Bottom Line: Overall economic conditions remain good for now, but the rate of expansion of the state’s economy appears to be slowing.
Knowing when the state’s next budget slowdown will happen is impossible. Many economic factors outside the state’s control influence state revenues. Despite this, certain data points can help us understand whether shifting economic conditions are likely to lead to growth or declines in state revenues in the coming months.
We created the State Fiscal Health Index to track the strength of economic conditions relevant to the state’s fiscal health. The index ranges from 0 (representing the lowest level in the last 25 years) to 100 (representing the highest level in the last 25 years). Both the level of the index and changes in the index from month to month offer information about the state’s fiscal health. When the index is high, revenues tend to be high compared to historical norms. Similarly, when the index is increasing, state revenues are likely to increase over the next six to twelve months. On the flipside, a consistent decline in the index over a few months has typically signaled that the state is entering an extended period of revenue weakness.
The figure below shows the index through March 2019. The index remained near historic highs in March.
The index declined slightly in March. This is the continuation of a trend of slowing in the index that started in June 2018. Weakness appears most pronounced in housing. Building and sales have slowed consistently over the last several months, while prices have stagnated. In addition, in March the unemployment claims component of the index had its largest monthly uptick since 2014 (increases in claims generally a negative sign for economic health), while the new car sales component had its largest monthly decline in over five years.
While this recent slowdown in the index is a significant departure from the rapid growth seen in recent years, the index is not yet showing the type of decline seen before the last two recessions. The index experienced similar slowing in mid-2014 and late-2016 before rebounding in the following months. That being said, the likelihood of continued revenue growth over the next year appears to be going down.
The index combines ten key data points: home prices, home sales, residential and commercial building permits, the S&P 500 stock market index, venture capital funding, unemployment insurance claims, CalFresh claims, port traffic, and new car sales. With the exception of the S&P 500, all of this data is specific to California. An increase in these economics variables signals a more positive revenue situation, while a decline suggests a worsening revenue outlook. There are two exceptions to this pattern: claims for unemployment insurance and CalFresh. When claims for unemployment insurance and CalFresh decline this signals an improving revenue situation, while rising claims signal a worsening situation. The graph below shows the recent trends in these variables.
Note: Economic data are frequently revised following an initial release. In the coming months, we similarly may revise our index to reflect any changes in the underlying data.