Construction workers build a home in Palo Alto, Calif. A real turnaround seemed to take hold in the housing sector in 2012 after years of fits and starts.
Construction workers build a home in Palo Alto, Calif. A real turnaround seemed to take hold in the housing sector in 2012 after years of fits and starts. Paul Sakuma/AP
After years of recession and slow recovery, maybe you didn't notice. But it turns out, 2012 was a fairly good year for the U.S. economy.
The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index has risen nearly 14 percent this year and the unemployment rate has fallen to 7.7 percent, the lowest point in four years. Inflation and interest rates have stayed low, allowing families to cut their debt loads.
"Consumers are feeling better now," said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist for IHS Global Insight, a forecasting firm. Compared with December 2007, when the Great Recession was just starting, "the burdens on consumers have eased quite a bit," he said.
Final data aren't in yet for the full year, but in the period from July through September, U.S. household net worth rose by 2.7 percent compared with the previous three months, according to the Federal Reserve. Combined with overall economic growth of 3.1 percent in that same period, the pace of improvement — both for individuals and corporations — could be described as decent, though far from robust.
Perhaps the key to the overall improvement has been the fairly steady growth in job creation. Employers have been adding an average of 151,000 jobs each month in 2012.
"Job growth was not great, but it was good enough to make people feel like things are getting better," Behravesh said.
That potent combination of greater job security, lower bill payments and rising wealth sent shoppers heading off to car dealerships, malls and restaurants for most of the year.
To be sure, the fourth quarter had big problems that very likely reduced the growth rate as the year wound down. Hurricane Sandy depressed retail sales and jobs in the New York-New Jersey region, and the budget negotiations drama in Washington depressed consumer sentiment all over the country, said Tom Porcelli, chief U.S. economist for RBC Capital Markets.
He added that the child murders in Newtown, Conn., may have discouraged some holiday trips to the mall as the mood of the country turned somber in the run-up to Christmas. As the year draws to an end, "you have a consumer moving sideways," Porcelli said.
But most economists believe the effects of those recent problems will not linger long into the new year and that when economic historians look back on 2012, they may see it as the year when the battered U.S. economy finally turned a corner.
Here are some of the glad tidings that Americans might want to celebrate.
Consumers went car shopping again, largely because their old vehicles were wearing out. As 2012 was beginning, the average age of vehicles on the road was running at nearly 11 years — a record high.
That meant millions of people were itching to get to a showroom. Sales strengthened throughout the year and by November, the industry was selling vehicles at a pace of 15.5 million a year — the best performance since February 2008.
Home construction started to tank in 2006, and its plunge pushed the country into the Great Recession five years ago this month. The number of housing starts tumbled from a pace of more than 2 million units a year at the peak of the boom to around a half million a year during the worst of the downturn in 2009.
Between 2009 and 2011, housing indicators bumped around on the bottom, with listless upturns quickly fading. But this year, a real turnaround took hold. By fall, housing starts were up to an annual rate of nearly 900,000 units — the best pace in four years.
And prices too have ticked up after the dramatic slide that started in 2006. In the country's 100 largest metropolitan areas, prices rose at an average of 0.5 percent after adjusting for inflation in the third quarter, according to a Brookings Institution economic index.
"The rise in metropolitan home prices indicates that a broadly rooted recovery may be under way in the housing market," said Alec Friedhoff, a research analyst and lead developer of the index.
The U.S. energy industry is suddenly and dramatically expanding, thanks to the new technologies and drilling techniques that are unleashing supplies of oil and gas. As a result, energy companies are gearing up to train and hire many more workers. In North Dakota, for example, hiring has been so strong in the energy sector that the state's unemployment rate has fallen to just 3.1 percent.
For the moment, big energy companies like Exxon Mobil and Shell are seeing lackluster earnings because of relatively weak prices, especially for natural gas. But for workers, the outlook keeps getting brighter as it becomes clearer that America has abundant energy resources. Studies suggest the "unconventional" oil and gas resources could lead to the creation of nearly 2 million jobs in less than two decades.
At least up until December, stores saw more customers in 2012, and did more hiring. In November, the retail sector reported 53,000 new jobs — more than a third of all the jobs created that month. That was up sharply from November 2011, when retailers added just 34,000 new jobs.
Shoppers have been particularly eager to spend money at electronics outlets and clothing stores. They have had a little more money to spend, thanks to lower gasoline prices and tame inflation in general. Overall, consumer prices rose only about 2 percent in the past year.
The National Retail Federation, a trade association, has predicted a 4.1 percent sales increase this holiday season — higher than the 3.5 percent average annual forecast for the past decade. "This is the most optimistic forecast NRF has released since the recession," Matthew Shay, the group's president, said in a statement.