AMERICA NEEDS THE TEXAS ECONOMY TO KEEP ON ROLLING

by Joel Kotkin 02/12/2015

"West Texas Pumpjack" by Eric Kounce TexasRaiser - Located south of Midland, Texas. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“West Texas Pumpjack” by Eric Kounce TexasRaiser – Located south of Midland, Texas. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the last decade, Texas emerged as America’s new land of opportunity — if you will, America’s America. Since the start of the recession, the Lone Star State has been responsible for the majority of employment growth in the country. Between November  2007 and November 2014, the United States gained  a net 2.1 million jobs, with 1.2 million alone in Texas.

Yet with the recent steep drop in oil prices, the Texas economy faces extreme headwinds that could even spark something of a downturn. A repeat of the 1980s oil bust isn’t likely, says Comerica Bank economist Robert Dye, but he expects much slower growth, particularly for formerly red-hot Houston, an easing of home prices and, likely, a slowdown of in-migration.

Some blue state commentators might view Texas’ prospective decline as good news. Some, like Paul Krugman, have spent years arguing that the state’s success has little to do with its much-touted business-friendly climate of light regulation and low taxes, but rather, simply mass in-migration by people seeking cheaper housingSchadenfreude is palpable in the writings of progressive journalists like the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik, who recently crowed that falling energy prices may finally “snuff out” the detested “Texas miracle.”

Such attitudes are short-sighted. It is unlikely that the American economy can sustain a healthy rate of growth without the kind of production-based strength that has powered Texas, as well as Ohio, North Dakota and Louisiana. De-industrializing states like California or New York may enjoy asset bubbles that benefit the wealthy and generate “knowledge workers” jobs for the well-educated (nationwide, professional and business services employment rose by 196,000 from October 2007 through October 2014), but they cannot do much to provide opportunities for the majority of the population.

By their nature, industries like manufacturing, energy, and housing have been primary creators of opportunities for the middle and working classes. Up until now, energy  has been a consistent job-gainer since the recession, adding  199,000 positions from October 2007 through October 2014, says Dan Hamilton, an economist at California Lutheran University. Manufacturing has not recovered all the jobs lost in the recession, but last year it added 170,000 new positions through October. Construction, another sector that was hard-hit in the recession, grew by 213,000 jobs last year through October. The recovery of these industries has been critical to reducing unemployment and bringing the first glimmer of hope to many, particularly in the long suffering Great Lakes.

Reducing the price of gas will not change the structure of the long-stagnant economies of the coastal states; job growth rates in these places have been meager for decades. Lower oil prices may help many families pay their bills in the short run. But there’s also pain in low prices for a country that was rapidly becoming an energy superpower, largely due to the efforts of Texans.

Already the decline in the energy economy, which supports almost 1.3 million manufacturing jobs, is hurting manufacturers of steel, construction materials and drilling equipment, such as Caterpillar. Separately, the strengthening of the dollar promises harder times ahead for exporters  in the industrial sector, and greater price competition from abroad, amid weakening overseas demand. Factory activity is slowing, though key indicators like the ISM PMI are still signaling that output is expanding.

Right now in Texas, of course, the pain is mounting in the energy sector. Growth seems certain to slow in places such as Houston, which Comerica’s Dye says is “ground zero in the down-draft.” Also vulnerable will be San Antonio, the major beneficiary of the nearby Eagle Ford shale. The impacts may be worst in West Texas oil patch towns like Midland, where energy is essentially the economy.

Yet there remain reasons for optimism. Cheaper energy prices will be a boon for the petrochemical and refining industries, which are thick on the ground around Houston and other parts of the Gulf Coast. The Houston area is not seeing anything like the madcap office and housing construction that occurred during the oil boom of the 1980s. Between 1982 and 1986 the metro area added 71 million square feet of office space; including what is now being built, the area has added just 28 million square feet since 2010. Compared to the 1980s, the residential market is also relatively tight, with relatively little speculative building.

The local and state economies have also become far more diversified. Houston is now the nation’s largest export hub. The city also is home to the Texas Medical Center, often described as the world’s largest. Dallas has become a major corporate hub and Austin is developing into a serious rival to Northern California’s tech sector.

Texas needs to increase this diversification given that oil prices could remain low for quite a while, and even drop further after their recent recovery.

This is not to deny that the state is facing hard times. Energy accounts for 411,372 jobs in Texas, about 3.2% of the statewide total, according to figures from Austin economist Brian Kelsey quoted in the Austin American-Statesman. If oil and gas industry earnings in Texas fall 20%, Kelsey estimates the state could lose half of those jobs and $13.5 billion in total earnings.

Low prices also could also devastate the state budget, which is heavily reliant on energy industry revenues. A reduction in state spending could have damaging consequences in a place that has tended to prefer low taxes to investing in critical infrastructure, and is already struggling to accommodate break-neck growth. The only good news here is that slower population growth might mitigate some of the turndown in spending, if it indeed occurs.

But in my mind, the biggest asset of Texas is Texans. Having spent a great deal a time there, the contrasts with my adopted home state of California are remarkable. No businessperson I spoke to in Houston or Dallas is even remotely contemplating a move elsewhere; Houstonians often brag about how they survived the ‘80s bust, wearing those hard times as a badge of honor.

To be sure, Texans can be obnoxiously arrogant about their state, and have a peculiar talent for a kind of braggadocio that drives other Americans a bit crazy. But they are also our greatest regional asset, the one big state where America remains America, if only more so.

This piece first appeared at Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is also executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The New Class Conflict is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He is also author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050.  He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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