Those millions of lost jobs are not coming back soon. And forget about higher home values allowing 11 million underwater mortgages to resurface. But Americans are nothing if not optimists. And there certainly seems to be a sense of rising hope that the economy just may have finally turned a corner, if not the corner.
It often appears hard to find anyone happy these days about life in the United States. Folks with a lot of money are portrayed as being preoccupied with fears of higher taxes. Folks without a lot of money are portrayed as permanent picket-line members trying to occupy a downtown or political rally.
The portrayals may be accurate for some, but do not represent most Americans, even those who are really rich and really poor. A closer look at some of the numbers tells a less worrisome story. Here are five signs that things are looking up:
Employment. The most recent report on initial claims for unemployment posted its best showing in nearly four years. This indicator has been consistently pointing in a better direction. It reinforces the strong January jobs report that the national unemployment rate had fallen to 8.3 percent.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia regularly surveys 45 economic forecasters. Last November, this group projected that the U.S. unemployment rate would average 8.7 percent during the fourth quarter of this year. Last week, its updated forecast was for an 8.1 percent jobless rate in the final three months of the year.
Stock market. U.S. stock prices have been a pleasant surprise so far in 2012. They are up solidly for the year and flirting with pre-recession highs. Now, stocks are hardly booming. And they have been a big disappointment over the long run, having returned a big goose egg over the past 10 years or so. But on most days this year, the market is telling us that it sees better times ahead.
Europe. We are not out of the woods yet. Investment markets experienced a hiccup last Friday over a last-minute delay in getting the Greek government to agree to deep austerity cuts. Maybe negotiators are scared to leave their offices. They might encounter enormous street demonstrations by Greeks who understand all too well what "deep austerity" means. But elsewhere in Europe, banks and other at-risk financial institutions are still standing. And while economic growth looks to be puny, the worse-case scenario has been avoided so far. Truth be told, an economically weak Europe is not such a bad thing for the United States, up to a point.
Housing. The story about housing is not that it's getting better, but that the economy is getting better despite housing. Each week brings new reports telling us a little more about exactly how sick this important part of the economy has been. No one seems to be buying homes, and that means nearly no one is building new homes. That means a depression in construction jobs and tough times for all those industries that make the appliances, furnishings, and other things that go into homes. No one knows if housing has finally hit bottom, but surely we're close.
Last week's $25 billion mortgage foreclosure agreement by five big lenders is literally a case of being more than a day late and billions of dollars short. But it will help a bit. There are about 75 million homeowners in the United States. Saying that 11 million of them owe more on their homes than their appraised values is one of those jaw-dropping numbers that is less than meets the eye. It doesn't tell you how many of them are facing serious financial pressures.
The U.S. Census Bureau takes a comprehensive quarterly look at housing. In the fourth quarter of last year, the vacancy rate for rental housing was 9.4 percent. It hit 9.2 percent in the second quarter, but otherwise hasn't been that low since the first quarter of 2003. Of course, you might say, low vacancy for rental housing is caused by all those foreclosed homeowners who are emptying out their houses. Nope. The vacancy rate for owned homes hasn't moved that much but it has been declining; it was 2.3 percent in the fourth quarter, its lowest level since the second quarter of 2006. And while home prices remain a disappointment, asking prices for rental housing are rising.
Confidence. The pollsters at Gallup say Americans' confidence has risen for five consecutive months. It still trails levels hit last year, not to mention its prerecession readings. But it is moving in the right direction. Gallup does another survey on how people evaluate their life.
It asks Americans if they feel they're thriving, struggling, or suffering. Gallup says its life evaluation readings are also moving higher. "The percentage of Americans who rate their lives well enough to be classified as thriving increased to 53.4 percent in January, up from 51.9 percent in December, and is the highest since May of last year," the polling firm said late last week. "At the same time, the percentage of Americans who are struggling declined last month to 43.3 percent, from 44.6 percent in December. The percentage suffering stayed about the same at 3.3 percent, compared with 3.5 percent in December."