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Economist predicts continued growth

Northwest economist John Mitchell knows the good times that Jackson County, Oregon and the rest of the nation have been experiencing will end eventually.

But the frequent forecaster doesn't see it coming soon.

The sin of our profession has been that of pessimism, he said Monday, speaking at the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County's monthly forum. The U.S. economy has consistently exceeded expectations.

And though Oregon's economy isn't thriving as much as it was a few years back, Mitchell expects growth to continue statewide and in Jackson County.

Mitchell, a regional economist with U.S. Bank, noted that Medford led the state's metropolitan areas in job growth last year with a robust 2.8 percent increase, extending a five-year trend.

There doesn't seem to be any reason for that not to continue, he said.

As for the outlook statewide, he doesn't expect the economy to be as strong as it was in the early and mid 1990s, when job growth topped 4 percent. But he still forecasts steady increases.

What we are expecting for Oregon is continued growth in the 2 percent area, he said. It's not bad, but it's not what we've been used to.

Most of the blame for Oregon's slowdown has been placed on the Asian economic crisis, which hit the state's manufacturers hard. Mitchell said the crisis played a key role, but the improved performances of economies in California and Washington also slowed growth, making Oregon less attractive to migration.

Oregon was no longer the strongest state in the West, he said.

Although Oregon has dropped to the middle of the pack in state job growth figures, the Asian markets are rebounding and growth has continued.

We're remaining in that slower growth mode, he said.

Mitchell pointed out several national factors that could cool the economy: unforeseen year 2000 computer problems, a weaker dollar due to a strengthening global economy, or a long-term decline in the U.S. stock market, which could undermine consumer spending.

But for now, he said, there aren't clear signs that anything is going to end the economy's run, which has been largely fueled by technology-driven improvements in productivity. Apart from the mild recession of the early 1990s, he pointed out, the expansion has stretched 17 years.

I suspect everybody knows that they are living through something very special in terms of economics, he said.

Mitchell said the national economy has expanded for 103 straight months -- just short of the record growth of the 1960s. Assuming the growth continues as he expects it will, a new record will be set in February.

The things that would suggest the end of an expansion are simply not there, he said.