It’s never easy to speak third in a lineup of economists. People in the audience fidget. They check their phones and eye the door. But if the third person is Stephen Fuller of George Mason University, a good number of them will stick around to hear the economic weather report. Unless, that is, they’ve already heard him say the same thing at another event that same week—always possible in the small world of Washington-area building industry types. Invariably, the spiel comes packaged with a brilliant white smile and a silver lining.
“We don’t know what the next bubble is. If we did, we’d invest in it,” Fuller jokes one December morning to a chandeliered banquet hall outside Baltimore full of Maryland homebuilders, before launching into a battery of slides showing job growth, home prices, and federal spending. The takeaway is reassuring.
“By 2013, it’s going to be a really roaring economy in the region,” Fuller says. “Hang in there for one more year, and you’ll be rewarded.”
After the speech, Fuller beats a quick retreat to his blue Mercedes roadster and speeds towards a corporate lunch program in Alexandria. It’s a pretty typical pace for the 70-year-old professor with the leathery sailor’s tan. Fuller estimates he has about 80 speaking engagements a year. He’s also the go-to talking head for reporters who need a quote about the latest unemployment numbers or the economic impact of federal budget cuts—not to mention pols who need to import some quick gravitas. When Mayor Vince Gray needed someone to kick off his inaugural jobs summit with an economic overview, he called on Fuller. When the state of Virginia needed a study on the effect of Defense Department spending on the area’s economy, they retained Fuller. Even the government of Portugal reached out to the dean of regional economists for help with an unemployment problem; they wanted Fuller to apply lessons learned from Washington.
In an area full of experts who prognosticate about the fate of the global economy, Fuller is the most influential economist on the area. But while he hands down reports from his perch at George Mason’s Center for Regional Analysis, he’s no ivory tower academic. At each breakfast, luncheon, and gala dinner, the affable professor schmoozes with men—and they are almost always men—who own or have built on vast tracts of Washington, Virginia, or Maryland land, checking in about projects, families, the Orioles. He’s been doing it for the last couple of decades, but has become even more closely followed in the last few years, as recession-weary builders and governments cling to the one certainty Fuller can provide: data.
“Because he is so able to conjure up facts during any conversation, he has earned enormous respect,” says Maryland economist Anirban Basu, who left academia for private consulting. “One of the worst things a researcher can find is that research is not relevant. Steve Fuller does not have that problem.”
“When he speaks, he speaks with authority, because chances are he knows the players involved and he knows the jurisdictions involved,” adds Gaithersburg developer Bob Buchanan, who’s employed Fuller for long-range economic forecasting (more on that later).
But as much as the titans of the real estate industry depend on Fuller’s economic models—as well as his academic credibility and name recognition, which not every consultant can offer—his center, which receives almost no support from George Mason, depends heavily on the generosity of the industry he informs. And, as it happens, he typically finds himself with data that bolster the need for building more housing and better highways to knit the region together—imperatives that tend to please the industry. His research is used not only to inform and guide decisionmaking, but also to advance agendas, in a symbiotic relationship without which neither party would survive.
This doesn’t mean that Fuller’s a shill for developers. He’s also trying to lead them away from the types of suburban housing they’ve built for decades, toward the denser communities sought by both empty nesters moving to smaller quarters—like he did—and young 20-somethings. All the same, the favored luncheon speaker of real estate types around the region is no smart-growth angel, either. Not everyone, he says, will move to a high-rise apartment building and ride a bike to work.
“The real world isn’t ready for a lot of these ideas. People still want three-car garages,” Fuller says, as we drive out to the breakfast in Baltimore, passing open lands that looked ripe for development. “There’s no place for Utopians in reality.”
Every region has someone like Stephen Fuller—based at a university, a federal reserve bank, or a quasi-governmental entity. It’s a field that naturally lends itself to monopoly.
“I don’t think this is a highly competitive industry,” says Howard Wial, who directs the Metropolitan Economy program at the Brookings Institution. “If you’re going to develop your own regional model, that’s a lot of work.”