Nathan Wilson | Reporter
Dr. Randall Dupont, Dean of the LSUA college of business travelled to Natchitoches April 5 to discuss the Natchitoches Edition of his Cenla Economic Dashboard with Rotary members.
Dupont’s research interests include employment and occupational dynamics, and the dashboard routinely features unemployment figures among its topics. He revealed he developed the first economic dashboard in response to the lack of data available in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic to better understand how the lockdown and economic disruptions affected Louisiana communities.
Now the dashboard is a monthly feature of 70-80 pages. “We want to monitor the pulse of central Louisiana,” he says. “We assess, can this affect me? Is it a threat or is it an opportunity?” The March edition focuses on several topics of interest to Natchitoches. “I call (it) the Natchitoches edition because I tried tailoring information that is pertinent to Natchitoches,” Dupont says.
Rather than present recommendations, Dupont’s goal in creating the dashboard is to aid local community members in their decision-making. “Where the economic dashboard comes in is giving you information to monitor the local economy for those opportunities and threats,” he says. “It’s a dashboard as opposed to an economic report,” he says. “In a dashboard I’m simply presenting you the information and you based on your profession, based on your industry and your business are going to look at that data differently and I think that’s far more valuable.”
In each edition, Dupont aggregates data about economic trends affecting central Louisiana. “You need to be making informed decisions. That’s the only way they’re going to be good,” he says. The data Dupont includes have evolved over time and range from home ownership and housing prices to unemployment and sales tax revenues.
Dupont noted the record low unemployment levels seen across central Louisiana and invoked the shared wisdom of Rotary members. “I know what’s happening. You’re in a position to know why it’s happening,” he said. He pointed out the status quo might prove temporary. “What could perhaps push unemployment back up? It could be things like high gas prices, higher interest rates. It could be perhaps trade restrictions,” he said. “Whatever goes down, may have to go back up. There are going to be some pressures for employment.”
Instead of focusing on the unemployment rate, Dupont is now looking at the total number of people working as an indicator of the economy’s strength. “What I’m watching is whether your employment level goes above the pre-pandemic level.” he said. He pointed to the vacancies that employers are having difficulty filling. “There are a tremendous number of job openings right now,” he said. “You typically have more than one person looking for each job, but since the pandemic it’s just the opposite. You’ve got more jobs than you have people unemployed.” He warned the circumstances may prove unsustainable. “You can’t keep going at an extreme level.”
Dupont highlighted the remote seller’s taxes collected from online sales over the past two years. “Since then, we have in central Louisiana, collected $25 million.” he says. He illustrated problems with the old system. “They really didn’t collect the full amount of tax you collect here. It was less and the state decided what proportion you would get.” He explained that with passage of the remote sellers tax, revenues are directly attributed to local coffers. “When someone is online or they’re on their phone and they’re making a purchase, and they’re here perhaps for the lights, guess what? Those sales tax dollars are coming back here.” He offered a suggestion. “My advice is next time you’ve got the Festival of Lights, make some Wi-Fi freely available so people can shop and buy things.”
Dupont turned to last year’s holiday shopping season. “There’s something different about this Christmas season,” he says. “We went shopping in November this time more so than we’ve ever gone shopping online.” He indicated shipping delays were as much a benefit to local economies as they were an annoyance for consumers. “Amazon was not doing a good job. It was 10 days or maybe two weeks,” he says. “We went shopping earlier than usual, so it was a tremendous Christmas season.”
Dupont noted the time homebuyers spent selecting a house had declined even as their options shrank. “Two years ago you had 110 active listings. Four years ago you had 148. Today we’re down to 38,” he says. “We’re not taking as much time to make those decisions,” he says. “Just two years ago, we were at 125 days a house sat on the market, (and) now you’re at 50.” His most recent addition to the dashboard is coverage of lumber prices. “We are up now five months in a row on lumber prices and we really haven’t gotten into full swing of the building season,” he says. “I suspect lumber prices will top last year.”
Nathan Wilson | Reporter