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Economy’s clouds have silver linings
By Jan Norman
This past year has seemed like one long cold front with clouds backed up as far as economists can see. But the cliché claims that every cloud has a silver lining.
But at least some of Orange County’s most troubling issues have had an up side.
The cloud: Prices spiked this spring, hitting a record average of $4.60 for a gallon of regular gas on June 19, according to AAA. The high prices slammed sales of gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs, spurred people to cancel vacations and — heaven forbid!. — take public transit.
The silver lining: Prices dipped below $1.60 a gallon as the cost of oil plunged below $50 a barrel, about one-third of its peak, says GasBuddy.com. The falling prices not only saved motorists money. Some gas station owners said their profits increased as the cost of a gallon of fuel plunged, following the old adage that prices shoot up like a rocket but fall like a feather.
The cloud: A bursting housing bubble zapped Orange County home prices nearly 38 percent in the 18 months since home median values peaked in June 2007. Total revenue generated from home sales in November fell to $874 million, about half the amount generated three years earlier.
The silver lining: Lower prices means homes are more affordable, sparking a resurgence in residential sales. According to the California Association of Realtors, homes are at their highest level of affordability in almost six years. The minimum household income needed to buy the typical Orange County starter home fell to $85,500 a year, down from $125,000 in early 2007.
Falling prices also spurred an increase in home sales, as bargain-hunters snapped up homes. Home sales last month were about 40 percent higher than a year earlier.
Silver lining 2: The housing slump also has been good for business for real estate agents specializing in helping lenders resell foreclosed homes. Said one agent, he’s able to retire now thanks to booming earnings he’s had this past year.
Silver lining 3: Also, mortgages funded in the last six months or so are described as coming from the strongest stock in more than a dozen years.
“Every single borrower is qualified on their income, they all have good credit scores, they all have down payments; It’s the strongest set of borrowers we have seen in many years,” said mortgage broker Dennis C. Smith of Huntington Beach. “The group that is being funded now has an incredibly lower risk rate.”
Silver lining 4: He adds: “One other silver lining in all this, we got a lot of people out of this industry that never should have been in it. A lot of good people have lost their jobs, but a lot of people who really hurt this industry are no longer in it. The industry is going to be smaller, but stronger.”
Retailers offer deals
The cloud: The economic downturn and accompanying loss of consumer confidence is especially hard on retailers.
The silver lining: South Coast Plaza offers deals galore and more places to park while getting them. Many stores debuted their end-of-year discounts early. In one of the bigger sales, Saks Fifth Avenue offered 50 percent off already discounted merchandise around Thanksgiving. For example, with total markdowns of up to 70 percent, women were getting $500 pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes for $175 each.
South Coast Plaza also made efforts to spur shopping with a coupon book, more discounts for its Premiere Club members and a Tiffany & Co. gift with purchase, the first in six years.
VC comes to OC
The cloud: Venture capital investments in young companies nationwide declined almost 4 percent during the first three quarters of 2008. Experts said the youngest firms that sought equity investment for the first time had the most difficulty.
The silver lining:Orange County companies had one of their best years in a long time, capture an estimated $573 million in venture capital during the first three quarters, according to The Money Tree Report from PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association based on data from Thomson Reuters.
Downturn equals boom times
The cloud: The economy officially is in recession, U.S. exports fell in November at the fastest pace in seven years, consumer spending declined and the housing sector continues to slump. A consensus of economists say the U.S. economy is likely to shrink 1.1 percent in 2009.
The silver lining: Some industries do well in bad economic times. Orange County bankruptcy attorneys are swamped. “Business bankruptcies are through the roof; I’ve never seen it like this,” said Evan Smiley, a partner in Weiland, Golden, Smiley, Wang, Ekvall & Strok LLP.
Private investigators get more work too, said Thomas G. Martin, president of Martin Investigative Services in Newport Beach.
Most of his work comes from corporations, insurers and attorneys who “continue to use our services in record numbers…. because in recession, people do bad things. Most security experts agree that about 80% of employees are currently stealing something. They steal time, product or money from their employers who then call us to (find) the bad guys. Laid-off (or fearful of being laid off) workers are filing fake workers comp claims.
“2008 was a record year financially and we anticipate no slow-down in 2009,” he added. “Most first-class investigative agencies are actually hiring more people to keep up with the demand.”
Register reporters Candice Shih, Jeff Collins, Marilyn Kalfus and John Gittelsohn contributed to this report.