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Economic conditions in January and February continued a five-month streak of “relatively severe” drops for the University of San Diego Index of Leading Economic Indicators, released today.

The biggest negatives were consumer confidence and a drop in help-wanted advertising. Local consumer confidence fell to its lowest level since 1996, and has fallen nearly 40 percent compared to the level a year ago. Building permits, stock prices for local companies, and the national economic outlook were also down. The only bright spot was a drop in claims for unemployment insurance.

The index has now fallen for 22 of the last 23 months, and though there’s not been the kind of dramatic job loss that hit in the early 1990s, job growth now has “come to a virtual standstill,” wrote USD’s Alan Gin in today’s report.

“The continued sharp declines in the Leading Indicators indicate no turnaround in sight at the current time,” he continued.

Taking a longer-term look at the economy, Sandag officials today announced a new economic report that found the local standard of living has not kept up with state and national economic growth.

Marney Cox, Sandag’s chief economist, pointed to the disproportionate growth of jobs on the low end of the region’s wage spectrum compared to growth in the middle and high ends. And the gap is widening — while wages associated with the high-paying jobs grew the most between 1990 and 2004, wages generated by the lowest tier grew the least in that time.

We took a look at that discrepancy in this story earlier this month.

In that story, and in a briefing on the report today, Cox pointed out that the region has spent millions of dollars on developing effective infrastructure for the service and visitor industries — creating jobs at places like the convention center, SeaWorld and Legoland. But those industries add, on the whole, low-paying jobs to the economy.

Cox emphasized the need to invest in infrastructure to lure industries with high-paying jobs, like communications, biotech and financial services, to headquarter and grow their companies here. One such consideration is called the “fiscalization of land use” — the examination of the way a government allows land to be used in light of its ability to effect a long-term economic benefit for the region.

This underscores the debate my new colleague Joaquin Sapien wrote about today:

City planners say that the biotechnology and high technology community was instrumental in ensuring that the general plan, passed by the City Council on March 10, included provisions that fend off residential developers from desirable plots of industrial land.

Cox said the problems identified in this report — called the Regional Economic Prosperity Strategy — aren’t exactly new. And some of the strategies identified for governments appeared in the other two renditions of the strategies released in 1992 and 1998.

So why the emphasis today?

“We have everybody’s attention about the economy these days,” he said this afternoon. “It takes huge problems to get people’s attention. And now that we’ve got everybody’s attention, it’s time to make progress.”

KELLY BENNETT

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