September 2nd, 2010
03:19 PM GMT
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California produces about a quarter of America’s farm production with immigrants from south of the border doing the back-breaking work in the fields of the Salinas Valley, which was made famous by John Steinbeck. But the most visible “crops” sprouting up these days are For Lease or foreclosure signs in the real estate market.

Prior to a recent visit to what would be the world’s eighth largest economy on its own, I was wondering why there are concerns about a second dip into recession. Now I understand those concerns. During a two-week visit from San Diego to San Francisco, you can see what prolonged tough times look like and hear first-hand what business people are experiencing.

La Jolla, a picturesque seaside city of some 44,000 people, has basked in the light of being a bio-technology research hub with the University of California of San Diego providing a steady flow of government and private sector research and development funds.

What a wake up call as we drove through the village to see no fewer than one in four retail shops or office blocks shuttered with foreclosure or lease signs plastered across the empty spaces.

I had no problem driving up to any of La Jolla’s hotels and asking for a room without a reservation - this during peak season - or finding a prime-time dinner table at one of its fashionable open-air restaurants. It was a similar story 90 minutes up the coast in Newport Beach, where one retired industrialist who has lived in the area for nearly a half century said he has never seen anything like it.

It is difficult to ignore the numbers that paint a less-than-glowing picture for what has long been officially designated the “Golden State.” California had three of the top five metro-area slots in terms of real estate price gains nationwide as measured by S&P in the second quarter. Homebuyers rushed to close transactions before a federal tax credit expired. Prices then plummeted nearly 22 percent in July. Another alarming caveat tucked in the reports - more than a third of the sales have been generated from foreclosures, which means there is a great deal of pain being felt in the system.

Most alarming, perhaps, is the fact that unemployment at 12.3 percent is stubbornly high, and nearly three percentage points above the national average. As we finished our journey, we drove on Highway 280 through the heart of Silicon Valley to San Francisco and I realized, yet again, it would be difficult to find a more diversified economy on earth.

The state is home to hubs of high technology, bio-technology, defence and entertainment with leading universities providing the spark for entrepreneurs to pick up the ball and run. At this stage however, fewer and fewer are finding the means to jump into the game. State money is scarce, bank lending tight and signs of prolonged pain in abundance.

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Filed under: Business

September 2nd, 2010
02:08 PM GMT
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For sale and foreclosure signs in California
For sale and foreclosure signs in California

Is your home a shelter, a roof over your head? Or is your home the biggest investment you'll ever make? Can it be both? In uncertain economic times, property has traditionally been thought of as a hedge against other, more liquid types of investments. In good economic times, property has traditionally appreciated. Today, however, is unlike the past. So how does property fit into your life right now? Richard and Ali battle it out to answer this question at 1800GMT.

Filed under: Q&AQuest Means Business

September 2nd, 2010
10:25 AM GMT
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Tokyo, Japan – Akihisa Shirota has piles of manga in his office. He likes to take math drills with the students. And he dismisses the “ivory tower” types as living too “in the box.”

Not your average junior high school principal in any country, but especially in Japan, a country renowned for its rigorous and rudimentary educational system.

Look at Shirota’s resume and you notice what’s not there: the words "teacher" or "educator." It’s instead dotted with high tech and publishing companies he’s headed as the president or manager.

Shirota’s lack of experience in education is exactly what made him attractive to Wada Junior High School.

Watch how Japan is seeking to revamp its education system

“Principals are people who became teachers right after graduating from college,” said Shirota. As a former Japan Inc. man, Shirota treats his students more like his employees. He knows the name and test score of every single student in the school, all 400 of them.

The day at Wada Junior High begins with a math drill known here as “brain training.” Stealing from the theory that puzzles may prevent dementia among the elderly, Shirota believes drilling with puzzles and problems everyday under time pressure will sharpen young minds.

Later in the day, the students head to a seminar headed by a company. The class teaches business manners, like how to politely greet clients and behave at a board meeting.

Then at 7pm, night school begins. Cram schools, as these evening classes are called, are common in private schools, but not in public ones. Shirota says the purpose is the same: to boost test scores for school entrance exams.

Critics have varied from calling Wada Jr. High too rigorous or too lax.

Koya Nakamura, 15, says he enjoys the school, even if his school day ends at 9pm. Other students call their principal “different” but “cool.”

Call him what you like, says Shirota, both good and bad. But his philosophy has paid off in higher test scores, he says. At the core of this principal’s beliefs is this: Japan’s companies must adapt to the times to compete in an ever-changing global environment. Schools should be no exception.

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Filed under: AsiaJapan

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