Downturns are a busy time for economists. At George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis, Stephen Fuller fields a flurry of calls every day, many from journalists asking him for a quote about the area’s economic condition.
“People are overwhelmed by what’s going on in the economy right now,” center director Fuller explains. “We can help businesses, governments, and individuals feel more comfortable, so when they read the newspaper they understand what to expect.”
But how does the Center for Regional Analysis, a small outfit of three staff members and a few research assistants, get the word out? They pound the pavement.
“I’ve given 67 speeches since the beginning of the year,” says Fuller, “and I’ve got at least 30 more scheduled through December. These are chambers of commerce and associations. They all want an update on the downturn. Everyone needs to know what to expect.”
But getting information out to the surrounding region is the last step in the center’s mission. Behind Fuller’s reports to the community on what’s in store for the local economy are years of information gathering and analysis.
With 40 years of experience, that’s where Stephen Fuller comes in. He joined the center in 1994 and took it over in 2002 from Roger Stough, currently vice president of research and economic development for the university, who started it with School of Public Policy Dean Kingsley Haynes in 1992.
Together with John McClain, deputy director of the center, and Lisa Fowler, PhD Public Policy ’06, Fuller tackles the area’s biggest issues—expensive housing, transportation woes, and employment—and forecasts the future of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
“We are the go-to source for this sort of information,” says Fuller. “We are the place that businesses and governments turn to when they need to know current data and our views of the near-term future.”
Becoming the go-to source for the region didn’t happen overnight. Fuller likens the center to the Energizer bunny: it just keeps going and going. Because of this, the center has amassed a vast wealth of data—one database houses information on the Washington economy going back to 1978.
Fuller has compiled a 1,400-word report on nine specific indicators of how the Washington economy has performed every month since February 1991.
“We’ve been able to track the Washington area economy for four recessions now,” Fuller says. “This isn’t the first recession. We’ve had 11 recessions since World War II. They’re not the same, but there are lessons from one to the next that allow us some insight.”
So by looking at the past, Fuller and his team are better able to predict the future of the Washington, D.C., area’s economy.
“We have forward-looking indicators that help tell us how the economy’s going to recover and when it’s going to recover. So we track the future, looking out 8 to 12 months,” says Fuller. He likens this process to the growing season— it’s a cycle.
“It’s like the crocus that we see in February. You know the cherry blossoms will follow in the spring and then the apple blossoms, and eventually we will have pumpkins come fall.”
Each of these milestones, whether it be the crocus or a decrease in the rate of falling home sales, tells Fuller and his staff something that only years of experience and analyzing can predict: eventually, we’ll pull out of the long, cold winter of an economic downturn.
This January marks the 18th annual economic conference held at George Mason University and sponsored by Cardinal Bank. Last year, with the tempting title “Tracking the Economy’s Recovery,” almost 500 people turned up to hear the center’s expert opinion. Every September, the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors and the center host a similar event at Mason specifically on the housing market.
But none of these presentations or conferences would be possible without all the projects the center staff works on, producing economic analysis for clients that range from the Smithsonian Institution to the International Monetary Fund.
McClain estimates that about 40 to 55 percent of his workload is spent on specific projects commissioned by local businesses and governments. The rest of his time is split between community outreach and data analysis on the center’s bread-and-butter topics: housing, transportation, and unemployment.
This mix, he says, allows the center flexibility when responding to immediate economic concerns. For example, they completed projects on the foreclosure situation in the Washington region after it became obvious that was a hot topic.
“Part of our success is that we provide practical, applied research,” says McClain. “It has applicability and helps our clients in the day-to-day decisions they have to make.”
By necessity, the center keeps its interests broad. If something affects the regional economy, then it’s fair game. Other recent projects include the economic effects of constructing and implementing the “hot lanes” along the Beltway and the fiscal implications of federal defense spending in Virginia.
“I hate to turn down work if it’s at all within our means,” says Fuller.
Perhaps the most important part of the center’s work is the community outreach it does, sharing the analysis it has conducted with local businesses and governments so they can make informed decisions.
“I think we’re very good at targeting what we’re talking about so it’s understandable, digestible, and usable,” says Fowler, an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy. She spends about a third of her time at the center. “Sometimes that’s the most important take-away for people.”
And the center’s clients agree. Cardinal Bank, who cohosts the annual forecasting conference with the center, has sought out Fuller and his team’s analyses for nearly 20 years. The bank has used the center’s economic analyses of federal procurement spending—a specialty of Fuller’s—to develop strategies for their lending.
“They bring value to our clients and the community,” says Kevin Reynolds, president of Cardinal Bank. “They’re able to digest vast amounts of economic data and put it into summary statements that really give clarity as to the direction of the regional economy.”
“Much of what we do is a public service, and I think it’s important for Mason as a public university to be able to do this,” Fuller says. “It’s really quite unusual for universities to invest in the kind of activities that we do.
“It’s been good for the region, it’s been good for the university, and it’s been good for us.”