New Economic Data Points to Hope in 2012

The first economic reports of the New Year could provide a preview of what's in store for 2012.

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More than a few (hundred million) Americans are hoping the New Year brings better economic news, and judging by the slew of economic reports slated for this week, they might just see some.

After all, in the closing weeks of 2011 the numbers were looking a little better. New construction was up, unemployment claims were down, and housing prices were stabilizing—all data that bodes well for the economy, right?

But whether the economy can sustain that little bit of momentum into 2012 is the $64,000 dollar question, experts say. An economy just starting to find its feet could easily see the rug ripped out from under it if turmoil bubbles up again in Europe or unrest in the Middle East sends oil prices soaring.

Still, some of the first economic reports of the New Year are giving reason for cautious hope. The week starts off with some housing and manufacturing reports and culminates with the all-important jobs report from the Labor Department.

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Here's a look at what to look out for when it comes to economic reports this week:

Unemployment. This is the main course, people—a good report could boost consumer confidence and nudge up home sales among other things; a bad report could throw everyone into a tizzy and resurrect talk of "the dreaded double-dip recession" causing consumers and businesses to calm up again.

That's what economists mean when they talk about a "vicious cycle," kids.

Not to fear though—experts expect that the economy added 150,000 jobs in December. A drop in unemployment insurance claims, which stayed below 400,000 for all of December suggests further improvement for the jobs outlook.

Better would be an economy that's adding 150,000 workers to the employment rolls consistently, says Paul Edelstein, economist at IHS Global Insight. "We might be happy if we could get 150,000 month over month, but it's been a little more volatile than that," he says.

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But don't fret if you see a higher unemployment rate for December. Economists expect the rate to edge up to 8.7 percent in December from 8.6 percent in November, primarily due to the different surveys used to calculate the overall unemployment rate. After a huge drop in the workforce in November, experts expect more people jumped back into the fray in December, which could nudge the rate a bit higher.

Construction spending. Besides jobs, the United States has that other little problem. No, not reality TV's persistent popularity—the still-languishing housing market, of course.

But for the optimists out there, things are looking up. Slowly and surely, the housing market is coming back, experts say, and construction data helps gauge how strong the wind is behind the market's sails. On the heels of decent housing start numbers, construction spending is still lagging, likely because builders are still hesitant to break ground if they're not totally sure the demand is there.

And that's probably a good thing. One thing the housing market doesn't need more of is supply without the demand.

Manufacturing. As is often characteristic of recoveries, manufacturing led the way earlier this year, but has since then fallen off a bit. That's not entirely unexpected, says Edelstein, but the slowdown has been faster than usual.

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Still, December posted decent numbers—the best since June—as cost pressures, which kept the lid on further growth late in 2011, eased. While most of the demand driving manufacturing came from the United States, experts caution that more shake-ups in Europe could undermine the momentum manufacturing seems to be regaining.

Auto sales. It might sound strange with the Motor City meltdown still in recent memory, but auto sales were a big contributor to the mini economic resurgence in late 2011. According to experts, more sales are likely to be coming down the pipeline in 2012, too.

Americans got the keys for more than 13 million cars in November and December's numbers are expected to be even a bit higher. The bump is mostly due to end-of-the-year sales and more inventory for dealers, but unofficial reports credit that "new car smell."