Steven M. Pickett has just minted Maryland's economic motto for the year.
"Conservatively upbeat," the Chubb Group vice president said, is the outlook not only for his own insurance business but for his customers and perhaps the entire Maryland economy.
"I'll label it steady expansion," said Pickett, manager of Chubb's Baltimore branch, which sells policies to numerous regional businesses. "Everyone is concerned and focused on improving" and beating competitors, he said. But, he added, ""we've seen expansion in all the business segments that are visible in the area. And our business is reflective of that."
Economists support Pickett's assessment, though some stress the upbeat, while others focus on the conservative, cautionary notes.
At worse, they expect Maryland to match last year's record of slow, steady economic growth - and some argue about exactly how moderate that growth was. The most optimistic believe that Maryland could add 40,000 jobs this year, matching its 1994 performance, its best yearly employment growth of the decade.
"Slow growth that is turning solid" is how Patrick Arnold, director of Maryland's Office of Labor Market Analysis and Information, describes it. Arnold believes last year's results will show that state employment grew by 1.2 percent, and he predicts growth for this year could be 1.6 percent - about 34,000 jobs.
Michael Conte, director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson State University, is one forecaster who expects at least 40,000 new jobs this year on top of the 2.2 million or so Maryland has now. He's predicting 2.0 percent employment growth - unless inflation fears cause the Federal Reserve to raise short-term interest rates and cool the economy.
"The rap that we've had for the last five years is that we've been underperforming" the national economy, Conte said. Now, he added, Maryland is "not only catching up with the nation but, in some respects, surpassing."
Mind, the nation's economy is not expected to cause Carl Lewis any jealousy this year.
Most analysts expect a replay of last year, when gross domestic product, the total output of the country's goods and services, expanded by a moderate 2.5 percent or so. That's far from being a recession, when output shrinks. But it also looks skinny next to, say, 1994's national growth of 3.4 percent or 1984's growth of 6.8 percent.
Many analysts do not expect Maryland to match the nation this year, although many also believe that the gap between the two will shrink.
For Maryland, "this will be the seventh lean year after seven really fat years" from 1983 to 1989, said Charles McMillion, chief economist for MBG Information Services, a Washington forecasting and business information firm. Actually, 1996 was the seventh year of the slump that began in 1990, so perhaps Maryland can start 1997 free from the burden of biblical precedent.
Still, McMillion expects job growth this year of less than 1 percent, and the main reason is "that there is no engine driving growth in the region," he said, no federal spending spree as in the 1980s, no interest-rate decline like in 1994.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, say other analysts. The lack of a blockbuster catalyst means that the fall will be less dramatic if the stimulus disappears.
"One of the characterizations of the current economy is that the variation in performance is going to be much more pronounced than it has been in our recent history. That's not only in Maryland, but it's pretty much across the country," said Mark Zandi, chief economist with Regional Financial Associates Inc. in West Chester, Pa. "So this economy is really quite well balanced, which is one of the reasons for long-term optimism."
And if Maryland lacks all-star industries these days, it no longer has closet cases, either.
Federal employment and contracting seem to be steadying after an uncertain 1996, although analysts are concerned about federal spending in 1998 and beyond. Maryland's remaining factories have modernized and thinned to fighting weight, making them far less vulnerable to new layoffs even if another recession hits, economists said.
"We've seen the bulk of the heavy layoffs in manufacturing, the defense industry and steel," said Mark Vitner, an economist with First Union Corp., who follows Maryland. "There simply aren't that many more jobs that can be lost in these industries. On the other hand, there's strong activity in biotechnology, data processing and engineering."
But not strong enough to rival the 1980s, when more than 400,000 new jobs landed in Maryland. Even 1983 - the decade's worst year not counting the 1981-1982 recession - yielded 2.4 percent employment growth.
Exports are one reason economists are optimistic. Overseas shipments of goods and services are rising in Maryland and nationwide, and Arnold and other analysts see exports as an increasingly effective backup engine, kicking in, maybe, if the domestic economy flags.