A dynamic market where many new business startups attempt to succeed and thrive while letting old, unproductive firms die is what contributes to productivity and economic growth. But most economic development policies, including those of Kansas and Wichita, do not encourage this dynamism, and in fact, work against it.
That’s the message of Dr. Art Hall, who spoke to the Wichita Pachyderm Club on the topic “Business Dynamics and Economic Development in Kansas.” Hall is Director of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business.
At the start of his talk, Hall said that economic development has become an industry of its own, a public industry sometimes implemented as public-private partnerships. But its agenda is often not genuine economic development, he said.
In a short history lesson, Hall described how Walter Beech came to Wichita from North Carolina simply because Clyde Cessna was in Wichita. Sprint began in Abilene in 1899. Fred Koch, who founded the company that became Koch Industries, came to Wichita because Lewis Winkler was here. “Serendipity — that’s the theme.”
Hall displayed a map of taxpayer migration. There is a huge and wide swath of deep blue — representing the highest rate of out-migration — stretching north to south through the Great Plains, including much of Kansas. The Plains are urbanizing, Hall said. Pockets are doing well, but generally the rural areas are losing population. Economic development strategies must realize this long-term trend, he said.
A chart showed the geographic distribution of income earned in Kansas. In 1970, 55 percent of income was earned outside the state’s two major urban areas: Wichita and the Kansas City and Lawrence areas. In 2008, that number had declined to 38 percent. The cause of this is people moving to cities from small towns and rural areas.
On a map of Kansas counties, Hall showed how jobs are moving — concentrating — to a few areas of the state. “I think this is a positive development, because density tends to be a precursor to productivity, and productivity — meaning the value of output per worker — is one of the core fundamental definitions of economic growth.” It’s the reason, generally speaking, as to why cities are prosperous.
Hall said that we should care about our rural communities, but if we slow down the process of densification, we may be losing out on productivity growth and its benefit to economic development.
Continuing on this important theme, Hall said that the key to real and sustainable economic development is productivity growth: “Productivity growth happens on the front lines of individual businesses. You cannot will productivity growth. You cannot legislate productivity growth. You must create the conditions under which individual businesspeople, slogging it out on the front lines every day, create prosperity and productivity by trying new things and working hard. That requires a climate in which they feel optimistic enough to try new things, are rewarded for their efforts, and are willing to test new ideas.”
Dynamism is one of the most underappreciated aspects of the U.S. economy among those working in economic development, Hall told the audience. There is a high correlation between the average size of a business and economic growth, and particularly employment growth. In other words, small companies tend to grow faster than large companies. In the chart Hall displayed, there is a clear demarcation at companies with about 20 employees.
But most of our economic development policies have a bias towards big business. Hall said this is understandable. Further, he said that Wichita is a big business town, meaning that statistically, it is not poised to be a fast-growing area. Hall said we should create an atmosphere where we have lots of small businesses, where there is lots of experimentation. “If our economic development policies are biased against that, that is not helpful.”
A chart showed that each year many business firms die or contract, and many others are born or expand. These numbers are large, relatively speaking: in most years, around 150,000 jobs are created through new firms or expansion of existing firms, and about the same number are lost. Given that Kansas has about one million jobs, each year about 30 percent of Kansas jobs are in in play, just as a result of business dynamics.
Hall said that when the Kansas Department of Commerce announces the creation of 80 new jobs in Kansas, we need to remember that the marketplace swamps anything that individual economic development agencies can do. Hall called for policies that can handle a large volume of businesses — 15,000 to 25,000 — in growth mode each year. Our state’s economic development policies can not handle this level of volume, he said.
Another chart of the states illustrated the relationship between job reallocation rate — the “churn” of jobs — and the economic growth rate in a state. States with high growth rates have high turnover rates in jobs. Kansas ranks relatively low in economic growth.
Economic development policy should encourage new business startups, Hall said, although there is a high correlation between newness and death of businesses. “What you’re trying to do is have enough experimentation that enough good experiments take hold, and they grow.” This concept of experimentation is related to serendipity, or “making desirable discoveries by accident” that Hall mentioned earlier.
But much economic development policy focuses on retaining jobs. Hall said that if what we mean by job retention is saving jobs in companies that ought to die, the policy is not productive. Instead, job retainment policies should create a climate where people can find new jobs quickly here in Kansas. Job retention should not mean bailouts, he added.
Hall emphasized that while there is a high correlation between new businesses and being small, he said it is new businesses that are most important to driving economic growth.
Newness of business firms is vitally important, Hall said. Summarizing a chart of Kansas job creating by age of the firm, he told the audience: “Without year-zero businesses [meaning the newest firms], the entire state of Kansas is almost always losing jobs. It’s the same for the United States. It’s the newness that matters. We want new businesses, but new businesses create churn, as there’s a high correlation between birth and death.”
Hall said this is a complicated process, and that most discussions of economic development do not recognize this complexity.
Hall explained that the state, in conducting economic development activity, often acts as an investor in a company. Specifically, he said that the state acts as an “active manager” similar to an actively managed stock mutual fund. The other type of investor or mutual fund is the passively-managed index fund, where the fund invests in all stocks, usually weighted by the size of the firms. Which approach works best: active management, or investing in all companies. This historical record shows that very few actively-managed funds beat index funds, only 2.4 percent from 1994 to 2004.
Hall said the data shows it is very difficult to predict which are the right firms to pick to come to Kansas. Therefore, we need policies that benefit all companies in order to have a dynamic market in new business firms. “Everyone gets the same deal,” he said.
Hall recommended three specific policies: First, universal expensing of all new capital investment made in Kansas, which means that companies can deduct new investment immediately. Second, eliminate the tax on capital gains. Third, automatic property tax abatements for new or improved business investment for a period of five years.
Hall’s talk was based on his paper from earlier this year titled Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy. That paper contains the charts referred to, and also more detail, additional information, and policy recommendations.