Minnesota's economy 'well-insulated' from Wall Street troubles

Travelers insurance building
Despite the turmoil among Wall Street investment banks, things are going relatively well for major financial services firms in Minnesota, including Travelers Insurance in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Many Minnesotans, like folks across the country, didn't really want to look at how their 401ks, mutual funds and other investments were doing today.

The federal government said it wouldn't bail out Lehman Brothers, which filed for bankruptcy. Nor Merrill Lynch, which is selling itself to Bank of America.

That helped push the Dow Jones industrials down more than 500 points, the worst point drop since the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Any stress like this has all sorts of nasty implications throughout the economy," said Jim Ulland, president of Ulland Investment Advisers.

"Good Midwestern values are serving us well. It's not bad, once in a while, to be called a farm state."

Ulland knows the state's economy very well. He's a former US Bank executive and past state commerce commissioner.

Ulland expects the latest Wall Street troubles will make money harder and more expensive to borrow across the country. And he predicts it'll delay a rebound of the state and national economies.

But Ulland doesn't see much potential for the investment banks' financial screwups to otherwise harm Minnesota and its most important employers and economic sectors.

Things aren't exactly rosy for the state's economy now. In July, Minnesota's unemployment rate jumped to 5.8 percent, the highest level in 22 years.

But Ulland says the the state's economy is pretty well insulated from the latest Wall Street mess. That's because of the strength of Minnesota's health care and medical device companies, manufacturing firms and agricultural base.

"Good Midwestern values are serving us well, and it's not bad, once in a while, to be called a farm state," said Ulland.

Surprisingly, things are going relatively well for major financial services firms in the state.

Finance and insurance firms are more important to Minnesota's economy than the national average. They account for about 6 percent of jobs in Minnesota, compared with 5.3 percent nationwide.

Minnesota's finance and insurance companies, for the most part, have been bucking the industry's job-cutting trend.

"So far, our financial sector employment has held up relatively well," said Steve Hine, research director at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. "Through July, we're still seeing an over-the-year increase of about 1,250 jobs here."

That's a gain of 0.07 percent. Nationally, the sector has shrunk by 1.4 percent over the same period.

One notable exception has been Richfield-based GMAC Financial Services. It plans to lay off about 5,000 employees as part of plan to reduce its mortgage lending and servicing operations.

The cuts will include at least 250 job losses in the Twin Cities. And the lender may cut more local jobs in coming months.

Banking consultant Bert Ely doesn't expect the big investment banks' problems will mean much for Minnesota's leading banks.

"I don't see these two transactions having any particular effect on Minnesota institutions," said Ely.

Ely notes that TCF, US Bank, Wells Fargo and their peers are commercial banks. And Ely says commercial banks are subject to more regulation than investment banks like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch.

Most importantly, Ely says, commercial banks provide federal deposit insurance.

"What happened to Lehman is not what's going to happen to Minnesota banks," said Ely.

As the number of fallen financial giants continues to climb, consumers are going to be increasingly looking for such assurances in the future.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.