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Economist: Regional bucks bouncing back

PUNTA GORDA — It may not be improving as fast as most people would like, but by all accounts the economy is on the mend, with Southwest Florida faring better than the nation in many key areas.

That’s according to Gary Jackson, director of the Regional Economic Research Institute and assistant professor of economics at Florida Gulf Coast University. Jackson was the keynote speaker at an Enterprise Charlotte Economic Council luncheon Thursday at the Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center.

“It’s always fun to talk about the economy, especially when it’s starting to improve a little bit,” he told a group of roughly 50 business and government leaders.

The Regional Economic Research Institute publishes a monthly newsletter that reports on several major indicators that drive the overall health of the economy — indicators such as unemployment rates, the Gross Domestic Product, home sales and median prices, inflation, employment gains, population growth, and consumer confidence.

Across the board, the economic outlook is getting brighter as unemployment continues to drop, home prices rise, construction starts quicken, incomes improve and population grows, Jackson said.

Still, the Federal Reserve is predicting that it will be another two years before the economy is back to full health.

“The recession started in 2008, and basically we came out of it nationally in 2009. That’s four years,” Jackson said. “The (Federal Reserve is) predicting now that it’s going to be two more years before we fully come out of it, so that’s a long time. Why has this recovery been so long? Because we had a housing bubble and, on top of that, we had a financial crisis.  Anytime you have a financial crisis, that really extends the time to come back from a recession.”

Jackson pointed out that GDP grew by 1.8 percent in the last year. “Relative to zero, it’s certainly good,” he said. “At this point, it should be growing over 3 percent, so it’s not growing as fast as we’d like.”

However unemployment across the region is lower than the state and national rates, an important indicator of economic health. Economists consider an unemployment rate of about 5 percent to 6 percent to be “healthy.” Lower rates are seen as inflationary due to the upward pressure on salaries; higher rates threaten a decrease in consumer spending.

In May, the last month local jobless rates were reported, Charlotte County’s unemployment rate stood at 6.9 percent, while Sarasota’s jobless rate clocked in at 6.7 percent.

The job market typically experiences a slowdown during the summer months as a result of the region’s seasonal nature.  Regional figures, which are not seasonally adjusted to account for fluctuations in areas such as tourism and agriculture, are reported differently than state and federal rates, which are seasonally adjusted.

Overall, the region fared slightly better than the state and the nation, which reported seasonally adjusted unemployment rates in May of 7.1 percent and 7.6 percent, respectively.

Meanwhile, home sales are on the rise, as are median home prices. New construction has started to pick up, and federal projections estimate the population in Charlotte County to grow by 10,000 between 2015 and 2020, Jackson said. “That’s a very good sign for our economy.”

All this has contributed to an uptick in consumer confidence as people begin to spend more, albeit slowly.

“The economy is improving, but expect a few bumps,” Jackson said. “We’re not there yet.”

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