Americans face higher prices, flat wages in 2013

DES MOINES, Iowa -- The new norm will be the same as the old norm formost American households this year: financial suffering and a continuedslow recovery from the Great Recession.

Americans can expectprice tags for many goods and services to increase faster than take-homepay again this year. Higher costs are expected for food, airlineflights, rent, housing prices, government fees, shipping costs andcollege tuition. While gasoline prices are expected to fall by a smallamount, they'll do so after two consecutive years of record prices atthe pump.

Many households will be confronted by the additional 2percent payroll tax included in Tuesday's political deal to avert thefiscal cliff.

When it comes time for raises, workers will continueto compete with the higher prices their employers expect to pay forhealth insurance, which rose 7 percent in Iowa last year, according toDavid P. Lind Benchmark, an employee benefits research firm in Clive,Iowa.

"We can't afford for anything else to go up, but I can'tthink of anything that's not going up - from water to car insurance,"said Cheyenne Paullin, 27, of Des Moines. "The price of gasoline isreally insane. Instead of costing us $25 a week to fill up each of ourtwo cars, it's costing us $40, and that takes away money that we wouldotherwise spend on household items like groceries."

Gasoline prices averaged a record $3.63 a gallon nationwide in 2012.

Paullinsaid her family budget is being stretched to the breaking point. Themother of three children, ages 1 to 5, said her monthly municipal waterbill rose from $50 to $70 last year.

Meanwhile, husband Jason, thefamily's sole breadwinner, has seen his hours cut from more than 40 aweek to 28 to 30 at the Titan Tire plant in Des Moines.

It's notall bad news. Several experts predict the economy will shift into highergear in the second half of this year due to improving home and autosales and rising home prices. Climbing home prices are a positive foreconomic growth and consumer spending because they create wealth forhomeowners.

"It's going to take awhile for the U.S. economy torecover, but we're gaining momentum," said Anthony Chan, chief economistat JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s private wealth management unit. "We'restarting to see the stars align in a way that is consistent withimprovement in consumer markets. Main Street America really benefitsfrom higher home prices, because they have a bigger chunk of theirhousehold balance sheets in housing."

Unemployment, low wages persist

Morethan a quarter of the nearly 190 million non-disabled Americans, ages16 to 64, did not have a job in November, according to the Bureau ofLabor Statistics.

Once the data are adjusted for active members ofthe military and people in prison, the number of healthy, working-ageAmericans without an above-the-table paycheck surpasses 54 million.

"There'sa great deal of economic shock in the U.S. because so many people areunemployed," said Bob Baur, chief global economist at Principal GlobalInvestors in Des Moines.

The percentage of likely workers without ajob - about 29 percent - is nearly the same as in the final year of therecession, which ended in June 2009. That rate differs from themainstream national unemployment rate, which was 7.7 percent inNovember, because it includes people who are not considered part of thecivilian labor force because they're not looking for work.

Therecession eliminated about 8.2 million nonfarm jobs during the 18 monthsthat ended in June 2009. About 90,000 jobs must be added to nonfarmpayrolls each month just to keep pace with population growth, Chan said.Once that figure is calculated, the total shortfall balloons to 9.84million jobs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Friday thatthe U.S. economy added 155,000 jobs in November, which translates into anet gain of 65,000 jobs using Chan's modifier.

"I look for U.S.nonfarm payrolls to increase about 125,000 jobs a month on average in2013," he said. "In terms of bringing the national unemployment down to 5percent to 5.5 percent, we're talking about 2018 or later."

The national glut of people looking for work means that employers don't have to be as generous to secure new talent.

"Wagesare the real lagger," said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo.He's forecasting a 1.9 percent to 2.1 percent increase in wages thisyear and a 2.1 percent to 2.4 percent increase in the consumer priceindex. The CPI is widely viewed by economists as an inflation gauge. Itrose 3 percent in 2011 and was up 1.8 percent during the 12 months endedin November.

Social Security benefits are scheduled to rise 1.7 percent in 2013.

"Morethings are going up than down, and salaries are not keeping pace," saidRyan Burlage, a 31-year-old business analyst from Lost Nation. "I usedto get $60 to $70 an hour for a project. Now it's $50 to $60."

Burlagesaid the cost of taking a date out to see a movie and have dinner anddrinks has also gone up, from $60 or $70 to $100 to $120. He's seeinghigher prices for everything from bacon to road salt to movie ticketsand food.

Emphasis on housing market

The U.S. economy is still the largest in the world, but it changes direction with the nimbleness of a mammoth cruise ship.

Economists expect the recovery from the financial crisis that beganin 2007 to continue until at least 2015 and possibly 2019. They'rewatching the housing and labor markets closely for signs of momentum.

Key interest rates remain near historic lows, but economists expect them to rise as the housing market and economy recover.

Higherhome prices support increased consumer spending, which accounts for 70percent of the U.S. economy, as new homeowners purchase everything fromlawnmowers to barbecue grills.

Construction of new homes createsjobs. And higher home values make it easier for homeowners to takeadvantage of today's historically low interest rates to refinance theirmortgages or to sell a home when they need to relocate for a new job.

"The housing market is gaining critical mass," Silvia said.

Newhome sales rebounded to 338,000 units in the first 11 months of 2012,from a record low of 282,000 during the same period of 2011, accordingto the U.S. Commerce Department. The average sales price in November was$299,700, up 17 percent from a year earlier.

Yet many Americanfamilies can't qualify for low mortgage rates because of the damage doneto household balance sheets. The Great Recession wiped out 20 years ofnet worth accumulation for poor and median income households in just 18months, University of Chicago finance professor Amir Sufi said.

Signs of hope

Forbusinesses, getting past the uncertainties of the presidential electionand the so-called "fiscal cliff" is a big step toward encouraginginvestment, economists say. U.S. businesses are sitting on $2 trillionof liquid assets, which is tinder for future economic growth, accordingto Jim Chessen, chief economist of the American Bankers Association.

"That's a lot of money sitting on the sidelines," he said.

Principal's Baur says the worst is over.

"Wethink the reasons that spurred the 'new normal' idea are coming to anend," Baur said. "The underlying fundamentals of the U.S. economy areprobably better than people realize."


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