Editorial: Economic forecast’s bright spots are reassuring

Cautious optimism might be the only kind we can muster while dealing with a ceaseless pandemic and its attendant economic challenges. And cautious optimism was the overriding forecast from the IUPUC Business Outlook Panel on Monday – an outlook that predicted conditions between partly sunny and partly cloudy.

The only certainty seemed to be agreement that there is plenty of fog on the horizon.

“There may have never been an economic forecast as difficult to put together as one for this year,” IUPUC Vice Chancellor and Dean Reinhold Hill said at the outset of the annual event at The Commons hosted by Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, Indiana University Division of Business, the Kelley School of Business and the Indiana Business Research Center.

As The Republic’s Jana Wiersema reported, the economic expert panel of Kyle Anderson, Ryan Brewer, Andrew Butters and Steven Mohler acknowledged that economic performance will be tied to whether the pandemic eases or worsens.

The panelists tended to agree economic growth next year is likely to be 4 to 5% in the United States, and that Indiana and the Columbus area in particular were well-situated to take advantage of a recovery that is expected to rely heavily on manufacturing.

As several speakers noted, the outlook from Main Street to Wall Street and beyond largely depends on what happens with COVID-19 – from declining cases to improving treatments. For instance, the promise of potential FDA-approved pills to treat the virus is not a panacea, but it certainly would cure a good portion of the symptoms of our COVID-hammered economy.

Yet the panelists also said COVID has changed the economic landscape in ways that will remain under any set of circumstances. For example, inflation fears remain, as does a worker shortage made worse by what has been dubbed the Great Resignation.

“The market is missing 3.5 million workers and importantly, 3.8 million workers are not working because their employer closed their doors during the pandemic or they lost business because of the pandemic,” Brewer noted.

Supply chains are broken, and getting those problems fixed will take a long time.

Mohler cited trucking groups that say the nation needs some 80,000 more truck drivers than are currently employed.

“The truck driver shortage problem has been listed as the number one issue facing the trucking industry for the last five years,” he said. “While there are no simple solutions to today’s problems, a key takeaway regarding our supply chain lows is the problem did not come about overnight and will not be solved overnight.”

Given the uncertainties, the panel provided as clear a picture to the local business and civic community as could be expected. And despite the storm clouds, there are silver linings. For instance, it’s a worker’s market. Wages are increasing, as is opportunity for employees.

Another takeaway: the Columbus area should fare a little better than Indiana overall, and the state’s forecast appears slightly better than the national average.

COVID knocked our economy down. The recovery probably will be long and unsteady, but it’s reassuring to know that the experts believe, all things considered, that things are looking up. (Fingers crossed.)