Economy Watch: Employment Trends Index Up; Home Prices Down

CoreLogic reported that whatever steam the U.S. job market seems to be experiencing (overstated or not), that momentum hasn't budged the housing market just yet.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

First, the good news—moderately good news, at least. The Conference Board reported on Monday that its Employment Trend Index, which aggregates eight labor-market indicators, increased 0.66 percent in December to 104.32, from the revised figure of 103.64 in November. The December figure is also up 4.7 percent from the same month a year ago. Six of the index’s eight components were positive.

“Job growth is picking up some steam in the U.S.,” Gad Levanon, director of macroeconomic research at the Conference Board, noted in a statement. “The Employment Trends Index has been signaling this growth for three straight months now. However, last Friday’s employment data—with a reported gain of 200,000 jobs in December—likely overstates the trend.”

In a bit of less-than-good news, however, CoreLogic reported on Monday that whatever steam the U.S. job market seems to be experiencing (overstated or not), that momentum hasn’t budged the housing market just yet. CoreLogic reported that its Home Price Index was down 1.4 percent month-over-month in November, and 4.3 percent compared with November 2010.

Consumer borrowing spikes in November

According to the Federal Reserve on Monday, consumers unpacked their credit cards in November and did some borrowing, with total consumer borrowing for the month rising by $20.4 billion, or an annualized increase of 9.9 percent, a considerable jump from October’s 2.9 percent annualized increase. Some $5.6 billion of November’s jump was credit card debt, up at an annualized rate of 8.5 percent, while $14.8 billion of the increase was auto loans and student loans, up at an annualized rate of 10.7 percent.

Consumer borrowing increased for much of 2011, including six of that last nine months. The major holders of that debt roughly maintained the same proportions in November as the previous month, with commercial banks far and away the largest creditor, followed by finance companies, credit unions, and the federal government. The government’s share of consumer debt, which is mostly student loans, did see a month-over-month uptick in November from $409.9 billion to $416.3 billion.

People are also saving less. In fact, U.S. savings rates are now close to what they were before the recession, which was about 3 percent. In November, Americans saved 3.5 percent of the incomes, according to the Fed.

A new round of nervousness about Europe

The euro-zone crisis, which seemed to take a little time off for the holidays, started to simmer again on Monday, with Germany and France–in the persons of Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy–warning Greece that it wasn’t moving fast enough on the structural changes (that is, austerity-related surgery on the body politic) that the country promised to undertake the last time the rest of the EU promised to bail it out. Greece doesn’t seem to be making those changes, and so boss-nations Germany and France now say that Greece might not receive the next payment of its bailout money.

What then? A panicky withdrawal from the euro-zone by Greece? A panicky default on Greek debt? Whatever the possible dénouement of the Greek chapter of the euro-zone crisis, investors are showing their nervousness by driving yields on ultra-safe German debt into negative territory for the first time ever—a negative yield of 0.0122 percent on Monday. That is, investors are paying Germany to hold on to their money.

Wall Street seems to be anticipating good quarterly numbers from most major corporations, so the indexes had a positive day on Monday, never mind the story brewing in Europe. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 32.77 points, or 0.27 percent, while the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq were up 0.23 percent and 0.09 percent, respectively.

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