Seattle’s most consequential economic stories of 2016

What seems important in the moment may not carry consequences that last. I’m after the latter in this year-end roundup. If I don’t touch on one you believe will shape the city, metropolitan area and state in the years ahead, please list it in the comments.

Nationally and internationally, the most consequential story is the election of Donald Trump as president. He promises such a profound departure from norms that 2016 will be a hinge of American history. In economics, this could mean vast changes in trade policy, regulation, taxes and federal support for research and infrastructure.

For Seattle, here are my nominations:

• Boeing’s slowdown. The assurances of big future orders and a healthy backlog — the first anyway — fell prey to the very slow global economy. This is especially true for the 777, as well as disappointment with the newest 747 freighter. The Puget Sound region isn’t as dependent on Boeing as it was 40 years ago, but the slowdown will be an ongoing drag on the aerospace cluster. How it comes out of the downcycle — more automation? fewer jobs here compared to other sites? — raises big questions.

• Microsoft hits refresh. During and after the infamous Lost Decade, the question was whether an industry leader could successfully make the turn into a fundamentally new world, especially after missing so many opportunities. Under CEO Satya Nadella, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. That’s good news for one of the two most important anchors of the Seattle-area technopolis.

• Amazon hits its stride. From ecommerce to cloud computing and numerous other ventures, Amazon kept achieving new marks in 2016. It also started delivering some returns to shareholders. This is Seattle’s other advanced economic touchstone and headquarters, and one that has proved especially important to the city. The only thing standing in the way of a long run is candidate Trump’s threat of an antitrust probe of CEO Jeff Bezos. But the view from 2016 is that Amazon is now less a highwire act that could suddenly bring down the economy here and more of a solid corporate institution on a continued rise.

• Love for the ports. The diversity of the local economy through the maritime sector was preserved and enhanced this year. Completing its first anniversary, the Northwest Seaport Alliance (between the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma) turned in strong numbers considering the worldwide trade slowdown. It also began to take back market share that has been slipping for years. Sonics fans are angry the Seattle City Council declined to vacate a street for hedge-fund mogul Chris Hansen’s spec stadium, but it was a win for the Port of Seattle and movement of logistics.

• Sound Transit 3. Voters approved one of the most ambitious transit programs in recent years. It would provide much more robust transportation links among King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, including light rail and commuter rail. ST3 takes too long, but maybe ways can be found to speed it up (federal funding under a Trump administration is a big question mark). One big payoff is linking affordable areas with employment centers. With the ability to bypass freeway traffic and work on the train, workers can be more productive (and sane). And it’s a big infrastructure boost.

What did I miss?


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