Rising home foreclosures and continuing elevated job losses dominated a mostly-somber batch of U.S. economic data Thursday.
It was a rash of home mortgage defaults in the United States that helped precipitate last year's financial meltdown and a global credit squeeze that pushed the United States into the deepest and longest recession of the post-World War II era. Economists say stabilization of homeowners' finances and an overall recovery of America's battered housing industry will be a key to a sustained economic recovery.
Wednesday brought news that new home construction fell unexpectedly last month, reflecting continued softness in the U.S. housing sector and concerns about expiring federal subsidies for first-time homebuyers.
Now, a private group reports that the proportion of American homeowners who are behind on mortgage payments or in foreclosure continues to rise, reaching a record-high for the ninth consecutive quarter.
In 2007 and 2008, unscrupulous lending to borrowers with poor credit was blamed for most foreclosures. Currently, a growing proportion of defaults stems from homeowners with solid financial histories who have lost their jobs. That, according to Jay Brinkman, chief economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association which compiled the report.
"Clearly, the results have been driven by the changes in employment," he said. "We have had about a 5.5 million increase in the number of unemployed in the country over the last year."
The president of the trade publication Inside Mortgage Finance, Guy Cecala, agrees.
"[U.S.] Unemployment over 10 percent is creating a great hardship for a lot of borrowers, and that is clearly showing up in the [foreclosure] numbers," he said.
Cecala says the deterioration may continue. "The expectations are this high rate [of foreclosures] will continue at least through the first half of next year," he said.
If foreclosures are tied to employment, U.S. job losses are holding steady at an elevated level. The Labor Department reports 505,000 newly-laid off Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, virtually identical to the previous week's total.
Pennsylvania-based economist Joel Naroff says current job losses, while less severe than earlier in the year, remain indicative of rising U.S. unemployment.
"Clearly we are at a level that is too high. It indicates that the unemployment rate is likely to go up," said Naroff. "To get the unemployment rate declining, we need to see the new claims numbers below 450,000. I would like to see it closer to 400,000, and that would tell me the [unemployment] problems are largely behind us."
On a more positive note, a gauge of future U.S. economic activity continues to rise. The New York-based Conference Board's index of leading economic indicators edged up .3 percent in October. Although an improvement, the rise was less than most economists had anticipated.