Monday, July 30, 2007

City Budget Taking Hit From Slowing Housing Market

The slumping housing market is going to hamper Chicago's economy over the next several months, despite a strong job market and increased spending by area businesses.

The local economy is projected to grow at 2.7% in the second half, according to Moody's Inc., little changed from the first six months of 2007 as the fallout from mortgage defaults and declining home sales stymie consumer spending.

"We have yet to see the full impact of the housing decline penetrating through the economy," says Geoffrey Hewings, director of the Regional Economics Applications Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "This doesn't mean we are going down — we are just not going to be growing as rapidly as we have in the past."

For the year, the local economy is expected to expand 2.3%, down from 3.2% in 2006. Economists predict modest growth over the next two years.

Chicago-area home sales and construction have fallen over the last year due to an explosion of defaults on loans to customers with tarnished credit, foreclosures and tighter mortgage lending standards. Combined with more than $3-a-gallon gas prices, consumers are expected to hold back on spending in the second half, economists predict.

"I've been in housing for over 30 years. I've never seen it go this long and this steep at any point in my career," says Tracy Cross, president of Schaumburg-based real estate consultancy Tracy Cross & Associates Inc. "Modest signs of recovery may show itself in 2008."


Total home sales in Chicago fell 19.8% in June from the year-earlier period, according to the Illinois Assn. of Realtors. Local homebuilding dropped 37% in the second quarter from a year earlier, the worst showing since 1994, figures from Tracy Cross & Associates show.

The housing troubles aren't hurting manufacturers that cater to commercial and industrial customers, says Don McNeeley, president of Chicago Tube & Iron Co. in Romeoville.

Mr. McNeeley is hiring thanks to strong demand. He says orders are up over last year and he plans to add up to 30 workers in the next 12 months, bringing his staff to about 530.

Chicago Tube & Iron built a $22-million plant in Romeoville in 2005 and plans to open two other facilities in Wisconsin and North Carolina.

In addition to manufacturing, there also will be hiring and overall growth in tourism and financial and professional services, says Sophia Koropeckyj of Pennsylvania-based

For some business owners, the question isn't whether they'll add jobs but whether they can find qualified employees.

"The marketplace right now is challenging," says Todd Black, a Naperville-based regional vice-president for Arkansas-based technology consulting firm Technisource Inc.

The firm is recruiting on college campuses and turning to current employees to help find as many as 12 people in the Chicago area this year.


Overall, Chicago-area companies added 44,100 jobs in May, after creating 41,000 the previous month. The unemployment rate in the Chicago area is 5.3% as of June, which is higher than the national average of 4.5%. Still, some local businesses are having a difficult time finding the talent they need to keep up with orders and expansion plans.

Mark O'Malley, president of Chicago-based packaging company Paket Corp., wants to hire 16 mechanics in the next six months after sales rose 17% in the first half of the year. (He wouldn't disclose sales.) But he's wary of bidding on big contracts.

"I'm concerned that we can't fulfill them in a timely fashion," Mr. O'Malley says.

With rising demand from industrial, food, health and beauty products companies, Mr. O'Malley also is spending to invest in new equipment and technologies.


Business spending, which was tepid during the first part of the year as companies let inventories run down, is propping up the economy in the second half of this year as consumers curtail their purchases.

"Business (investment) is going to be absolutely critical going forward," says the University of Illinois' Mr. Hewings.

Overall consumer spending makes up about two-thirds of economic growth and had been a mainstay for the economy until the end of the first quarter.

But the outlook at retailers like Hoffman Estates' Sears Holdings Corp. isn't good: Sears warned this month that profit will decline in the second half as sales fall.

The outlook has small businesses anxious as well.

Tiffany Bullock, who recently opened her South Loop shoe boutique House of Sole in May, says she's had a slow start and is keeping a close eye on inventory.

"I'm still in a break-even cash-flow situation," Ms. Bullock says. "I'm nervous because I'm the new kid on the block."

July 30, 2007

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