You’ve been reading a lot lately about Indiana’s business climate. A chill is coming, the thinking goes, if companies carry out their threats to stay away to protest the state’s new gay-unfriendly religious freedom law.
Here’s what you haven’t been reading: The temperature started dropping before Indiana’s governor, Mike Pence, signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on March 26.
That’s right. Just when the investor outlook for Indiana business was going from great to not-so-great, the government decided to make it worse. Indiana’s job market and its publicly traded companies are showing signs of faltering — even as those of its four neighboring states are picking up or holding their own.
Now the threats by chief executives at Apple Inc., Salesforce.com Inc. and others to stay away from Indiana are likely to deprive the state of billions of dollars. Even the Indianapolis-based National Collegiate Athletic Association, host of one of the most lucrative events in Indiana history with this weekend’s men’s basketball championship, says it’s open to moving its headquarters.
During the past five years, Indiana’s companies have been strong. Those in the Russell 3000 index returned an average of 149 percent, trailing their peers only in Delaware, Idaho and Tennessee.
That’s changing, and it’s anybody’s guess why. Analysts looking at Indiana’s prospects for the coming year now say the 50 state companies on the index, including Jasper-based Kimball Electronics Inc., Indianapolis-based HHGregg Inc. and Terre Haute-based First Financial Corp., will underperform the index members outside the state, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. These companies will provide an 11.8 percent return, based on such measures as share price and dividends, while out-of-state companies are expected to gain 20.4 percent, according to Bloomberg data.
Employment trends also have weakened. As the U.S. unemployment rate plummeted to 5.5 percent in February, the comparable measure for Indiana started rising last October. That was after falling to 5.9 percent from 10.8 percent in 2009, and it resulted in the biggest gap with the national rate since September 2013, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
For the first time since 2009, Illinois, which has the worst credit rating in the U.S., is poised to report a lower unemployment rate than Indiana’s. Last year at this time, Indiana and Ohio had the same 6.1 percent unemployment rate. Ohio’s rate fell a full percentage point while Indiana’s had a slight decline. Kentucky’s unemployment rate, which four years ago was higher than Indiana’s, now is 0.7 percentage points lower at 5.2 percent. And for the first time in at least two decades, the unemployment rate in Michigan matches Indiana’s and probably will be lower in the months ahead, according to Bloomberg data.
Home prices tell a similar story. Homeowners in Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan have greater valuations and appreciation than in Indiana. Just two years ago, the average valuation for an Indiana home was greater than its counterpart in Michigan. Even in Ohio, where home values have trailed Indiana’s the past five years, the trend began reversing in 2013.
The equivalent of gross domestic product in Indiana also shows the state isn’t measuring up to its neighbors. Since 2010, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan have been growing faster in terms of GDP. Only Kentucky remains a laggard.
With its religious freedom law, Indiana is jeopardizing its economy just when it should be taking steps to shore it up, perhaps giving new meaning to March Madness.
Matthew Winkler, editor-in-chief emeritus of Bloomberg News, writes about markets.