New state figures show Maryland's unemployment rate fell to 4.4 percent in November, its lowest point in more than six years and a sign of what Gov. Parris N. Glendening called growing vigor in Maryland's economy.
But independent economists who follow the state drew diverging conclusions from the unemployment figure and other information disclosed yesterday by the state's Department of Labor Licensing and Regulation.
The survey that produced yesterday's data, derived from telephone inquiries to Marylanders' homes, "is really unreliable," said Charles McMillion, chief economist for MBG Information Services, a Washington business analysis and forecasting firm. "These household figures don't jibe with anything. I would tell people to be very cautious" in interpreting them.
But other analysts accept the perception of a moderately surging state economy last fall, even if the November figures for new jobs may be exaggerated.
"The household data seems to be giving a more accurate picture of Maryland's employment situation right now," said Mark Vitner, vice president and economist of First Union Corp., a Charlotte, N.C.-based banking company. "I think we've got a pretty solid case that things are improving."
In November, Maryland's unemployment rate was 4.4 percent on both a seasonally adjusted and unadjusted basis. That's a 0.2-point drop from the seasonally adjusted October jobless rate and a 0.8 percent drop from the 5.2 percent unadjusted rate in November 1995.
"This is good news for Maryland," Glendening said in a prepared statement. "We haven't experienced an unemployment rate this low since May 1990."
Falling unemployment rates, he added, "are encouraging signs of Maryland's growing economic strength."
Maryland has struggled to add jobs in the 1990s, and Glendening has been criticized by business leaders for not doing more to improve commercial growth.
Maryland has always had low unemployment relative to the rest of the country, which had a 5.0 percent jobless rate for November, a slight increase from 4.9 percent the month before.
Even during the recession, the highest Maryland unemployment ever reached was 6.8 percent. It was as low as 3.9 percent in early 1990, before the recession hit.
Michael Conte, director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson State University, said the historically low local jobless rate is caused by relative stability of area employers and the high cost of living here for the jobless. "When you get laid off by the federal government, you're gone," he said. "You don't come and go. It's not like Michigan," where auto manufacturers frequently lay off and rehire employees.
Conte, too, thinks the November household data "shows that we are not only catching up with the nation but in some respects, surpassing."
Economists' interpretations of Maryland's economy depend on their relative trust in two widely varying sets of job figures.
McMillion pays more attention to a separate survey of companies and other employers, which suggests that Maryland added jobs at a very slow pace last year. The employer survey showed that the state had 2.215 million jobs in November, only 10,000 more than a year earlier.
But the household survey released yesterday showed employment growth of 5,200 in November alone, compared with October's figures. True, that includes Marylanders who are working in Virginia and Washington, and those jobs aren't counted in the employer survey. Still, McMillion called yesterday's figures misleading.
Conte and Vitner, however, argued that the employer survey misses new companies, thus drastically underestimating new jobs. Neither agreed that Maryland is adding as much as 5,000 jobs a month, though.
McMillion acknowledged that the employer-survey data are always revised upward a bit when new companies can be counted. But he said, in the 1990s, "year on year, there have never been more than 12,000 jobs created" in Maryland.
Pub Date: 1/04/97