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2012 economic outlook: What's in store for next year?

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Automobile sales are starting at a relatively low level, making a comeback easier. Detroit automakers will sell 12.6 million light vehicles in 2011 and 13.4 million in 2012, estimates Mr. Meckstroth. In a normal year, they sell 16 million.

Housing, another industry that has been flat on its back, may see improvement as developers sell off inventories. In 2012, new housing starts should jump almost 20 percent, predicts Meckstroth. However, the industry will still be building homes at a very low rate.

A large number of foreclosures has been hanging over the housing market for some time. The state attorneys general are close to settling lawsuits brought against the five largest banks for foreclosure fraud. After the suits are settled, the market could see another spurt of foreclosures, says Zandi. But over the longer term – perhaps by 2013 – the legal settlement and subsequent foreclosures may finally eliminate many of the houses hanging over the real estate market, he says.

Bearish on job growth

With many other businesses facing flattening sales, the unemployment rate is not expected to drop much in 2012, many economists say. Wells Fargo's Mr. Silvia anticipates that the economy will add between 100,000 and 150,000 new positions per month. This would mean the economy is barely keeping up with the natural growth of the workforce. Companies plan to increase their payrolls by 1.5 percent on average over the next 12 months – implying an improvement of about one percentage point in the unemployment rate (at 8.6 percent in November) over the next year, according to a Duke University/CFO magazine survey.

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