Explaining Southern California's economy

How Chinatown could keep Wal-Mart from expanding in California

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the U.S. It has its critics. It's expanding in California. And it want to bring a smaller store to L.A.'s Chinatown. But opposition is mounting.

One of the most famous movies ever made about Los Angeles is Roman Polanski's "Chinatown." In that 1974 film, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, "Chinatown" is 1930s police shorthand for cynicism: a place where everything is so complex that it's better to do nothing.

Discount retailing giant Wal-Mart is currently going through it's own Chinatown moment. Today, a protest by labor leaders and U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu will take place in the neighborhood. The reason? Wal-Mart wants to bring in a Neighborhood Market — a smaller-box concept that the big-box retailer introduced in the late 1990s and has established as a middle tier, between its well-known Super Centers and it's recently developed Express Stores.

You might think of Wal-Mart as a place where you can buy everything from snow tires to computers to very large quantities of frozen everything, but that's not what the pretty unimaginatively named Neighborhood Market is all about. A good analogy in the SoCal grocery space would be British retailer Tesco's Fresh & Easy stores, which offer a broad variety of everyday goods in a no-nonsense, relatively discounted shopping environment where customers handle their own checkout and bagging.

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Get ready for some depressing May job numbers

A jobs sign hangs above the entrance to

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

A jobs sign hangs above the entrance to the US Chamber of Commerce building in Washington, DC. The Labor Department will release its May jobs report tomorrow morning.

The Labor Department is scheduled to release its monthly national jobs report at 8:30 a.m Eastern Time tomorrow morning, and I'll be on my usual dawn patrol to parse the data when it hits. 

But in the meantime, here's a preview. The Bloomberg consensus of economists anticipates that 150,000 new jobs were added in May. That would be a moderate improvement over April’s 115,000 (which could be revised up, if the trend continues from the past few months). But it’s still well below the 200,000-plus level that we’d like to see, coming out of a strong fourth quarter in 2011 and an optimistic first few months in 2012. And it’s far below the 300,000-plus (really more like 400,000) we need to bring the unemployment rate down and restore the millions of jobs lost in the Great Recession.

The ADP report — which comes out before the BLS report — is also pretty weak, at 133,000 jobs added in May.

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Visual Aid: L.A. unemployment? Better. California? Still awful

California-Unemployment

BLS

It isn't pretty in the Golden State.

The Labor Department released data for April 2012 metropolitan unemployment today. Across California, the picture isn't very pretty. The national rate stands at 8.1 percent, a figure that isn't matched by any metro area in the Golden State except the technology hub of San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont. Much of the rest of the state in mired in the double digits, a full four years after the financial crisis and the busting of the housing bubble. El Centro is at a terrifying 26.8 percent. 

For comparison, most of Texas is well below the national rate of 8.1 percent.

Virginia is basically back to full employment, at 5.4 percent for the state.

The L.A. metro area remains high, at 10.1 percent, according to the BLS. But the good news is that's down almost a full percentage point from April of 2011. 

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Housing prices: Los Angeles is on the edge

Foreclosures

David McNew/Getty Images

A realtor sign advertises a bank-owned house for sale in California. The March Case-Shiller index suggests that Los Angeles may finally have hit a true bottom for prices.

The Case-Shiller index is out for March 2012. The bottom line is that price declines across the indices — which tracks housing prices data in two groups, across 10 and 20 U.S. cities — are moderating. Or seem to be moderating. This means that many cities may finally be scraping along a true bottom for housing prices, setting the stage for a recovery that can sustain itself. 

This is from the S&P/Case-Shiller press release:

“The regions showed mixed results for March.  Twelve of the cities saw average home prices rise in March over February, seven saw prices fall and one  – Las Vegas  – was flat.   The Composites were largely unchanged with the 10-City down only 0.1% and the 20-City unchanged.  After close to six consecutive months of price declines across most cities, this is relatively good news.  We just need to see it happen in more of the cities and for many months in a row.  Since we are entering a seasonal buying period, it becomes very important to look at both monthly and annual rates of change in home prices in order to understand the broader trend going forward.”

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It wasn't money or early polls that made Beutner drop out of L.A. mayoral race

Mercer 19455

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Austin Beutner during an event. Beutner dropped out of the 2013 mayoral race on Tuesday.

Austin Beutner may have dropped out the race to become mayor of Los Angeles, but he hasn't dropped out of the race to keep talking about what L.A. needs to do to fix its problems. I'd been following his campaign fairly closely for almost a year, mainly because I was intrigued by his work as first deputy mayor under Antonio Villaraigosa; and because it was interesting to see a former investment banker with no real public sector background try to turn himself into a West Coast version of New York's Michael Bloomberg (Beutner calls Bloomberg the "archetype of a modern big-city mayor").

Why did he drop out? "When you get to this stage, it's 24/7," he said when I spoke to him earlier today. "It's like you're in a off-off-off Broadway show, with four performances a day and no understudy." He just wasn't able to be the kind of parent he wanted to be. Now he's back on "carpool" duty, he quipped.

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