May 1, 2013

Americans optimistic about job market

Consumer confidence rose in April as housing values and stock prices continue to climb.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Americans are more optimistic the job market is healing and will deliver higher pay later this year. That brighter outlook, along with rising home prices, cheaper gasoline and a surging stock market, could offset some of the drag from the recent tax increases and government spending cuts.

Maine home sale prices up 6.25%

The jump in home prices seen in 20 cities across the nation is also evident in Maine.

The median sale price for the 792 homes sold in the state in March was up 6.25 percent over March 2012, to $170,000, according to the Maine Association of Realtors.

Bart Stevens, president of the Maine Association of Realtors, said inventory – the number of houses on the market – has been shrinking, so many properties are selling for close to their asking prices.

In the first three months of this year, 499 homes sold in Cumberland County, up from 480 in the same period of 2012. The median price was $219,000, up 2.10 percent from a year ago.

In York County, 391 homes sold in the first quarter of 2013, up 15.7 percent from a year earlier. The median sale price rose about 11 percent, to $207,000.

A gauge of consumer confidence rose in April, reversing a decline in March, the Conference Board, a private research group, said Tuesday. The board attributed the gain to optimism about hiring and pay increases. Economists also cited higher home values and record stock prices.

Despite the rise in the index, to 68.1 from 61.9 in March, confidence remains well below its historic average of 92. Still, the increase signaled that consumers, whose spending drives about 70 percent of the economy, see better times ahead.

A separate report Tuesday showed that home prices nationwide rose in February by the most in nearly seven years. The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index jumped 9.3 percent in February from a year earlier. Prices in all 20 cities rose on an annual basis for a second straight month.

Phoenix led all cities with a year-over-year price gain of 23 percent. Floyd Scott, owner-broker at Century 21 Arizona Foothills in Phoenix, said demand is particularly strong for homes priced below $300,000.

Because of a tight supply, homes for sale are routinely receiving multiple offers, he said. That's driving prices up.

"Now the job market is starting to improve, so younger adults are moving out and either getting an apartment or a house," he said.

The reports were released the same day the Federal Reserve's policymaking committee began a two-day meeting. Analysts expect the Fed to announce Wednesday that it will maintain its low interest rate policies, which include an $85 billion-a-month bond-buying program. The Fed's bond purchases are intended to keep interest rates low to spur borrowing, spending and investing. Its policies have helped keep loan rates at record lows.

Big changes in government policy have caused sharp swings in consumer sentiment in recent months. Social Security taxes rose 2 percentage points Jan. 1. That lowered incomes for a typical household earning $50,000 by about $1,000 this year. A household with two highly paid workers has up to $4,500 less.

And the across-the-board government spending cuts that began taking effect March 1 forced many federal agencies to furlough workers, which reduced their incomes. Government contractors are also likely to reduce jobs in response to the government cuts.

Yet consumers have shown resilience. Economists note that on top of higher home values, record stock prices have boosted household wealth. On Monday, the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index closed at its highest level ever. Consumers who feel wealthier tend to be more confident and more willing to spend.

And employers have added an average of 188,000 jobs a month in the past six months, up from 130,000 in the previous six. Job gains slowed in March to only 88,000. But most economists expect at least a modest rebound in coming months, including a gain of 160,000 for April.


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