California has often been at the country’s economic forefront. Now, as fears of a national recession continue to nag, the state is hoping not to lead the way there.
While the California economy maintains its powerhouse status, outranking even those of most countries, the state’s most-powerful sectors — including tech companies and supply chain logistics — have struggled to keep their footing, pummeled by high interest rates, investor skittishness, labor strife and other turmoil.
Even the weather hasn’t cooperated. Severe flooding throughout much of the winter, caused by atmospheric rivers, has left farming communities in the Central Valley devastated, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in crop losses.
Thousands of Californians have been laid off in the last few months, the cost of living is increasingly astronomical, and Gov. Gavin Newsom revealed in January that the state faced a $22.5 billion deficit in the 2023-24 fiscal year — a plummet from the $100 billion surplus a year ago.
“It’s an EKG,” Mr. Newsom said at the time, comparing a graph of the state’s revenue to the sharp spikes and drops of the heart’s electrical activity. “That sums up California’s tax structure. It sums up the boom-bust.”
The structure, which relies in large part on taxing the incomes of the wealthiest Californians, often translates into dips when Silicon Valley and Wall Street are uneasy, as they are now. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, one of the state’s most prominent corporations, said in January that it was cutting 12,000 workers worldwide, and Silicon Valley Bank, a key lender to tech start-ups, collapsed last month, sending the federal government scrambling to limit the fallout.
This has coincided with a drop in venture capital funding as rising interest rates and recession fears have led investors to become more risk-averse. That money, which declined 36 percent globally from 2021 to 2022, according to the management consulting firm Bain & Company, is critical to Silicon Valley’s ability to create new jobs.
“The tech sector is the workhorse of the state’s economy, it’s the backbone,” said Sung Won Sohn, a finance and economics professor at Loyola Marymount University. “These are high earners who might not be able to carry the state as much as they did in the past.”
Entertainment, another pillar of California’s economy, has also been in retreat as studios adjust to new viewing habits. Disney, based in Burbank, announced in February it would eliminate 7,000 jobs worldwide.
In California alone, employment in the information sector, a category that includes technology and entertainment workers, declined by more than 16,000 from November to February, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which predates a recent wave of job cuts in March.
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A recent survey from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found widespread pessimism about the economy. Two-thirds of respondents said they expected bad economic times ahead for the state in the next year and a solid majority of respondents — 62 percent — said they felt the state was already in a recession.
When Mr. Newsom announced the deficit earlier in the year, he vowed not to dip into the state’s $37 billion in reserves, and instead called for pauses in funding for child care and reduced funding for climate change initiatives.
Joe Stephenshaw, director of the California Department of Finance, said in an interview that he and top economists had begun to spot points of concern — persistent inflation, higher interest rates and a turbulent stock market — on the state’s horizon during the second half of last year.
“Those risks became realities,” said Mr. Stephenshaw, an appointee of the governor.
He acknowledged that the problem was driven largely by declines in high earners’ incomes, including from market-based compensation, such as stock options and bonus payments. As activity slowed, he said, interest rates rose and stock prices fell.
But the state’s problems aren’t limited to the tech industry.
California’s robust supply chain, which drives nearly a third of the state’s economy, has continued to buckle under stresses from the pandemic and an ongoing labor fight between longshoremen and port operators up and down the West Coast, which has prompted many shipping companies to rely instead on ports along the Gulf and East Coasts. Cargo processing at the Port of Los Angeles, a key entry point for shipments from Asia, was down 43 percent in February, compared with the year before.
“The longer it drags on, the more cargo will be diverted,” said Geraldine Knatz, a professor of the practice of policy and engineering at the University of Southern California, who was executive director of the Port of Los Angeles from 2006 to 2014.
Still, wherever the economic cycle is leading, California heads into it with some strengths. Although unemployment in February, at 4.3 percent, was higher than in most states, it was lower than the rate a year earlier. In the San Francisco and San Jose metropolitan areas, unemployment was below 3.5 percent, better than the national average.
Over decades, California’s economy has historically seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, part of the state’s boom-bust history. During the recession of the early 1990s, largely driven by cuts to aerospace following the end of the Cold War, California was hit much harder than other parts of the country.
In March, the U.C.L.A. Anderson Forecast, which provides economic analysis, released projections for both the nation and California, pointing to two possible scenarios — one in which a recession is avoided and another in which it occurs toward the end of this year.
“Even in our recession scenario we have a mild recession,” said Jerry Nickelsburg, director of the Anderson Forecast.
Regardless of which scenario pans out, California’s economy is likely to be better off than the national one, according to the report, which cited increased demand for software and defense goods, areas in which California is a leader. Mr. Nickelsburg also said the state’s rainy-day fund was healthy enough to withstand the decline in tax revenues.
But that shortfall could complicate the speed at which Mr. Newsom can carry out some of his ambitious, progressive policies. In announcing the deficit, Mr. Newsom scaled back funding for climate proposals to $48 billion, from $54 billion.
The fiscal outlook also casts a cloud over progressive proposals, widely supported by Democrats, who have a supermajority in the Legislature.
A state panel that has been debating reparations for Black Californians is set to release its final report by midyear. Economists have projected that reparations could cost $800 billion to compensate for overpolicing, housing discrimination and disproportionate incarceration rates. Once the panel releases its report, it will be up to lawmakers in Sacramento to decide how much state revenue would support reparations — a concept that Mr. Newsom has endorsed.
Through all this, one thing has remained constant: Many Californians say their biggest economic concern is housing costs.
The median value for a single-family home in California is about $719,000 — up nearly 1 percent from last year, according to Zillow — and recent census data shows that some of the state’s biggest metro areas, including Los Angeles and San Francisco Counties, have continued to shrink. (In Texas, where many Californians have relocated, the median home value is about $289,000.)
Still, some Californians remain optimistic.
Zeeshan Haque, a former software engineer at Google, learned in January that he was being laid off. His last day was March 31.
“It was out of nowhere and very abrupt,” said Mr. Haque, 32, who recently moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles.
He bought a $740,000 house in the city’s Chatsworth neighborhood in February and spent time focusing on renovations. But in recent weeks, he has begun to look for a new job. He recently updated his LinkedIn avatar to show the hashtag #opentowork and said he hoped to land a new job soon.
“It’s just very competitive at this time because of so many layoffs,” he said.
Ben Casselman contributed reporting.
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