Bush’s pro-economy speech comes in Midwest that still has ‘rust around edges’ | VailDaily.com

Bush’s pro-economy speech comes in Midwest that still has ‘rust around edges’

CHICAGO – President Bush’s choice of the Midwest as backdrop for a speech Friday touting the nation’s economy put the spotlight on a region with an improving but still-mixed economic performance.While much-changed from the depressed Rust Belt of years past, the manufacturing-intensive Midwest has some big trouble spots to go with its numerous successes and has the weakest regional economy, economists said.Manufacturing activity has increased for 31 straight months and nearly 4.5 million new U.S. jobs have been created in that period – numbers the White House promoted on the occasion of Bush’s address to the Economic Club of Chicago. But the U.S. automobile industry has been hammered and manufacturing jobs continue to be lost, hitting many Midwest workers hard.Economist Diane Swonk said there remains “some rust around the edges,” primarily because of problems involving automakers and their parts suppliers throughout the region.”There is a lot positive going on in the manufacturing sector,” said Swonk, chief economist for Chicago-based Mesirow Financial. “The problem is in the Midwest we have an Achilles’ heel, and it’s specifically in Detroit with auto production.”The ongoing loss of manufacturing jobs has been a sore spot throughout the region, as Bush acknowledged.”Look, I know the manufacturing industry got hit hard here,” he told the audience of corporate executives, including the CEOs of such local corporate giants as Kraft Foods Inc., Allstate Corp., McDonald’s Corp. and Wm. Wrigley Jr.Focusing only briefly on the Midwest, he pointed to the creation of jobs nationwide and the decline in unemployment, and said manufacturers will benefit if trade restrictions around the world are eased as he has urged.Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at LaSalle Bank, said the region’s economy is characterized by a dichotomy: the travails of Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., bankrupt auto-parts maker Delphi Corp. and others on the one hand, the strength of non-auto manufacturing and various sectors on the other.”I don’t think it’s completely incongruous,” he said of Bush’s decision to come here to talk up the economy. “There are some very good manufacturing stories right here in the Midwest.”Among the success stories are Boeing Co., which announced a record number of airplane orders for 2005 on Thursday and is headquartered just a few blocks west of the hotel where Bush spoke. The housing boom has benefited makers of wallboard and building materials, such as USG Corp., located several blocks farther south.Midwest parts suppliers to Asian car manufacturers also have fared well. So have producers of heavy machinery, including Peoria, Ill.-based Caterpillar Inc., and manufacturers involved in the defense and machine-tool industries, among others.Chicago, still a manufacturing capital, has endured the recent loss of tens of thousands of factory jobs by diversifying, transforming its economy into one relying more on financial and other services.However, areas of the Midwest dependent upon the domestic auto industry are lagging badly. Several are still struggling to overcome the loss of jobs to outsourcing or better technology.Michigan in particular has been hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs, including those outside the auto industry, since the turn of the decade. Iowa-based appliance maker Maytag Corp. cut jobs and closed its Galesburg, Ill., plant before agreeing to be bought out by rival Whirlpool Corp. And old blue-collar industries are grappling with costly health-care and pension obligations.”It’s better than it was but it’s not as good as anywhere else,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Corp.’s Economy.com, of the Midwest economy. “There are growing pockets of strength. Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis – these are economies that had been severely depressed a few years ago and are now making their way back.”Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wachovia Corp., said the Midwest is “really more like the Rust Belt than it’s been in some time.” He called the auto industry’s problems “a huge weight on the region.”While industrial output is growing and significant gains may be coming this year, he said the Midwest’s economy may remain vulnerable until manufacturing starts generating jobs again.”There’s always going to be room for criticism,” Vitner said, “because the manufacturing sector is enduring a long-term decline in jobs. And that’s going to continue for quite some time.”Vail, Colorado

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