Sonoma County is outpacing the state's metropolitan areas in job growth and its economy should continue to strengthen next year, economist Christopher Thornberg told business leaders Friday in Santa Rosa.
Thornberg, once tagged "Dr. Doom" for correctly predicting the collapse of California's housing bubble, provided an upbeat outlook on the local and national economy. He dismissed the idea that the big issue for the November presidential election is which candidate can better fix the economy.
"Folks, the economy's fixing itself," he told more than 400 people at an annual conference sponsored by the county's Economic Development Board.
Sonoma County now ranks first in the rate of job growth among the state's metro areas, said Thornberg, a founding partner of Beacon Economics in Los Angeles. County jobs increased 4.8 percent during the 12 months ending in August, twice as fast as the rest of the state.
Using a flurry of charts, Thornberg disputed Democrats who claim that U.S. consumers aren't spending because they're burdened down by debt, and he took issue with Republicans who maintain that excessive taxes are dampening economic growth.
He called it encouraging that California this year has posted the third-fastest job growth in the nation, behind only North Dakota and Texas.
A major drain on the economy has been the reduction in government spending and the shedding of public sector jobs. He predicted the lean times will continue for local government.
Thornberg maintained that "2013 could be a very good year" if Washington finds a way to avoid "the fiscal cliff," the automatic federal spending cuts that will result unless Congress and the president agree to an alternative approach. He predicted that Americans eventually will rise up and demand their elected officials find a solution rather than push the country back into recession.
He acknowledged the legitimacy of widespread worries about the looming deficits of federal entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. The financing of those programs must be addressed, but he called it "a crisis in the future," not today.
He called the foreclosure crisis "over." He suggested local wineries and other businesses "start writing your signs in Chinese" in response to the 42 percent growth in visitors to the U.S. from China.
He noted the widespread number of empty office buildings in Sonoma County, saying the county's vacancy rate was excessive at 22 percent. But he predicted that eventually Bay Area tech firms will take notice as they look for more affordable environs.
"The jobs are going to come up and fill that space," he said.
The breakfast, held at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel, featured an announcement that Sonoma County is slated to join an expanded foreign trade zone tied to the port of San Francisco. The designation will allow local companies to cut duty fees on imports used in their manufactured goods.
Officials also announced ongoing efforts aimed at growing business in the county. These include an agreement by college and public school officials to work together to better prepare students for the workplace. Business leaders also are continuing discussions with local governments to streamline the process for companies to receive building and other regulatory permits.