Mass. Economy Still Growing, But Pace Shrinks

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BOSTON (State House News Service) — By the numbers, the Massachusetts economy looks to be bouncing back well from the COVID-19 pandemic-driven recession even as growth slows down, but the economic analysts at MassBenchmarks said they still have "significant concerns" after taking a closer look at the labor market, inflation and inequalities in unemployment.

The state's economic recovery is continuing despite the highest levels of inflation in nearly 40 years and the arrival of the omicron variant and the fresh uncertainty it has injected into the labor market and supply chains, officials behind the publication from the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute said in a summary of their most recent meeting.

The state's real gross domestic product increased at a 2 percent annualized rate in the third quarter, a big slowdown from 8 percent growth in the second quarter, MassBenchmarks said in October. That led the group to dim its outlook for this winter. On Friday, the MassBenchmarks board said its members "confirmed continued economic recovery" but said the true picture is not clear at the surface.

"Despite the recent gains in the Massachusetts economy, significant concerns persist regarding inequalities in unemployment, declines in the labor force size, volatility in the labor market between available job openings and workers leaving positions, and inflation," the group wrote.

The gap between the Massachusetts unemployment rate for non-Hispanic white workers and the rate for workers of color is larger now than it was before the pandemic, and the state is still about 172,400 jobs short of where it was in February 2020, the MassBenchmarks board wrote.

They also pointed out that while the state's labor force participation rate has stayed higher than that of the U.S. as a whole, it is declining among workers under the age of 25 years and over the age of 55.

"This is partially due to the growing -- and higher than expected -- share of the U.S. population which is retired, driven in part by older workers retiring during the pandemic. It remains to be seen if some of these individuals re-enter the labor market as the economy continues to recover or if these workers continue to stay out of the labor force," the board said.

John Traynor, chief investment officer at People's United Bank, similarly called out the acceleration in retirements when he gave an economic overview at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce event earlier this month.

"What we saw was that during the pandemic, we had roughly 3 million more retirements than what was expected. The Fed believes we'll regain, we'll pull back, about a million of those retirees, but their thought is we've permanently lost an extra 2 million people. Two million people have jumped out of the labor force that should still be there," Traynor said, citing a paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. He added, "A lot of people have dropped out of the workforce. These are some of our most skilled workers, some of our most productive workers. So we've got to figure out how can we hold on to this 55-plus age group."

The MassBenchmarks board met just before the Consumer Price Index hit a 39-year high of 6.8 percent, but the group said it engaged in a lengthy discussion about whether rising inflation is a reflection of supply chain issues or increased demand related to stimulus measures.

"No sharp conclusions were reached regarding those questions, but the implications of elevated inflation for real wages were relatively clear," the said. "Massachusetts wage and salary income increased at a 13.8 percent annualized rate while wages and salaries nationwide grew by 9.9 percent (annual rate) in the third quarter. However, year-over-year, real average weekly earnings across the private sector (nationwide) declined slightly when adjusting for increases in the Consumer Price Index for all Urban Consumers (CPI-U)."

The economists concluded, "As has been the case throughout the pandemic, uncertainty defines the immediate outlook for the state and national economy."

MassBenchmarks editors Michael Goodman and Alan Clayton-Matthews will be among the lineup of economists and budget watchers who will testify Tuesday during the annual consensus revenue hearing. Along with Department of Revenue officials, the Mass. Taxpayers Foundation and others, Goodman and Clayton-Matthews will synthesize recent economic data and future projections into an outlook for state tax revenue performance in fiscal year 2023.

Written by Colin Young, SHNS

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