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December 7, 2018

Volume 40, Number 35

Its common these days for glowing national articles to be written about Austin.  So when an opinion piece in a respected national publication criticizes actions by Austin, you need to be aware of what is being said.  Within the past week, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) wrote the City of Austin risks becoming the San Francisco of the South an expensive playground for wealthy progressives.”  And it cited examples.

 “It would be hard to find a better example of left-wing naiveite in municipal affairs than what transpired here in November,” wrote the WSJ in its opening sentence.  “Voters in the Lone Star State’s progressive bastion overwhelmingly approved a $925 billion bond package, but rejected a simple ballot initiative for an independent audit of city spending.” “The defeat of the audit wouldn’t be so galling if the new bonds didn’t so obviously demonstrate the need for an independent review of Austin’s books.  Spending in the Texas capital is more like what one would expect in some profligate California city,” observed with WSJ.  “With this new bond package, Austin has been reduced to using debt to fund parks, public safety and sidewalk repair instead of paying for them out of its $4.1 billion annual budget.”

It cited other examples saying Austin “spends too much of its steadily growing budget on dubious social programs and utopian schemes, financed by a steadily growing tax burden.”  It ticked off actions such as mandatory paid sick leave “with an exemption, of course, for union shops.”  A solar-ready requirement for all new homes and commercial buildings was another example, as was “exorbitantly high development fees that get passed on to consumers.”

The priority of the citys ultraprogressive political establishment is to serve the interests of the wealthy, ultraprogressive white people who fund and elect Austins insular political class,” claims the WSJ opinion piece.  “As living here gets more expensive and as the city’s elite dig in to protect their left-wing haven from disruption and change,” it becomes more like San Francisco.  Tough talk.

Let’s put this in perspective.  Readers of the WSJ can agree or disagree with this assessment.  This is not the point.  The pointthis review of the City of Austins governing policies is now out there for all to see.  In a respected publication. Read More

November 23, 2018

Volume 40, Number 34

While enjoying leftovers from the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, its time to look ahead at a special Austin City Council runoff election that will likely be largely overlooked.  Even though Council positions are theoretically non-partisan candidates are not listed by political affiliation Council District 8 has taken on an aggressively partisan Dem vs Repub tone.

It’s a special runoff election December 11, 2018 for three seats on the Austin City Council.  No candidate got 50+% of the vote November 6, 2018.  So the top two vote-getters for District 1, District 3 and District 8 must face voters once again.  Here’s how it breaks down.

District 1 features newcomers Natasha Harper-Madison against Mariana Salazar.  District 3 is a re-match of a family affair:  incumbent Pio Renteria is in the runoff with his sister, Susana Almanza.  Neither of these contests has partisan overtones.  No matter who is elected, these districts will continue to be represented by another left-leaning Council member.

The change in tone is for the District 8 Council seat.  You’ll recall this is the Council district currently represented by Ellen Troxclair.  An avowed conservative, Troxclair – who was frequently on the short end of 10-1 votes – decided not to seek re-election.

The runoff for this seat pits Paige Ellis against Frank Ward.  Why do we say this is a highly-partisan contest?  The Travis County Democratic Party endorsed Ellis.  And described the contest this way:  “Her opponent Frank Ward is a Trump-Republican and former staffer for the Republican National Committee endorsed by outgoing conservative Council Member Ellen Troxclair.”

The Dem Chair says of Ellis:  “Paige is an advocate for Planned Parenthood and believes that Austin can be a leader in gun safety reform … and is running to ensure environmental responsibility.”  The Democratic Party is raising money for Ellis and is block-walking Sunday, November 25th to get out the vote for her.

If Ellis wins, there will be no conservative voice, much less a lone vote, on the Austin City Council.  And, as the Austin American-Statesman noted previously, in the very diverse 11-member City Council, there will be no white, heterosexual, Christian male serving on the law-making body.  Early voting runs from November 29th to December 7th. Read More

October 12, 2018

Volume 40, Number 28

Its a rare sight in Austin:  powerful activist environmental interests disagreeing among themselves.  Usually the environmental community leaders in Austin publicly march in lock-step -- fighting for or against the same issues.  Not now.  Distinct lines have been drawn over an issue that will be on Austin ballots November 6th.  Which side prevails may go a long way toward defining the shape of Austins growth.

The ballot item is Proposition J.  Huh?  What’s that?  Simply put, it would require any comprehensive change to Austins land use rules go to voters for approval.  Just getting on the ballot was controversial.  It took a grass-roots effort to bypass the Austin City Council to get Prop J on the ballot.  This grew out of the CodeNEXT development rules process that inflamed such strong opinions, it was ultimately abandoned. So, how has this pitted Austin environmental leaders against each other?  We need to credit Mose Buchele, an award-winning reporter for KUT-FM, for bringing this to our attention through his writing in Austin MonitorIt boils down to differing environmental philosophies as they relate to growth and climate change.  How so?

If Proposition J passes, then the voters will have the right to check the Councils work if we resurrect CodeNEXT and we have a comprehensive rewrite of our Land Development Code,” longtime environmental activist Bill Bunch argues.  Arguing against passage of Prop J is the director of Austin-based Environment Texas, Luke Metzger.  Where do they differ?

Bunch opposes development being shoved into the Central city where you would “scrape our existing city neighborhoods and try to force it on top of existing communities.”  He doesnt like adding density in downtown Austin and wants growth moved away from the city core.

Metzger disagrees:  “Are we going to increase sprawl, increase traffic, or are we going to do it in a much more walkable, transit-friendly way and bring people into the city core?”

They both cite strong, passionate environmental reasons for their approach.  Itll be interesting to see which approach prevails in this environmentally-centric Austin community. Read More

October 5, 2018

Volume 40, Number 27

The price of oil is surging toward an extremely high price of $100 a barrel.  In fact, this week the price moved up to bounce around $80/barrel.  Good for the Texas awl bidness.”  Good for state government, as tax revenue is pouring into state coffers in advance of the Texas legislative session starting in January.  Good for the Texas economy.  Yes, but.  What about the price of gasoline you pay at the pump for personal and business driving?  Good question.

There are predictions that the price of gasoline will be increasing, even though the summer heavy driving season is behind us and the demand theoretically is lessened.  It’s a logical forecast.  After all, it is costing more to buy and then process crude oil.  So it isn’t surprising to expect the price at the pump may go up.  If it does, though, how high could it go?

As of mid-week, the price for a gallon of regular gas at Costco on Austins Research Blvd. was $2.48/gal.  (Admittedly, Costco generally has some of the lowest prices around.)  This is the same price range, slightly up and down, seen at Costco through the busy summer travel months.

Know what the gas price is in California?  “Gasoline prices are climbing toward $4.00 a gallon in Southern California, boosted in large part by a rise in worldwide crude oil prices,” reported the Los Angeles Times.  “The average pump price for regular gas in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area stood at $3.77.”

Wait a minute.  If crude prices were the biggest culprit, wouldnt you think similar prices could be found in Austin and all over the US where the price of crude is the same?  Hasn’t happened.  Something else is happening in LaLa Land.

The truth is that California policies, including its high state taxes on gasoline and diesel, drive up prices,” observed the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation.  “Regulations and corporate taxes also play a big role in determining refinery operating costs as well as expenses throughout the entire supply chain.  That’s why prices are rising, especially in California.”

You’ll probably always pay more at the pump in high-tax states than here in Austin or around Texas.  Competition and volume also play a part.  Still, the price you pay will likely rise.  See the next story. Read More

September 21, 2018

Volume 40, Number 25

Face it.  Whether you like it or not, advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will be used in battle by someone an enemy or an ally.  And Austin will be on the cutting edge of the effort to ensure US soldiers will have the best technologies available.  This was securely set in stone when the first new 4-star command in 45 years the Army Futures Command (AFC) – was established, not in a remote military base, but in downtown Austin.

While this is a development of yet-to-be-fully-understood, long-term-significance to the Austin area, it is a continuation of Austins quiet involvement for more than a half-century in private and public war-related activities.  Two quick examples:  1) UTAustins Defense Research Lab was active in World War II in North Austin, where the Pickle Research Lab now sits, and where Sam, the first monkey to launch into space, was trained and 2) Tracor, the first home-grown NYSE-listed company, was founded in 1955 to work on US defense electronics.

What we know about the AFC’s economic impact in Austin is that, once fully operational, it will employ about 500 employees, including 400 civilians.  Not Dell-huge in terms of numbers, but important in high-level positions.  This is where university graduates and private sector workers come in.

“By tapping into private-sector and academic know-how, the Army can better develop solutions to future problems,” observed longtime Texas economist Ray Perryman.  “With Austins large number of professionals in science and technology industries and thousands of graduates each year in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics career fields, the area is well equipped to work with the Army to modernize.”

The Army hasn’t said so yet, but you can anticipate that millions and millions of government dollars will start flowing, as if from a fire hose, into UTAustin, established tech and computer companies, start-up tech innovators, leading-edge researchers, etc.  This is how the Army can maximize the advantages of all that Austin offers.  Make no mistake, this will provide a significant infusion of funds into the area. Want a phrase from an expert that puts the Army Futures Command Austin/Texas location into perspective? Try this from Perryman:  “In one of the most important arenas imaginable, Texas has shown itself to be an innovation juggernaut of global significance.” Read More

September 14, 2018

Volume 40, Number 24

The Texas economy especially as it impacts the Austin area is so strong it has triggered an action not taken in 30 years.  State government, so important in Austin, is benefitting significantly from what is happening throughout the state not to mention the impact of the red-hot Austin economy.  All this is due to better-than-expected economic and revenue growth around Texas.

We’ve long maintained the Austin area is uniquely positioned economically.  Steady government paychecks provide a solid underpinning for the area.  In general, these jobs are not subject to ups-and-downs or twists-and-turns of the private sector.  So, add to this, the Silicon Hills of Austin is right now riding the crest of tech-driven private sector job growth, that is the envy of the rest of the nation.

Consider this:  the sky-rocketing Austin private sector tech economy is set to get a rocket-boost from normally-staid state government.  What?  How’s this?  The Texas Legislature that sets budget parameters for the many state agencies in Austin doesn’t even meet for almost four months.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, by law, is the state official who decides money guidelines the legislature must follow.  He says to legislators “this is how much money you will have to spend during the next two years of the biennium and you cant spend any more than that.”  Last October, he issued his forecast for fiscal year 2019.

For the first time other than a legislative session in 30 years, the State Comptroller has increased his certified revenue estimate he made last October.  And it was a big increase.  Remember, the Texas Legislature meets only once every two years for 140 days.  So its a big deal for setting a two-year budget.

His reason for saying state agencies will have more money to spend starting in 2019 than earlier predicted are several fold:  sales tax revenue is up 10.5% over FY 2017 … oil/gas natural gas production tax revenue is up 56.1% … general revenue-related revenue, up 9.3%, etc.

The legislature will have more money to dole out.  If state agencies get bigger bucks, it will mean bigger paychecks circulating through the Austin economy.  A nice future boost. Read More

September 7, 2018

Volume 40, Number 23

For a year now, the Austin area has been considered one of the favored locations for Amazons 50,000-person second headquarters, Amazon HQ2.  Still no public word on when Amazon will announce its next step.  A $5 billion investment in the HQ2 city, spread over 10-20 years, has many cities salivating.  In fact, it has been said a prosperity bomb will be dropped on the ultimate HQ2 city.  How can the Austin area prepare for such an event?

Austin’s proposal has not been made public, but several cities have revealed proposals that have incentives valued up to a billion dollars.  Hey, they probably figure, if we invest a billion dollars for a $5 billion returnits worth it.  Don’t know if this was their logic. But it emphatically emphasizes the humongous aspect of Amazon HQ2.  Amazon estimates it generated $38 billion in economic activity in its home base of Seattle between 2010 and 2016.  Okay, so HQ2 will be big.  Really big.

Washington, DC-based think tank Brookings Institution in a new study examined how the city that wins Amazon HQ2 could ensure its arrival does not rapidly drive up housing costs – an important element in the Austin area economy.

Brooking’s Joseph Parilla said this “should include not only stimulating new market-rate development through zoning, but also setting aside some of the tax revenue generated by Amazon to fund and preserve affordable housing.”

Other than housing, Parilla said Amazon should invest in local business initiatives, such as a startup accelerator and should source services and goods from resident suppliers.  And, the new HQ2 city should prepare existing residents to take advantage of employment opportunities created by Amazon.  In other words, the “diversity of the entire region” should be brought into play in business planning around Amazon.

Back to housing for a moment.  In Amazons HQ1 city, Seattle, the cost of housing has outpaced wage gains.  While the income of families at the 20th percentile of the earnings distribution grew by 14% between 2014 and 2016, rents increased at 19%, according to Zillow.  Sound familiar?  If Austin is selected for HQ2, Amazon will be on familiar territory and should work with Austin to alter such an imbalance. Read More

August 24, 2018

Volume 40, Number 21

Things are going so well in the Austin area right now you might be tempted to pinch yourself to see if youre dreaming.  This is especially true if you happen to remember two past disruptions that caused some serious damage the dot-com bust and the real estate recession.  They occurred in Austin less than 20 years ago.  And, they were like a slap upside the head.  A lot of people and companies were seriously hurt or even destroyed.

This report is not intended to be a downer.  And it’s not a dull recitation of local history.  But, there are so many new residents in the area, it might be helpful to remind them they have arrived at a great time.  Those who have lived/worked here for at least twenty years have vivid memories of when times were not-so-great.  And, more importantly, many of those who survived those times are responsible for Austin’s economic success stories today.

Think about this.  Roughly a million people have moved into Austin and the surrounding areas in the 5-county metro during the decades following the two downturns.  They didn’t experience the hard times.  All they’ve seen is one of the most amazing periods of expansion experienced by any major world city.

Many of these new residents are pulling down compensation greater than those who were hammered by the downturns.  A lot of them are living and/or working in gleaming, modern towers downtown – or, in new office buildings, apartments and homes outside the Central Business District.

The downtown newbies probably can’t comprehend “see-through office buildings, where three million square feet of office space had to go begging – even though the spaces were cut-rate subleases from leases businesses committed to prior to the recession.  This is as much space as six Frost Bank Towers!

Here’s one example that vividly illustrates the contrast between then and now.  Drive to Fifth and San Antonio Streets downtown.  Marvel at the architecturally-significant Federal Office Building that will still be standing on that site a century from now.  At one point, global semiconductor chipmaker Intel started building a $124 million tower on that site.  Then as the dot-com debacle hit, Intel pulled the plug half-way into the project in March 2001.  For six years, the “Intel Shell” reminded all of what might have been.  The takeaway:  Recent residents will do well to understand what they have inherited.  This is a special place. Read More

August 17, 2018

Volume 40, Number 20

Mexico is the most important international trading partner for Texas by far.  Austin also benefitsRelations recently have been a bit dicey, especially with the NAFTA trade agreement between Canada, Mexico and the US under review.  “Review is a soft word.  Soon NAFTA that went into effect in 1994 -- may no longer resemble its former self.  With a newly-elected president of Mexico starting a 6-year term December 1, 2018, lets examine what may happen.

This is not the stuff of everyday headlines.  In fact, many find a discussion of international trade pretty boring.  But this is very important for the future growth of the Austin area and the Texas state economy.  Take Texas first.  Texas has been the nations top exporting state for 14 years in a rowAnd Mexico, by far, is the top country for Texas exports -- $97 billion to 2nd place Canada’s around $30 billion in 2017.  All other nations are back in the pack.

Austin takes a big chunk of this dynamic export business.  In fact, the Austin-Round Rock area is the 26th largest exporter region in all of the US.  And it is growing.  Exports grew 30% over a 10-year period from 2006 to 2016.  The metro area exports approximately $10 billion in goods and services a year.  More than 2,000 businesses in the Austin metro exported $540 million worth of merchandise to Mexico in 2016.

So what could impact this significant hunk of our economy?  First of all, President Donald Trump has long maintained the US gets the short end of the stick in NAFTA saying the trade agreement favors Mexico and Canada.  He even called for abolition of NAFTA (which stands for North American Free Trade Agreement).

Now Trump is playing Mexico against Canada, saying the US might end up with two agreements, a different one for each nation.  Hes saying negotiations with Mexico started again July 26th and are coming along nicely.” But talks with Canada are on hold.  Trump is even praising Mexico’s left-leaning president.

So, what is likely to happen?  Former USAmbassador to Mexico Tony Garza (who lives and works in Austin and Mexico City) said the new Mexican president has his own man sitting in on current negotiations.  “The new administrations embrace of the talks has sparked renewed optimism for a quick finish, with some negotiators even pointing to completion by the end of August,” said Garza.  Stay tuned. Read More

July 27, 2018

Volume 40, Number 17

Dear ,

As the state of Texas goes, so goes Austin.  Some think the vice versa is more true.  But since Austin is the home of the massive state government that must keep up with the impressive growth of Texas, its important to examine the economic health of the Lone Star State.  Especially as the Texas Legislature will meet in Austin in less than six months for its every-two-years decision-making sessionAnd, legislators will have a lot of money to spread around.

When you think about it, it’s really impressive how the amazing Texas economy is churning out enormous amounts of money to run the government.  And, unlike the vast majority of other states, Texas is doing this without a state income tax.  The single largest source of revenue for Texas is the General Sales Tax instituted in 1961.  And, get this, the state sales tax rate of 6% has not increased since 1990.

The booming state economy has caused the sales tax source of revenue to zoom almost 10% since last year at this time.  As a result, State Comptroller Glenn Hegar now predicts legislators will have more than $110 billion (with a b”) to spend during the next biennium -- $2.8 billion more to spend than originally anticipated.

Now then, enough about mind-numbing big bucks.  Let’s talk about another economic factor.  Separate from the sales tax, Texas has “benefitted from rising oil prices and production,” Hegar pointed out.  This translates simply into a 2019 balance in the states savings account – the Rainy Day Fund” – growing to almost $12 billion, the largest ending balance in the states history.  Talk about economic stability.

Not only that.  After voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2015 to increase funding for highways, the adopted formula means $2.5 billion will be allocated to highways from collections this 2018 fiscal year.  This is huge.  And it is occurring because of the increased sales tax receipts.

At least one group is urging legislators to “buy down some existing taxes” with additional funds. (Explanation:  Back in 1992, the legislature allowed municipalities and special districts, such as transit authorities, to levy local sales taxes.  The maximum municipal rate is 2%.  This is why some sales taxes are as high as 8.25%, depending upon the locale.) Read More