, and now we're getting an idea of what business leaders and economists are expecting for the year ahead.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

The Lehigh Valley's economy hasn't totally recovered from pre-recession levels, but significant progress on the employment and business growth fronts illustrates that promising economic times could soon be on the near-term horizon.

That was the message from two well-known and respected economists who served as keynote speakers Tuesday at the Lehigh Valley Economic Outlook Luncheon and & Community Development Awards at the Arts Quest Center at SteelStacks.

The program was presented by the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Wells Fargo & Company Global Economist Jay H. Bryson, Ph. D. said that while this year will not see the U.S. economy coming all the way back, GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth should weigh in at about 2.5 percent.

"It's a little below levels of the last cycle of 1992 through 2007, which was 3 percent per year," Bryson said. "It's not a boom, but it's getting closer. There's no recession in the forecast and I expect 2015 to be stronger than 2014. If this was a baseball game, I'd call (the recovery) at about the 7th inning stretch. I just hope we don't go into extra innings."

On the local front, Kamran Afshar of Bethlehem-based Kamran Afshar Associates, said his survey of local business leaders shows employment is seeing a significant improvement.

"Everyone is relatively on the same page, planning to increase employment in a really significant fashion," Afshar said.

He added that Valley employers have added about 4/10ths of an employee in the last six months. "It's very slow growth, but it beats the alternative. It's significantly different from the Great Recession years, when employers were laying off everybody," Afshar said.

However, Nancy Dischinat, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board sounded a different tone, noting that the area needs more trained workers.

Dischinat said that while the valley's unemployment rate has fallen to 7.5 percent from 8.6 percent, it still ranks the fourth-highest in Pennsylvania.

Dischinat said the Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board has applied to the U.S. Department of Education for a grant in partnership with the Chamber, local colleges and the Allentown School District to help train students for the changing job market.

Bryson said consumer spending remains slow as people are reticent to build up too much of a credit balance.

"I don't know what the magic number is," Bryson said. "The highest consumer credit right now is in student loans. No one wants to be leveraged."

Bryson said government spending has slowed, but that would be offset by business spending and a 15 percent increase in housing starts.

Still, Bryson said employment holds the key. He said the 190,000 jobs per month that the U.S. economy has added is still below the 250,000 or so needed to get the overall economy chugging.

"For example, there's pent-up demand for cars," Bryson said. "The average car on the road is about 12 years old. If employment picks up, people will buy cars. People have been afraid to buy cars, because they were afraid about losing jobs."

Bryson also said unexpected factors that could hurt the economy would be a U.S. debt government default and defaulting of economies in Europe and China.

The Greater Lehigh Chamber of Commerce bestowed three Community Development Awards during the luncheon.

The recipients were Billy Kounoupis of Billy's Downtown Diners in Bethlehem and Allentown for his success in the restaurant business; the Lehigh Northampton Transportation Authority (LANTA) for its continued community contributions and Lehigh Valley Health Network for free and reduced health care programs.