Economic Outlook: Short-lived optimism

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  Feb. 1, 2013 at 10:05 AM
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All three major U.S. stock boards were down for the week as of Thursday's close but not so far down a fifth week of gains was out of reach.

In a sense, however, it appears as if the United States just experienced its quickest wave of optimism in memory, given the sudden turnaround in economic data -- one week up and the next week down.

Life on Wall Street was looking rosy for a minute there. The housing market looked as if it would finally support a recovery as prices were holding up year-over-year, a flood of foreclosures on the wane, and those left to process were mostly part of a backlog of legal problems, rather than a result of softness in the market.

The most promising development was the increase in equity among consumers. A tighter housing market meant the construction sector would pick up again, but it also meant prices of homes would go up and homeowners across the country would suddenly be worth more without having to do much more than hang on tight for the next six months. Buying on credit -- that would be vacations, tuition bills and home repair, the typical uses of an equity loan -- would go up and then there were the incidental purchases that go along with an improved housing market, such as lawn mowers, rugs, kitchen appliances, curtains, furniture and welcome mats.

Well, that didn't last long.

Optimism came to an abrupt end, with a succession of negative reports, most clearly the gross domestic product figure for the fourth quarter, which, albeit in an advanced estimate, showed an economic contraction of 0.1 percent compared to the third.

That report came on the heels of a Conference Board report that said consumer confidence declined sharply in January and quickly the optimism appeared as stable as a house of cards.

The kicker came Friday morning with the Labor Department's announcement that the unemployment rate rose 0.1 point in January to 7.9 percent, a rise just two months after November's rate of 7.7 percent, which was at the time a low unseen since December 2008.

Stock markets are at a five-year high but analysts fear the market is way ahead of itself and certainly Friday's report will not be viewed as encouraging, although a second glance at the report shows 366,000 fewer people are now listed as marginally attached to the workforce than in January 2012 when 2.7 million were listed as marginally attached.

Marginally attached is government-speak for no longer attached. It is defined as people who stopped looking for work within the past four weeks, although they had looked for work within the past 12 months. Freshly detached would be more accurate terminology because they are no longer counted as part of the workforce.

If the number of marginally attached is reduced above and beyond deaths and those deciding to permanently retire, then that many detached workers have renewed job searches over the past year, some of them encouraged to do so by the recent sense of optimism.

But not so fast: 366,000 rejoining the workforce over the course of a year is 30,500 per month, which is a marginal number of marginally attached workers dusting off their job searches and picking through the classified ads again.

In simple terms, a full recovery requires the economy pick up enough steam to take care of a backlog of more than 12 million people who lost jobs since 2007.

The Labor Department lists the number of unemployed at 12.3 million, a number where the reflection "little changed" has enormous implications. Of those 12.3 million, 4.7 million are counted as long-term unemployed, defined as 27 weeks or more without a job.

That means nearly 40 percent of the unemployed are long-term unemployed and many consider that a sign of unemployment entrenchment -- unemployed so long that it will take a veritable act of Congress to get them back to work again.

In international markets Friday, the Nikkei 225 index in Japan climbed 0.47 percent and the Shanghai composite index in China rose 1.41 percent. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong was flat, sliding 0.03 percent, and the Sensex in India shed 0.57 percent.

The S&P/ASX 200 in Australia gained 0.87 percent.

In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index in Britain added 0.76 percent while the DAX 30 in Germany gained 0.61 percent. The CAC 40 in France rose 1.18 percent and the Stoxx Europe 600 climbed 0.56 percent.

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