"State of the Economy" Conference Highlights East Bay Region's Economic Outlook

Highlighting the prominence of the East Bay in the Northern California economy, the School of Economics and Business Administration hosted the third annual "State of the Economy" conference on April 14. For the first time, the College worked in partnership with the Contra Costa Times to produce an in-depth report of the East Bay's economic health. Robert T. Parry, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco contributed to the dialogue with a keynote address about the future of the U.S. economy.

The conference provided a showcase for the study, titled "The Times/Saint Mary's East Bay Economic Outlook," which was published three days earlier as a special business section in the April 11 issue of the Contra Costa Times. It examined housing, productivity, retail sales, employment, and income levels in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. It was produced by the newspaper's business reporters and a team of Saint Mary's faculty members and students, who gathered and analyzed data.

"That's something that we as the comprehensive four-year college in the region should do: provide business and community leaders the information and also the context for what's happening in our county," said Roy Allen, dean of the School of Economics and Business Administration. "One of our goals in our mission statement is to improve business and community partnerships."

Among the report's findings were:

* Wages are approximately ten percent lower in the East Bay than in San Francisco or the South Bay, but that comparative advantage has also made the area more attractive to the emerging technology industries;
* As a result, nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology are expected to play key roles in the East Bay area's future economic health;
* Job growth in the Alameda-Contra Costa counties area in general has been strong for the past thirteen years;
* The diversity of the East Bay economy has allowed it to better weather the recent economic downturn than other Bay Area counties;
* Walnut Creek has become one of the top ten Main Street retail areas in the country;
* Stockton is emerging as an increasingly significant competitor to the East Bay area in terms of housing starts.

Stephen Trousdale, business editor of the Contra Costa Times, said that the report demonstrates that the Alameda-Contra Costa area has a separate, independent, yet understudied, economy.

"The East Bay has become a diverse, vital and important part of the Bay Area economy," he said. "And, just as important, we've started to create our own identity."

Capping the day's events, Parry addressed some 250 faculty members, students, and business and community leaders in the LeFevre Theatre. A member of the Federal Reserve Bank for eighteen years, he offered a broad-brush review of the U.S. economy, suggesting the outlook is mostly positive with a few areas of concern. The nation's strong growth in productivity for the past three years "bodes well for long-run increases in the standard of living in the United States," he said. War spending, tax policies, and the cuts in interest rates have all provided a stimulus to the economy, and both profit rates and the stock market have improved. Job growth continues to lag, he said, most likely because demand for goods and services is not strong enough. Also, in a question-and-answer period, Parry said that although the growing federal deficit isn't an immediate concern, "longer term, it has the potential for causing some difficulties."

Parry also warned that taking measures to counteract "outsourcing," the loss of jobs to other countries, could harm long-term U.S. economic interests. "Our involvement in international and global trade is absolutely essential to our well-being," Parry explained.

As for the Bay Area itself, Parry voiced confidence in the region's ability to survive the damage of the technology industry downturn, noting the area's technology research base and its "spirit of independence and entrepreneurship" as underlying strengths.

To Allen, among the achievements of the conference was the forging of an ongoing partnership between Saint Mary's College and the Contra Costa Times newspaper, one that both he and Trousdale hope to nurture.

The Saint Mary's faculty-student team was led by Professors Mary Coe, Kara Boatman, and Gina Michalska. The participation of speakers Robert Parry, Linda Best Brad DeLong, Tapan Munroe, and Tom Terrill was arranged by Professor Sam Lind, who has published on local economic trends.

The conference also brought tangible benefits to students Julia Balster, Pravin Chandrasekaran and David Wood, who worked as interns on the Outlook project and were led by They earned academic credit and acquired valuable experience researching data and presenting their findings in a large, public setting. "It was definitely a valuable experience because we had to find the research and figure out if the data could be applied in answering the questions," said Wood. "The challenge was in the process of collecting the data then being able to tell a meaningful story with the data."

For Saint Mary's, the impact may be long lasting.

"We were able to bring together representatives from the national, regional and local business and community levels," Allen said. "The college began to establish itself as a resource for regional economic and business news and analysis through this kind of activity."

-- by Joseph Wakelee-Lynch
College Communications