Home Values Slip More

The economy might be slowly turning in the right direction, but it's going to take more positive momentum to goad U.S. housing values in an upward direction.

The economy might be slowly turning in the right direction, but it’s going to take more positive momentum to goad U.S. housing values in an upward direction. The latest Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller index tracking home values in 20 U.S. cities, which was released on Tuesday, dropped 1.1 percent in December compared with November. For December 2011 compared with the same month a year earlier, the 20-city index was down 4 percent. Home prices are roughly back to where they were in 2002.

In annual terms, only one of the 20 markets in the 20-city index saw an up year in 2011: Detroit, which rose 0.5 percent (nowhere to go but up, perhaps). Among the major U.S. markets in which homes lost value—that is, the other 19—Dallas fared the best, losing only 0.4 percent for 2011. Atlanta took the biggest hit among the 20, with a year-over-year loss of 12.8 percent.

“While we thought we saw some signs of stabilization in the middle of 2011, it appears that neither the economy nor consumer confidence was strong enough to move the market in a positive direction as the year ended,” David M. Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at S&P Indices, noted in a statement. “In terms of prices, the housing market ended 2011 on a very disappointing note.”

Consumers less pessimistic

Despite the continuing anemia in the housing sector, consumers on the whole are more optimistic—or rather, less pessimistic. Last week, the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Survey of Consumers rose; on Tuesday, word was that the Conference Board’s measurement of consumer confidence was up as well. In fact, it was quite a spike: 70.8 at the end of February, up from 61.5 at the end of January. The good-old-days year of 1985=100, so there’s still some distance to go before an era of good feelings, but the increase was nevertheless a promising sign for consumer psychology.

Higher confidence came in the forms of a decrease in pessimism, at least about some economic conditions. U.S. consumers claiming business conditions are “good” increased only slightly month-over-month to 13.3 percent from 13.2 percent, but those claiming business conditions are “bad” decreased much more—down to 31.2 percent from 38.3 percent. Consumers’ appraisal of the labor market was also less pessimistic. Those asserting that jobs are “plentiful” —a small minority even in the best of times—increased to 6.6 percent from 6.2 percent, but those saying jobs are “hard to get” decreased from 43.3 percent to 38.7 percent.

As for confidence in the near future, pessimism is down about that too. Those anticipating that business conditions will worsen in the next six months decreased from 14.6 percent to 11.8 percent. Remarkably, considering how wages have stagnated or worse in recent years, the proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes improved from 13.8 percent to 15.4 percent.

Big banks in recovery mode

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said on Tuesday that U.S. banks enjoyed a particularly good 2011, with fourth-quarter earnings totaling $26.3 billion, up 23 percent compared with the same quarter in 2010. Some 63 percent of banks reported improved earnings, while only 19 percent were unprofitable. The big boys (banks with over $10 billion in assets) accounted for 83 percent of earnings growth, the agency said.

The FDIC also reported that its problem list of banks now has 813 undisclosed names on it. In the fourth quarter of 2011, there were 844 names on that list, and the decline hasn’t been because of a rush of bank closings in early 2012. So far the agency has closed on 11 institutions in 2012.

Wall Street had a mild up day, buoyed by consumer confidence and notable for one thing: the Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed 13,000 and stayed north of it, even though the index was up only 23.61 points, or 0.18 percent. The S&P 500 gained 0.34 percent and the Nasdaq advanced 0.69 percent.