“We are on the road to economic recovery.”

That was the upshot of the annual California Lutheran University economic forecast for Ventura County delivered Thursday morning by economist Mathew Fienup, executive director of the Thousand Oaks-based school’s Center for Economic Research and Forecasting.

The viral presentation, broadcast online for 179 attendees, followed opening remarks by new Cal Lutheran President Lori Varlotta and a panel discussions with those directly impacted by COVID-19 and its attendant economic devastation.

Even before coronavirus hit in March, Fienup, in 2019, underscored that “this was not the greatest economy of all time” because the economic fundamentals were off.

Due partly to a Bureau of Labor Statistics measurement error, real unemployment is higher than the official rate, Fienup said. He pegged May’s unemployment rate 3 percentage points higher at 20 percent. While unemployment today hovers at 7.9 percent, “we believe it is likely closer to 11 percent,” making it equal to the peak of Great Recession.

Posting a Nike logo, Fienup characterized the economic recovery as more of a “swish” than a “V.”

“As we look ahead, we anticipate a slow painful recovery for the nation’s economy,” Fienup added, which will engender “less economic opportunity and upward mobility.”

Fienup said that, on the state level, “California’s downturn was larger than the nation’s so its recovery will be larger, too.”

There are 500,000 non-farm jobs in the state that will not be recovered by end of 2022 and a contraction of labor and the dearth of high-paying white-collar work continues to spur residents to exit Ventura County.
“If the remote work revolution sticks, it will drive an even more rapid exodus from California,” he said.

In recent years, wildfire incidents in communities such as Ventura, Ojai, Santa Paula, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks have also driven population losses, he said.

However, his team has been tracking “a countervailing pressure” from urban flight to the suburban counties due to the pandemic.

Since the pandemic unfurled in Ventura County, the lowest-paying workplace sectors have taken a tremendous hit as “retail, leisure and hospitality lost more than a quarter jobs,” Fienup said. “(Remarkably,) through this entire period of economic weakness, home prices continued to grow in Ventura County.”

Yet Fienup pinpointed the housing crisis as the culprit leading to the exodus from Ventura County more so than the employment picture.

“We simply don’t build enough,” Fienup said. “The lack of housing affordability is driving many other areas of weakness that we see across Ventura County” — patterns that have accelerated during the pandemic.

A pair of initiatives in progress related to the groundwater market and an antibody study has heartened the economist.

“Ventura County recovery is on pace to be stronger than L.A. County or California,” Fienup said.

"We cheer the declaration of thousands of epidemiologists pushing for a more deliberate reopening of the economy and a focus on protecting our most vulnerable (workforce) groups,” he concluded. “We will be a stronger and more resilient economy when this is done.”