On a day when most people obsessed over the red state-blue state split in presidential politics, local builder Jeff Junkert declared it good news that Montana is among a handful of "green" states.
On a map prepared by the National Association of Home Builders, a state colored green means that its housing industry is expected to recover quickest from the slump that has left thousands of unsold homes in the hardest-hit states.
The association expects Montana's housing market to rebound sometime in 2009, Junkert said.
Speaking at the Billings Chamber of Commerce/ Convention and Visitors Bureau Newsmaker Forum on Tuesday, Junkert said most parts of Montana, and Billings in particular, have weathered the slowdown in new-home construction.
Three other panelists agreed that so far Billings has avoided the worst effects of the national economic downturn.
Junkert, past president of the Montana Building Industry Association, said some industry experts began talking about a pending crash in home construction three years ago.
Fewer single-family homes are being built in Billings this year.
Through last September, the city of Billings issued 227 single-family housing permits, a 37 percent drop compared with the same period in 2007.
But that slowdown comes on the heels of 17 consecutive years of growth in the Billings housing industry, Junkert said. Another sign of strength is that home prices have remained steady in Billings.
Unlike some parts of the country, there isn't much evidence that home prices are falling, he said.
Commercial construction continues at a strong pace. Through September, 68 commercial permits valued at $77 million were permitted,
compared with 49 permits valued at $47 million during
the same time last year, Junkert said.
"We knew there was going to be a correction," Junkert said. He described the slowdown in single-family home construction as a speed bump compared with a sustained multiyear slump that occurred in the 1980s.
The housing slump and the home foreclosure crisis have taken root in some of the nation's fastest-growing states, including California, Nevada, Arizona and Florida.
In the hardest-hit states, thousands of unsold homes have glutted the market, and many homeowners have seen their home equity evaporate as prices have fallen.
Keith Cook, regional president of First Interstate Bank, said Montana's economy is faring better than that of the nation, and the Billings economy is especially strong.
"Our unemployment rate is about half the national average," he said. In fact, Cook said, some employers report that they're having trouble finding qualified workers.
Despite the slowdown in single-family home construction, rental properties are in short supply, and that could lead to further investment in rental housing, he said.
The national media is filled with stories of tighter credit terms resulting from the financial crisis. Locally, business loans are still available. But banks have changed their focus in the wake of the financial crisis.
A few years ago, banks focused on lending more money. These days, there is more emphasis on increasing bank deposits, he said.
Cook said he sometimes gets irritated by national news stories describing a serious financial crisis. Unfortunately, sound local and regional banks are sometimes lumped in with large financial institutions that have been the focus of the crisis, he said.
"For a lot of organizations like ours, it's business as usual. There's not a crisis," Cook said.
In the wake of the present crisis, 16 banks have failed and about 100 are on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s watch list for troubled banks, Cook said.
By comparison, during the 1980s banking crisis, more than 1,000 banks failed and another 1,000 banks were on the watch list, Cook said.
Steve Arveschoug, executive director of the Big Sky Economic Development Auth-ority, said new jobs are springing up throughout Billings.
General Electric Commercial Finance, which is building a new operations center, has already hired 80 people and could have 200 on board within a
Aspen Air, which opened an air separation plant in Lockwood about a year ago, plans to hire 10 people, and Bresnan Communications could add an additional 120 people, Arveschoug said. Berry Y&V Fabricators in Billings is expected to hire hundreds of people to fabricate equipment that will be used in an Alberta oil sands project.
Arveschoug expects continued job growth in the Billings health care industry, and with more emphasis being placed on developing wind energy, there's no reason that spin-off businesses couldn't be developed here, he said.
Chad Lippert, a vice president and financial consultant for D.A. Davidson & Co., said statistics point to a nationwide recession.
Many people have decided to sell stocks or postpone contributions to their retirement accounts in the wake of the steep declines in the markets. That's the wrong thing to do, he said.
A better strategy is to continue investing in the markets in anticipation of an inevitable rebound, Lippert said, adding that stocks are a good investment for people who have a five- to 10-year investment horizon.
Lippert noted that investment guru Warren Buffett is bullish on the U.S. economy and is buying stocks in American companies.
"Be greedy when other people are fearful, and be fearful when others are greedy," Lippert said, passing along advice from Buffett.