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America's "economic bellwethers" show signs of stumbling

Workers at a factory.
Workers at the Jayco factory in Elkhart, Ind., assemble an RV. Photo: Mira Oberman/AFP via Getty Images

Four counties whose economies have historically foreshadowed economic downturns nationwide are signaling a dip but aren't showing signs of tanking, the Washington Post reports.

Why it matters: Robertson County, Tenn.; Pontotoc County, Miss.; Boone County, Ill.; and Elkhart County, Ind., "are so exposed to the whims of the wider economy that they sneeze long before the rest of the country realizes it has caught a cold," the Post writes.

How it works: Each county relies on manufacturing costly consumer goods like appliances and furniture, which tend to fare badly when the economy stumbles, according to the Post.

  • They also rely on a small group of large employers that have multiple services and suppliers.
  • “[S]o if you idle or slow down one factory’s orders, it hits everything from the gas and electric companies, to the soda-machine stockers, to the folks who cater meals or clean the place," Ball State University economist Michael Hicks told the Post.

What's happening: "Our most recent numbers, from early this year, show them bending south but not cratering" the Post writes. "[I]t’s too early to tell if the counties are preparing to slip ahead of a downturn, or if any hint of weakness is just a temporary hiccup."

  • Robertson County's workforce hit its peak in 2017 and showed a decline in 2018, according to the Post. It has seen job losses in manufacturing counterbalanced by seasonal hiring at warehouses.
  • Pontotoc has worked to diversify its economy in recent years, per the Post.
  • Boone has seen a stimulus with the recent arrival of major auto suppliers, the Post writes, but anxiety about trade has stymied growth.
  • Elkhart, which produces most of the country's motor homes and travel trailers, has seen a 20% drop in sales of those items, according to the Post.

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