Despite the numbers, economy showing more signs of hope

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Better times may be coming, but Utah's unemployment rate is only slightly better this month compared to October. New numbers show the unemployment rate at 7.5 percent in November. While better than last month, that's still worse than last year's rate of 6.6 percent.

Despite the change, which is based on employer surveys, economists are also saying there's reason for optimism. Those good signs are way up the food chain--better retail sales and numbers on Wall Street.

For right now, the raw numbers for things like home sales show people are still struggling. Utah's unemployment rate of 7.5 percent means about 102,000 Utahns are without a job right now. It's still a tough market, especially for workers in construction and manufacturing.

Economists say there is growth in health care and in education. There are also brighter retail sales and stock market growth, but economists say things are still shaky.

Economist Mark Knold, with the Department of Workforce Services, said, "The economy is vulnerable enough to fall back into some sort of setback. We're just not seeing a lot of employment growth."

The real estate market is just one mirror to overall economic conditions. In Utah's largest market, Salt Lake County, sales in the first 10 months dropped 4 percent between 2009 and 2010. At the same time, Freddie Mac reported mortgage rates rising a bit, yet another indicator of uncertainty economists say.

Thirty-year fixed rates went up seven-tenths of a point in the last week. Fifteen year fixed rates also rose seven-tenths of a point. Realtors say there are many people eager to get a rate under 5 percent, but they aren't able to afford it.

Kenny Parcell, president of the Utah Association of Realtors, said, "You see a lot of people who are uncertain in the job economy and the market, and everyone is more cautious about what they're looking to do."

Realtors also express optimism in Utah, though, because of anticipated job growth next year. The question is: When will that happen?

President of the Salt Lake Board of Realtors Bill Heiner said, "I do see light at the end of the tunnel. I think again prices have been skipping at the bottom, and interest rates are at an all time low."

The United States unemployment rate moved up 0.2 percent to 9.8 percent.

Despite the increase in Utah, the report stated year-over employment improvement, with all growth occurring in the private sector.

The rate of improvement, however, has been slow, according to Knold.

"This trend mirrors the national employment performance," he said. "Many other economic indicators suggest the economy is in rebound, such as an expanding gross domestic product and healthy earnings at most corporations."

He said the gains are largely being achieved through productivity gains, which mean employers are circumventing employment expansion, illustrating the beneficial and harmful sides of a recession.

"Recessions force most companies to re-evaluate how they produce their product (to remain competitive), he said. "Many meet this goal by finding more efficient ways to use labor and technology."

While the strategy helps make the economy more efficient and competitive, he explained, the bad side is that it comes at the expense of additional hiring.

"In the long run, this "productivity squeeze" is good for the American economy," Knold said. "However, (in the) short-term, it comes with a price tag of idle workers."

Wednesday, a Zions Bank report showed prices have fallen. That's good for consumers, if they don't fall too much.

Compiled with contributions from Richard Piatt and Jasen Lee

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