It's been a long time since we've seen the Wall Street Journal run a front-page article suggesting that the national economy appears to be rebounding faster than most analysts forecast. But that happened last week.

And over the past couple of years, we haven't seen retail sales -- a key barometer of consumer confidence -- jump by almost two percent in a single month. But we saw that last week as well.

And then there's real estate: The latest Federal Reserve "beige book" on economic conditions nationwide, issued last week, said something we haven't heard in a long, long time. Housing activity is up in 11 of the 12 bank districts.

All of this, of course, sounds like promising news for home sales in the coming months. In fact, Freddie Mac's economists see total sales this year at least 10 percent higher than last year, even with the possibility of higher mortgage interest rates.

But there are complications in the mix: The Fed's "beige book" report essentially said, yes, housing is on an upward path at the moment, but what happens to sales after the home purchase tax credits expire mid-year?

Will expansion elsewhere in the economy be able to sustain sales and prices?

Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, has similar concerns. In his latest commentary, Yun says steadily rising employment will be essential to keeping housing positive once the credits disappear.

The employment report for March was encouraging: 162,000 net new jobs, Yun noted, even in hard hit sectors like manufacturing. Yun's forecast model projects one million additional new jobs this year, plus another two million next year.

But even that sort of rebound in employment won't be enough to replace the 8.2 million jobs lost in the recession years. So the unemployment challenge is likely to be with us for a few years -- at best.

Meanwhile, though foreclosures remain troublingly high, the rate of delinquencies on existing mortgages may have actually peaked and could be headed downward. Equifax and Moody's Economy.com report that the percentage of home loans thirty days late dropped in the first quarter - the first decline in four years.

And in major housing markets that took hard hits during the bust, signs of recovery continue to multiply. For example, in the six counties of Southern California, home sales were up 33 percent in March over February, and were up five percent over 2009 levels, according to MDA Data Quick.

Even median prices were on the rise -- by 14 percent over year-earlier levels.

Written by  Kenneth R. Harney
April 19, 2010