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No Spurt, No Dip

12:00 AM, Dec 3, 2011 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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That view is supported by the latest Fed survey of what is going on around the country. It concludes, “Overall economic activity increased at a slow to moderate pace … across all Federal Reserve Districts except St. Louis.” The biggest drag remains the housing sector. But sales of both new and previously owned homes rose in October by 1.3 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively, and pending home sales (contracts not yet completed) were up by 10.4 percent in November compared with October. More important, the rise in rents and the continued fall in house prices, which are now at their lowest level since early 2003, has tipped the affordability scale in favor of buying over renting. If mortgage rates remain at or below 4 percent, their lowest level in sixty years, the increase in the relative attractiveness of home ownership just might move up the date at which the housing sector, and with it construction, begin to recover. But there is a long way to go: some 1.6 million single-family homes are either in default or foreclosure, and if the banks sell them off at the usual rate they will overhang the market until 2020. Still, after analyzing long-term trends in population growth and housing supply, Bernd Weidensteiner at the Commerzbank concludes, “Higher spending on residential construction is only a matter of time. Moderate residential growth can already be expected in 2012….Long-term demand for housing is massively above the current level of construction activity.”

The manufacturing sector also shows a bit of strength. Unlike those of France, Germany, Britain, and China—and of the eurozone as a whole—the U.S. manufacturing sector expanded in November. New orders rose at the fastest pace in the past seven months. And despite the troubles in Europe, exports orders rose.

Sorting out these data is no easy chore. My own conclusion is that the economy is likely to continue to grow at a modest pace. Job creation will continue at a very slow pace, meaning that the unemployment rate will fall significantly only if more and more workers drop out of the work force. Given employers’ complaints about their inability to find qualified workers to fill many of the 3.4 million job openings, there is reason to worry that even if growth accelerates, the new “normal” level of unemployment will remain well above pre-recession levels. In short, no sharp recovery, but no double-dip.

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