Explaining Southern California's economy

Warren Buffett is counting on 'hormones' to cure the housing market

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Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, attends the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett released his annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letter over the weekend. As Marketplace's Heidi N. Moore reported on Monday, this is a much-anticipated and closely studied document. And as one of her sources pointed out, sometimes it's more interesting to focus on what went wrong in Buffett-land than on what went right — because Buffett provides engaging details on both outcomes.

For this letter, you want to zero in on the housing market, which in early 2011 Buffett figured would begin to recover in a "year or so." Wrong! Or to quote the Great Man himself: "dead wrong." Berkshire Hathaway has several housing-related companies in its portfolio, so Buffett would ultimately like to see the long-expected bounce-back. He's optimistic — because you can't fight human nature! Or more accurately, randy human hormones:

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California economy: When is a recovery not a recovery?

The UCLA Anderson Forecast, covering the fourth quarter of 2011 and looking forward through the fourth quarter of 2013, came out yesterday. KPCC's Brian Watt provided a report on air, and now I've had a chance to dig into at least some of the forecast. I'll start with the California section, presented by Anderson Forecast economist Jerry Nickelsburg. 

You'll remember that in the previous Anderson Forecast, Nickelsburg explained that California has broken into two distinctive economic regions: a recovering coast and a stagnating inland zone. Here's how I put it in the post I wrote back in September:

Since the financial crisis, two California economies have emerged. On the coast, there's growth. Inland, there's near-stagnation. You can easily see this expressed in the Los Angeles region's unemployment numbers. LA is bad, at at 12.7 percent. But Riverside and San Bernadino counties are far worse, at 15.1 and 14.3, respectively.

The industries that are creating jobs in California are also disproportionately located on the coast. Inland, the blast wave of the the housing bust is still being felt, with industries like construction shedding jobs.

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Be thankful for expensive gas — and a gas tax?

Matt Yglesias makes a useful point about gas prices that I think applies to all of us in car-mad Southern California: 

It’s important to see that under present circumstances, anything that succeeds in promoting robust economic recovery would raise the price of gasoline….After all, unemployment’s 9.1 percent. If it fell to 7 percent, that would mean a large increase in the share of Americans who are commuting to work on a daily basis. And the United States of America is both a large country, and one in which commuters consume an unusually large quantity of gasoline as they go about their business. Consequently, 2.1 percent of the American workforce shifting from unemployed to employed means a meaningful increase in the consumption of gasoline.

The global oil markets are complex and don't always make sense at the pump. The price of oil falls, but the price of gas remains high. Or at least higher than we think it should be. I won't even get into the various issues involved, which range from refining capacity to OPEC production planning. There's a reason why some economists spend their entire careers looking at this single commodity. 

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The sort-of silver lining in gloomy foreclosure statistics

Some new data on foreclosures was released today by RealtyTrac. Here's a summary from MarketWatch:

Foreclosure filings, which include those late-payment notices plus auction announcements and bank repossessions, rose 7% in August compared with July, hitting a total of 228,098 U.S. properties. But the filing rate fell 33% from a year earlier....And while the number of those first-time default notices sent rose 33% in August versus July, to a total of 78,880 properties, they fell 18% compared with a year ago, and they’re 44% lower than the monthly peak in April 2009....That is, the year-over-year data looks relatively positive, but the monthly data appears to be cause for worry — or, perhaps, relief, depending on your point of view.

The relief comes in the form of banks working through all their legal issues related to foreclosures and forseeing enough upside in the market to again repossess and re-sell properties. In other words, the banks are anticipating a bottom in the downturn and are lining up supply to sell into the rebound. 

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New Case-Shiller data shows that the Southern California housing market may be stabilizing

The June Case-Shiller numbers are out, and while prices in Los Angeles and San Diego are only up 0.3% and 0.2% from May, respectively, there are other parts of the nation where prices have cratered far worse, year-over-year. LA is down 3.4% from last June, while San Diego is down 5.3%. But Chicago is down 7.4% and Minneapolis, 10.8%. Phoenix and Portland are both down more than 9%. 

So it's looking like SoCal is beginning to put the brakes on the slide.

The big question is whether the very modest SoCal uptick will persist. At this point, teensy price increases over a few months could indicate that we're finally seeing the housing market stabilize. And the S&P/Case-Shiller analysis indicates that SoCal may be mounting a recovery that's not going to be dragged down by other hard-hit markets:

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