Between the elections, the fiscal cliff, and the endless battles over taxes, expenditures, and budget issues both big and small, 2012 has been a difficult year. But, amid all the sound and fury, there have also been promising developments on the financial front. As we close out the year, here's a look at a few of our favorite money stories of 2012.
And Now for the Good News: Six Upbeat Money Trends of 2012
Construction, one of the classic engines of the economy, took a big hit in the Great Recession. However, there are hints that it may be coming back. Housing starts -- the number of privately-owned housing units on which construction has begun -- is one of the major indicators of growth in the housing and construction industry. In November, there were 861,000 starts (seasonally adjusted) -- a 21 percent increase from November 2011. Meanwhile, housing completions -- housing units that were finished -- were up to 677,000 -- a 16 percent increase over a year ago.
For the past two years, the unemployment rate has been slowly creeping down. Last month, it hit 7.7 percent -- 1 percent lower than it was a year ago, 2 percent lower than it was two years ago, and the lowest that it's been, overall, since January 2009. While not the kind of sharp drop that everyone is hoping for, the slow fall has been a promising development -- and, arguably, a significant factor in this fall's elections.
With unemployment dropping -- and demand for workers slowly rising -- it makes sense that income would also creep up. This seems to be happening: Between October and November, seasonally-adjusted wages and disposable income have both increased by 0.6 percent. In other words, people are making a little more money. While hardly the revolutionary change that we may hope for, this is a promising note on which to end the year.
With more money in their pockets, people are taking more money to their friendly neighborhood stores. Seasonally-adjusted personal consumption expenditures went up by 0.4 percent between October and November, suggesting that some consumers may be holding out hope that there's a light at the end of the Recession.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Charles Fishman offered a partial explanation for the improved lot of America's workers. Among other things, China's workers are making more money -- and, in the process, making American manufacturing more economically attractive. Although critics question whether Fishman's sunny outlook is accurate, there is no question that a rise in Chinese wages translates to an improved economic outlook for America -- not to mention manufacturers in the rest of the world.
For years, Warren Buffett has commented on the injustice of the tax code, noting that a combination of loopholes and attractive investor tax rates have make it possible for him to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary. Recently, Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, a group of more than 150 high-income earners, petitioned President Obama to raise their taxes. While it remains to be seen how effective their efforts will be, the fact that they are working to create a more egalitarian tax structure is a very promising development.