Economic gains boost US confidence to 5-year high

WASHINGTON — Home prices are surging, job growth is strengthening and stocks are setting record highs. All of which explains why Americans are more hopeful about the economy than at any other point in five years.

Investors on Tuesday celebrated the latest buoyant reports on consumer confidence and housing prices, which together suggest that growth could accelerate in the second half of 2013.

Greater confidence could spur people to spend more and help offset tax increases and federal spending cuts. And the fastest rise in home prices in seven years might lead more Americans to put houses on the market, easing supply shortages that have kept the housing recovery from taking off.

Tuesday’s report from the Conference Board, a private research group, showed that consumer confidence jumped in May to a reading of 76.2, up from 69 in April. That’s the highest level since February 2008, two months after the Great Recession officially began.

A separate report showed that U.S. home prices jumped nearly 11 percent in March compared with a year ago, the sharpest 12-month increase since April 2006. Prices rose year over year in all 20 cities in the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home price index.

The economic news helped send the Dow Jones industrial average up 106 points to close at a record. The Dow has rocketed nearly 18 percent this year. And the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index is on track for its seventh straight monthly gain, the longest winning streak since 2009.

Surging stock prices and steady home-price increases have allowed Americans to regain the $16 trillion in wealth they lost to the Great Recession. Higher wealth tends to embolden people to spend more. Some economists have said the increase in home prices alone could boost consumer spending enough to offset a Social Security tax increase that has reduced paychecks for most Americans this year.

The Conference Board survey said consumers are also more optimistic about the next six months. That should translate into greater consumer spending, substantial growth in hiring and faster economic growth in the second half of 2013, said Thomas Feltmate, an economist with TD Economics.

Michael Quintos, head of a Chicago advertising agency that helps small businesses market themselves through social media, sees more optimism at work and among friends and relatives.

“A year ago, I had more friends asking me if I knew anybody who was hiring,” Quintos said. “Now I have more people who are hiring asking me if I know anyone looking for a job.”

At work, Quintos is finding it easier to land customers. In the past couple of months, businesses that have asked about his services have been more likely to follow through and hire him. A year ago, most were wary.

“I’ve had more work than I can handle,” Quintos said. As a result, his firm hired a web designer last week.

The Conference Board found that optimism is growing mostly among those earning more than the median household income of roughly $50,000. For those households, the confidence index jumped to 95.1 from 85.3.

Among most other income groups, confidence either rose more slowly or fell. For those earning $15,000 to $24,999, for example, the confidence index rose modestly, from 52.6 to 55.9. And for those earning $25,000 to $34,999, it slipped from 59.8 to 57.9.

Economists say the disparity points to the gain in stock prices, which mostly benefits more affluent Americans.

Consumers’ outlook on the job market also improved last month. The percentage who said jobs are plentiful rose, and the percentage who said they’re hard to find declined. Economists say the shift suggests that the pace of hiring could pick up.

The economy has added an average of 208,000 jobs a month since November. That’s well above the monthly average of 138,000 during the previous six months. The job growth has helped reduce the unemployment rate to a four-year low of 7.5 percent.

Some of the decline in unemployment is due to fewer people looking for work. The government counts people as unemployed only if they’re actively searching for a job.

The economy grew at an annual rate of 2.5 percent in the January-March quarter, up from a rate of just 0.4 percent in the October-December quarter. The fastest expansion in consumer spending in more than two years drove the economy’s growth.

Many economists think growth is slowing slightly in the April-June quarter to an annual rate between 2 percent and 2.5 percent. But lots of analysts say growth should strengthen in the second half of the year, boosted by the gains in housing and employment.

A key reason the Case-Shiller index of home prices jumped in March was that a growing number of buyers were bidding on a tight supply of homes.

In Phoenix, prices rose by 22.5 percent over the past 12 months, the biggest gain among cities. That was followed by San Francisco (22.2 percent) and Las Vegas (20.6 percent).

“Rising home prices may begin to alleviate a lack of housing inventory … by encouraging more homeowners to put their properties on the market,” Maninder Sibia, an economist with Economic Advisory Service, said in a research note.

Builders are responding to the supply shortage by ramping up construction. Applications for building permits rose in April to the highest level in nearly five years. The supply of available homes jumped in April but was still 14 percent below its level a year earlier.

Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow, a real estate data provider, said the increase in the Case-Shiller index has been skewed higher by cities such as Phoenix and San Francisco. Fewer homes are available in those areas because many homeowners still owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. That makes it difficult to sell.

Yet even excluding those markets, prices are rising steadily nationwide, Humphries said. The increases are “certainly confirmation that the housing market is experiencing a brisk recovery,” he adds.

Rising prices typically encourage more would-be buyers to purchase homes before prices rise further. They also enable more homeowners to sell homes by reducing the number of people who owe more on their mortgages than the homes are worth.

Prices have been rising steadily since last summer. There are still about 29 percent below the peak reached in July 2006.

Banks have raised their credit standards since the housing bubble burst and are demanding larger down payments. That’s made it hard for some potential first-time buyers to get a mortgage.

One potential obstacle to further economic gains is that workers’ pay is rising only modestly. Without faster growth in pay, some consumers may be reluctant to keep spending more.

“If you don’t think your income is going up, you will not be exuberant in your spending,” notes Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors.

Stronger hiring, though, would enable more people to spend freely. Naroff expects the pace of job creation to average 175,000 to 200,000 a month for the rest of the year.

At that rate, the Federal Reserve might be inclined to slow its aggressive bond purchases – $85 billion a month in Treasury and mortgage bonds. The bond purchases have been intended to drive down long-term loan rates to encourage borrowing and spending.

Super-low rates have also helped fuel the stock rally. But some investors have grown nervous that that Fed may soon start to curtail its pace of bond purchases and that rates could creep up.

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