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Economic indicators show growth, drop in jobless claims

After more than a year of analysts looking to the slightest positive signs that the U.S. economy might be picking up, figures from the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011 may finally point to growth across the board.

Locally, there has been growth in areas like building permits and consumer confidence. Nationally, retail sales were up despite high gas prices.

Jobless rates remain frustratingly up, however, and the real estate sector is seeing a mixed bag.

Alan Gin, a professor at the University of San Diego, compiles a list of economic indicators for San Diego and his most recent numbers, for February, were up 1.9 percent.

“It’s actually the best result ever,” Gin said of his index. “The best one-month change that we’ve had in the index with data going back to the 1970s.”

Building permits saw the biggest boost, up 5.11 percent, local stock prices were up .39 percent, consumer confidence in the region rose 1.52 percent, and help wanted ads were up 1.01 percent from the month before.

Employment still lags locally, with unemployment claims rising 2 percent form January.

Gin’s index said that the national economy overall saw slightly less growth than San Diego, but still rose 1.55 percent.

“With gains in January and February, the USD Index has now risen or been unchanged for nearly two years (23 consecutive months),” Gin wrote in a report. “February’s record gain suggests a pickup in the pace of the local economic recovery, which has been slow.”

He noted that while the local economy has added almost 23,000 jobs since the depths of the recession in January 2010, that represents a recovery of less than 20 percent of the more than 122,000 jobs the local economy lost from the peak in December 2007.

“One result is that the local unemployment rate remains high, topping the 10 percent mark for 21 straight months through February,” he wrote.

In an interview, Gin acknowledged that jobless rates of 10 percent or more remain frustrating, but he pointed out that they’re still going down.

“The unemployment situation is improved. It’s not great, but it’s not as bad as it used to be,” he said.

“Its 10.1 percent, but it was 10.4 in January, so the trend is going down.”

While Gin’s most recent numbers were from February, more recent numbers were available for national March retail sales, and those also showed growth. The Commerce Department’s U.S. Census Bureau released a report on April 13 showing that sales rose .4 percent, though this was slightly below private-sector expectations.

Retail and food services sales, excluding autos, were up .8 percent, consistent with private-sector expectations, according to the report.

While gasoline prices didn’t seem to affect consumers every day shopping habits, they may have contributed to falling motor vehicle sales, which were down 1.7 percent. Sales at gasoline stations jumped 2.6 percent, comprising about 10 percent of total retail sales.

The spike in local building permits could portend well for the San Diego real estate sector, which has suffered significantly during the recession.

During the fourth quarter of 2010, the San Diego County new-home market set a new all-time low record. The quarter’s 421 overall net sales represented a 12 percent drop from the previous quarter, and was the lowest quarterly output on record, according to Market Pointe Realty Advisors. The numbers for the year in 2010 fell 17 percent below the level from the previous year, also setting a new all-time low.

In the detached sector however, while net sales volume fell 8 percent, on an annual basis, 2010’s total surpassed the previous year by 16 percent.

More recent numbers show something of a rebound. According to the California Association of Realtors, the median price of existing family homes rose 4.3 percent from February to March, though declined from March of last year by 2.5 percent.

This was in line with statewide numbers, where the median price of an existing, single-family detached home sold in California increased 5.4 percent in March compared with February, but declined 4.9 percent compared with March 2010.

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