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Analysis: California economy isn’t as crazy as you think

June 18, 2017

Forget about arguing over which state has the best business climate — which one is the most predictable in delivering economic performance?

Considering the many tensions of modern day life, I’m thinking most rational people would prefer a healthy degree of financial predictability with decent performance over the emotional roller coaster of booms and busts.

California’s economy has seen its share of economic upheaval and prosperity over the years as industries like aerospace, real estate, and technology created profitable upswings as wells as painful downfalls.

I fired up my trusty spreadsheet, filled it with curious indexes of state economic performance by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, and set out to see how California compares with other states in terms of measurable economic sanity.

I used various parsings of year-over-year percentage changes in each state’s Philadelphia Fed index back to 1980, using both long-term and somewhat shorter-term yardsticks. To track relative consistency and output, I compiled overall predictability and performance benchmarks and, finally, a state-by-state risk-and-reward score.

Here’s my 11-step process to see how California scores for economic sanity.

Step 1: How often a loser?

Economic dips are bad for the wallet and your stomach lining. My spreadsheet tells me that since 1980, the nation was in some level of economic decline in 10.5 percent of months during the past 37 years. California? A disappointing downtime of 15.6 percent, or 29th rank amongst the states. Best was Georgia, down only 4.8 percent of the time. Worst? The poster child of the ailing Rust Belt, Michigan, with its business climate down 29 percent of the time.

Step 2: How deep a dive?

Nothing is more unnerving than a steep economic dive. California’s worst slide by this measure was a 6.1 percent yearly drop in mid-2009. That’s significantly deeper than the nation’s worst drop of 4 percent since 1980 and it ranks the state 23rd overall. Citizens of Arkansas have suffered only a 1.2 present economic fall, the nation’s smallest. The folks in Michigan were hammered by a 20 percent drop – mid-recession in 2009 – the nation’s biggest since 1980.

Step 3: Can you keep momentum?

Consistency was measured by which state could best keep pace with previous progress. California’s 2.8 percent average annual growth since 2004 was 0.7 percentage points slower than the 3.5 percent pace enjoyed from 1992 to 2004. That drop in growth was slightly better than the nation’s 0.8 percentage-point dip in the period, but it ranked the state 33rd overall. Washington’s economy picked up the most speed by this measure, while Alaska had the biggest slowdown.

Step 4: Standard deviation?

This formal, statistical measurement of volatility weighs the scope and significance of an economic benchmark’s ups and downs. California ranked 27th amongst the states by this fancy score of fluctuation since 1980. California volatility was roughly 50 percent higher than the nation. Arkansas was the calmest economy, with a deviation 40 percent below average. And if you’re skittish, avoid Rhode Island – the nation’s most jumpy business climate with standard deviation nearly triple the national rate of inconsistency.

Step 5: Overall predictability?

By averaging the scoring in the previous four yardsticks of consistency, my spreadsheet says California gets a middle-of-the-pack 26th ranking, sandwiched between Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Basically, the state business climate is not as crazy as you think. Tops for predictability was South Dakota; worst was Oklahoma. Both are energy-dependent states, but South Dakota has obviously had less volatility. But we are not done … because economies can’t live off predictability alone!

Step 6: Who’s got long-run growth?

Predictable isn’t always very productive. Think about how little you earn with “safe” investments. So which states consistently deliver solid results? California’s economy has grown at an average 3.1 percent annual rate since 1980, 12th best amongst the states and easily besting the 2.5 percent U.S. growth rate. Nevada tops this ranking at 4 percent; Louisiana was worst at 1.1 percent.

Step 7: Who’s been great recently? The economy is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately game. Since 2004, roughly the last bit of sanity before the bubble burst and the Great Recession ensued, California’s economy has grown at a 2.8 percent yearly clip. That beat the nation’s 2.1 percent growth and is 17th best amongst the states. Unpredictable Oklahoma was best in this timeframe, growing at a 4.2 percent annualized pace over a dozen years, while New Mexico trailed the pack at a 0.9 percent rate.

Step 8: Biggest booms?

Nothing is more financially exhilarating than a sharp upswing in the business climate. California’s best since 1980 was a 9.2 percent yearly gain 33 years ago. While that handily topped the national high of 6.5 percent, it is still only 26th best among the states. Arizona enjoyed the biggest one-year boom at 19 percent, while Arkansas had the smallest historical upswing of just 5.3 percent.

Step 9: Can you beat the nation?

Let’s say a “passing grade” for any state economy is outgrowing the nation. Since 2004, California has topped the national growth rate in 77 percent of all months, 15th best amongst the states. That’s a ranking between Florida and Nevada. Tops was Colorado, beating the average 97 percent of the time. Worst? West Virginia — which could only pass the U.S. rate 19 percent of the time.

Step 10: Overall performance?

When averaging up these four measures of economic oomph, California placed 18th best for output, wedged between Idaho and North Dakota. Or in a nutshell, the state scored better than middle-of-the-pack. Once again, South Dakota was best. Mississippi came in last.

Step 11: Final score on consistency? When you average my predictability rankings and the economic output scores, my spreadsheet says California had the 15th best balance of sanity and success, a ranking between North Dakota and Vermont with arch-rival Texas placing 13th. Best in the nation was South Dakota followed by New Hampshire, Virginia, Utah, North Carolina. Worst? Hawaii! Followed by West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and Alabama.

One could argue that for all California has going for it, the state should perform better than my benchmark shows. Then that critic would likely list various impediments to economic growth.

Others will choose to be pleased with a Top 15 rank and note how hard it is for the nation’s largest economy to keep pace with far-smaller regional economies.

So, let the debate begin!

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