Finance Terms: Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA)

A map with a highlighted area to represent an msa

A Metropolitan Statistical Area, commonly referred to as MSA, is a geographical region defined by the United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for use by federal agencies in collecting, analyzing and publishing statistical data related to urban areas. The primary purpose of an MSA is to provide a standardized way of defining metropolitan areas for statistical purposes, including economic and demographic analysis.

What is a Metropolitan Statistical Area?

In simpler terms, an MSA is a group of counties that are economically and socially linked by a core city. It is typically defined by a central city with a population of at least 50,000 inhabitants, along with adjacent counties that have a high degree of economic and social integration. MSAs are used by various organizations and institutions to study and analyze trends in regional development and economic growth.

MSAs are also used by the federal government to distribute funds and allocate resources for various programs and initiatives. These programs can include transportation, housing, and healthcare, among others. The designation of an area as an MSA can have significant implications for the communities within it, as it can affect the availability of funding and resources for local projects and initiatives.

Understanding the Definition of an MSA

The OMB defines an MSA using several criteria, including the centralization of population, employment, commuting and social and economic activity. Specifically, an MSA consists of one or more central counties containing a core urban area with a population of at least 50,000 people, along with adjacent counties that have a high degree of social and economic integration with the central county or counties.

Further, MSAs can also include micropolitan statistical areas, which are defined as areas that contain a core urban area with a population between 10,000 and 50,000. In this case, the adjacent counties must have a high degree of economic and social integration with the core area.

It is important to note that the definition of an MSA can vary depending on the country. For example, in Canada, an MSA is defined as an urban area with a population of at least 100,000 people. This difference in definition can lead to variations in data and statistics when comparing MSAs across different countries.

MSAs are often used in demographic and economic research to analyze trends and patterns in population growth, employment, and other social and economic factors. They can also be used by businesses and organizations to make informed decisions about where to locate or expand their operations based on the demographic and economic characteristics of the area.

How MSAs are Defined and Categorized

The OMB divides MSAs into four categories based on population size. The smallest MSAs are called “Micropolitan Statistical Areas,” which have a population of at least 10,000 people but less than 50,000 people. The next category is “Metropolitan Statistical Areas,” which have a population of at least 50,000 people. “Metropolitan Divisions” are MSAs with populations of 2.5 million or more, and “Combined Statistical Areas” are metropolitan or micropolitan areas that are closely integrated economically and have a population of at least 1 million.

It is important to note that the OMB updates the definitions and boundaries of MSAs every ten years based on the latest census data. This means that some areas may be added or removed from an MSA category, or may shift from one category to another, depending on changes in population size and economic integration.

MSAs are often used as a way to measure economic activity and growth in a particular region. They can provide valuable data for businesses, policymakers, and researchers who are interested in understanding regional economies and identifying opportunities for investment and development.

Benefits of Using MSAs in Finance

MSAs are powerful tools in finance for understanding and analyzing economic trends. They allow economists, bankers, and financial analysts to measure economic activity in specific areas, compare the performance of different regions against each other, and identify patterns and trends that may affect markets in the future. Additionally, MSAs can provide information on demographics, housing, and employment, making them valuable resources for market research and investment decisions.

Another benefit of using MSAs in finance is that they can help identify potential risks and opportunities in the market. By analyzing data on economic activity, demographics, and other factors, financial professionals can make informed decisions about where to invest and where to avoid. This can help minimize risk and maximize returns for investors.

Furthermore, MSAs can be used to track the effectiveness of economic policies and initiatives. By monitoring changes in economic activity and employment rates over time, policymakers can evaluate the impact of their decisions and make adjustments as needed. This can lead to more effective and efficient economic policies that benefit both businesses and individuals.

The Role of MSAs in Economic Analysis

MSAs play an essential role in understanding economic trends in the United States. By analyzing the growth of economies in different MSAs, economists can identify disparities in income and employment levels between regions and make policy suggestions to address these issues. Furthermore, MSAs can offer insight into regional economic strengths and weaknesses, identify industries that may be performing well or poorly, and suggest areas where investment is needed.

Another important aspect of MSAs in economic analysis is their role in predicting future economic trends. By analyzing past economic data in MSAs, economists can make predictions about future economic growth or decline in those regions. This information can be used by businesses and investors to make informed decisions about where to invest or expand their operations.

Additionally, MSAs can provide valuable information about demographic trends in different regions. By analyzing population growth, age distribution, and other demographic factors, economists can gain insight into the changing needs and preferences of consumers in different MSAs. This information can be used by businesses to tailor their products and services to meet the specific needs of consumers in different regions.

Analyzing Economic Trends Using MSAs

One of the most significant advantages of MSAs is that they allow investigators to analyze trends over time and make predictions about future economic performance. For example, analysts might use MSA-level data to identify a trend of declining business starts in a particular industry. By identifying this trend early, investors can make informed decisions about where to allocate their resources and which markets to avoid.

Another benefit of using MSAs for economic analysis is that they provide a more detailed picture of regional economic activity. By breaking down economic data into smaller geographic areas, analysts can identify pockets of growth or decline that may not be apparent at the national or state level. This information can be particularly useful for businesses looking to expand into new markets or for policymakers seeking to target economic development initiatives.

Finally, MSAs can also be used to track demographic trends and their impact on the economy. For example, an MSA-level analysis might reveal that a particular region is experiencing an influx of young professionals, which could signal a growing demand for certain types of goods and services. Alternatively, an MSA-level analysis might show that an aging population is putting pressure on healthcare resources, which could inform decisions about where to invest in healthcare infrastructure.

The Evolution of MSA Definitions Over Time

Since the creation of the MSA system in 1949, the definitions and categorizations of MSAs have changed several times, reflecting the changing demographics and economic landscape of the United States. Changes have been made to adjust for population and urbanization growth, and the introduction of new categories reflects the increasingly complex nature of regional development and interconnectivity.

One significant change to the MSA system occurred in 2003, when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) introduced the concept of “micropolitan statistical areas” (μSAs). These areas are defined as having a population of at least 10,000 but less than 50,000, and are typically centered around a single urban cluster. This new category was created to better capture the economic and social dynamics of smaller, more rural areas that were not well-represented by the existing MSA definitions.

Differences Between Metropolitan and Micropolitan Areas

The primary difference between metropolitan and micropolitan areas is population. MSAs with populations of 50,000 or more are classified as metropolitan areas, while micropolitan areas have populations between 10,000 and 50,000. Additionally, metropolitan areas tend to be more economically and socially integrated than micropolitan areas, which are usually more rural and less developed.

Another difference between metropolitan and micropolitan areas is the availability of resources. Metropolitan areas usually have more resources, such as hospitals, schools, and job opportunities, due to their larger population and economic development. Micropolitan areas, on the other hand, may have limited resources and may struggle to attract businesses and industries.

Furthermore, metropolitan areas often have more diverse populations, with people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds living and working together. This diversity can lead to a more vibrant and dynamic community, with a wider range of cultural events and experiences. Micropolitan areas, on the other hand, may have a more homogenous population, with less diversity and fewer cultural opportunities.

How MSAs are Used in Market Research

MSAs are also used in market research extensively, providing valuable information about consumer trends, demand for particular goods and services, and the overall state of the economy. By analyzing data at the MSA level, market researchers can identify opportunities for growth in specific localities and understand the needs and preferences of different market segments.

Furthermore, MSAs can also help businesses and organizations make informed decisions about where to locate their operations or expand their services. By examining demographic and economic data within an MSA, companies can determine if a particular area has a large enough consumer base to support their business and if the local economy is stable enough to sustain growth. This information can be crucial in determining the success of a new business venture or expansion.

Importance of MSAs in Real Estate Analysis

Real estate experts also rely on MSA-level data when analyzing the market, identifying areas that may be experiencing growth or decline, and making recommendations for investment decisions. Real estate professionals can focus on specific neighborhoods, cities, and regions, allowing them to identify areas where the demand for real estate is likely to increase or where property values are expected to grow in the future.

Furthermore, MSAs can also provide valuable information on demographic trends, such as population growth, age distribution, and income levels. This information can help real estate professionals understand the needs and preferences of potential buyers or renters in a particular area, and tailor their marketing strategies accordingly. For example, if an MSA has a high percentage of young professionals with high incomes, real estate professionals may focus on promoting luxury apartments or condos in that area.

The Impact of MSAs on Local Government Funding

The MSA designation also plays an important role in how local governments receive funding. MSAs are used to determine eligibility for federal funding for transportation, infrastructure, and other important areas of local government. This funding is critical for urban and rural areas alike, providing resources for infrastructure improvement, community development, and other economic development projects.

Furthermore, MSAs can also impact the amount of state and local funding that a government receives. In some states, funding formulas take into account the population and economic activity within MSAs, which can result in higher funding allocations for local governments located within these areas. This can be particularly beneficial for smaller cities and towns that may not have the same level of economic activity as larger metropolitan areas.

Top 10 Largest MSAs in the United States

According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the top 10 largest MSAs (as of 2020) in the United States by population are:

  • New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA MSA: 19,282,044
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA MSA: 13,214,799
  • Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI MSA: 9,426,211
  • Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX MSA: 7,827,783
  • Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX MSA: 7,066,141
  • Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV MSA: 6,158,744
  • Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL MSA: 6,166,488
  • Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD MSA: 6,102,434
  • Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Alpharetta, GA MSA: 6,020,364
  • Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler, AZ MSA: 5,225,763

It is interesting to note that the New York-Newark-Jersey City MSA has a population that is more than 6 million greater than the second-largest MSA, Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim. Additionally, the state of Texas has two MSAs in the top five, with Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington at number four and Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land at number five. The state of California also has two MSAs in the top ten, with Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim at number two and San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley at number ten.

The Future of MSA Definitions and Usage

As the United States continues to grow and change, the definitions and categories of MSAs are likely to evolve as well. Increased urbanization, changing demographics, and new economic trends are all factors that could influence how MSAs are defined and used in the future. As such, it is important to keep up to date with changes in MSA definitions and understand how these changes could impact economic analysis and investment decisions.

One potential change in MSA definitions could be the inclusion of more rural areas. Currently, MSAs are defined as densely populated areas with a central city and surrounding suburbs. However, as more people move away from urban areas and into rural areas, there may be a need to redefine MSAs to include these regions. This could have significant implications for economic analysis and investment decisions, as it would expand the geographic scope of MSAs and potentially change the industries and sectors that are included in economic data.

Common Misconceptions About MSAs Explained

There are some common misconceptions about MSAs that are important to dispel. For example, some people believe that MSAs are only relevant for cities and urban areas, but this is not the case. MSAs can be used to study regional economies that encompass both urban and rural areas, providing valuable insights into regional development and growth.

Furthermore, people sometimes assume that the categorization of MSAs is a determinant of quality or desirability. But this is not the case. An MSA’s ranking solely reflects its population level. Even a smaller population MSA can have a thriving economy and offer significant opportunities for investment and development.

Another common misconception about MSAs is that they only measure economic activity. While it is true that MSAs are primarily used to study economic trends, they can also provide valuable information about social and demographic changes in a region. For example, an MSA can be used to track changes in population demographics, such as age, race, and education level, which can have significant impacts on the local economy and community.


Overall, MSAs are a powerful tool for understanding and analyzing economic trends and developments in the United States. They are used by financial analysts, economists, and market researchers to study regional development and understand the needs and preferences of different market segments. By keeping up to date with changes in MSA definitions and usage, we can better understand the economic landscape and make informed investment decisions going forward.

One of the key benefits of using MSAs is that they allow us to identify areas of economic growth and decline. By analyzing data on population, employment, and income, we can gain insights into which regions are experiencing growth and which are struggling. This information can be invaluable for businesses looking to expand into new markets or investors seeking to identify promising opportunities.

Another advantage of MSAs is that they provide a more nuanced view of the economy than national-level data alone. By breaking down economic indicators by region, we can gain a better understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities facing different parts of the country. This can help policymakers develop more targeted policies and programs to support economic growth and development.

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