Cautious optimism about 2021 and continued challenges around recruiting and retaining workforce are among the top takeaways from this year’s Fox Cities Economic Outlook Lunch and Economic Outlook Survey, which were presented online Feb. 2 by the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce.
The virtual luncheon, which featured keynote speaker Elliot Eisenberg – the nationally-renown “Bow-Tie Economist,” was sponsored by Investors Community Bank and ThedaCare. Despite the temporary transition from a live to virtual format for 2021, Eisenberg delivered on his trademark insights and entertaining style via Zoom.
“Sure, you could call it economic stimulus – but I call them ‘stimmies.’ I’m a big fan of those stimmies. The first one came a little late, but late beats never,” Eisenberg said, noting that he believes that the United States, while not a global leader in preventing the spread of COVID-19, has by far been the world’s best in terms of handling COVID -19 from an economic stimulus perspective. He said he expects this trend to continue under President Joe Biden.
While the pandemic was the major factor driving economics on both global and local scales in 2020, 32 percent of Fox Cities Economic Outlook Survey respondents said the pandemic had no significant financial impact in 2020. Safety and wellbeing of employees and customers remains the top pandemic-related concern of regional employers heading into 2021, followed by concerns about customer demand and financing.
“We re-engineered the Economic Outlook Survey this year so that we could ask our respondents specifically about COVID-19 and its economic impact,” said Jennifer Brown, Senior Director of Existing Industry and Innovation at the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce and Fox Cities Regional Partnership, who administered this year’s survey. “While the responses were certainly mixed, and we know that the hospitality and restaurant industries have been hit hard by the pandemic, there were some encouraging overall trends that lead to optimism for the coming year here in the Fox Cities.”
Eisenberg struck an overall optimistic tone in his remarks and said the Fox Cities is far from a national outlier when it comes to economic trends.
“It’s a pretty good story so far,” he said. “We [the U.S.] have outperformed my expectations, and I think a lot of other economists’ expectations.”
Fox Cities businesses in 2020 reflected national trends in terms of sales and profitability, according to the Economic Outlook Survey results. Nearly half of respondents reported decreased sales revenue between 2019 and 2020, compared to only 18.7 percent who saw decreases in the prior year. In addition, 47.9 percent reported lower profits in 2020, up from 22.7 percent in 2019. More than half of respondents anticipate increased sales in 2021.
Eisenberg said the biggest shift in sales trends has been, for obvious reasons, away from services and toward “stuff” – most notably home improvement items and homes themselves. And while sales and profitability have taken a hit, especially in the small-business sector, wages have been relatively unaffected both in the Fox Cities and nationally. Unemployment rates in northeast Wisconsin are lower than the national average, he says.
Most Fox Cities employers reported that they were able to increase (63.6%) or maintain (27.4%) wages in 2020; 90.3 percent of respondents expect to be able to increase wages in 2021, and views of the Fox Cities as a place to live, work, and do business remain highly favorable.
“People like living here,” Eisenberg said. “Finding workers will continue to be the biggest challenge, and with low unemployment rates that won’t be easy.”
Eisenberg concluded his presentation by taking audience questions about topics ranging from minimum wage to paper products. You can also start planning now to enjoy his insights again next year. The in-person Economic Outlook Lunch will return Feb. 10, 2022 at the Red Lion Paper Valley Hotel.
The Fox Cities Economic Outlook Survey is an annual project of the Chamber of Commerce and Regional Partnership designed to provide insights and inspire dialogue in the community. To view the comprehensive results, download a PDF copy online.