Florida job losses fuel gloomy forecast

Jul 17, 2008

Marc Caputo

The Miami Herald

The top job-loss state in the nation. Shrinking wages. Collapsing population growth. Record home foreclosures.

Florida's economy is not just firmly and bleakly in the red ---- it will likely stay that way until next June, according to the state government's top economists who issued their most pessimistic financial forecast in years.

With few exceptions, the economists' Wednesday forecast shows that most economic indicators will do worse in this budget year when compared to a forecast they issued in February.

At the heart of the problem is the falling housing market, upon which Florida's economy has a Monopoly game-like reliance. The economists projected new housing construction will fall to about 60,000 units this year -- a decrease of 78 percent from a high of nearly 283,000 in 2005.

Total statewide construction expenditures, including public buildings, are expected to decrease by $10.6 billion, or 21.5 percent.

The most dire fact of all: Florida lost more jobs in the past 12 months -- 74,700 -- than any other state in the nation. And the economists predict that more people in construction, government, manufacturing, financial services, transportation and warehousing will be out of work soon.

'We were No. 1 in jobs created in the entire country,' said Clyde Diao, one of Gov. Charlie Crist's economists, referring to the booming economy in 2005. ``Now, if you count the District of Columbia, we're 51.'

Frank Williams, the Department of Revenue's chief economist, agreed: ``We're No. 1 in job losses. Absolutely.'

Were it not for employment gains in the health, education and the low-paying services fields, they said, the job-loss numbers would be far higher. Construction lost 77,000 jobs and manufacturing lost 23,000 in the last year. By month's end, the experts project, Florida's job-loss rate will be higher the nation's for the first time since 2002.

Wednesday's forecast sets the stage for a revenue-estimating conference by the same economists in the coming months. With tax collections already trailing recent estimates, it's likely that they'll project the state will collect even less money for this budget year, which began July 1.

That could mean more budget cuts on top of the $6 billion that lawmakers and Crist cut during the last budget year. The spring lawmaking session was one of the grimmest as they chopped money for school kids, roads and the poor and elderly.

As the state's finances decline, Crist's sky-high poll numbers have started ticking down. Still, the state economists generally see some turnaround by the middle of next year because there are only so many more jobs to lose and home prices are leveling off. They also project that fuel prices will stabilize as well.

'That's the big question: The speed at which the recovery occurs,' said Don Langston, the chief economist for the Florida House of Representatives.

Or, as Diao, the governor's economist, said: ``We're still bleeding but probably not as much.'

In unusually plainspoken terms, the experts struggled with the data to figure out just when the state can wrest itself from a vicious cycle in which the lagging housing market triggers job losses that, in turn, worsen market conditions.

They cut the their population-growth estimate for the state by nearly 100,000 from 300,000 over the next three years.

And the state has a surplus of housing units ---- especially in Miami-Dade ---- and Florida was No. 2 in foreclosures in the nation last month behind California.

The combination -- fewer home buyers and more foreclosures -- will only increase the surplus housing stock and decrease the need for so-called 'starts' in new construction, said Alan Johansen, the Senate's chief economist.

'What's going to support the starts when there's nobody here to buy them?' he asked.

But the chief of the Legislature's Economic and Demographic Research agency, Amy Baker, said there's still pent up demand.

She noted that home prices are falling faster than wages now, which are to decline 2.7 percent compared to last budget year.

The median Florida home price is $203,000 -- near the national average and down from the June 2006 high of $257,000. As a result, home sales are starting to pick up.

'We're starting to see signs of things starting to stabilize in Florida -- at a very low level, not where we want to be,' she said.

``But I think were seeing some hints, some very early hints, that things are stabilizing.'

But the others weren't so sure due to the tight lending and job markets.

'What is important is jobs,' Diao said. ``If you don't have a job, you can't buy a house.'

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