In Europe’s gloom, some rays of hope for U.S. economy

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Jeffrey Kleintop, chief market strategist at LPL Financial, noted that falling gas prices led to unexpectedly good sales for retailers this month.

At the same time, “housing is showing signs of improvement, as both new and existing home sales are rising at a 5 percent to 7 percent pace, and home prices are now on the rise,” he said.

The gains in housing provide more good news for middle-class Americans, whose homes are their biggest sources of wealth. The improved outlook for consumers, housing and the U.S. economy, aided by the recent drop in commodity prices and interest rates, may help ease stressed-out financial markets this summer, Mr. Kleintop said.

Despite the recent market turmoil, U.S. stocks also have fared better than markets in Europe, which have lost 10 percent of their value since the political rebellion in Greece, France and other countries against the demand for austerity and deep structural reforms.

The U.S. is benefiting by comparison with Europe, where the most heavily debt-strapped countries, such as Spain and Greece, have fallen into deep recessions, said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Global Insight.

“The U.S. economy continues to chug along” despite the troubles in Europe, he said. With interest rates falling to new lows first as a result of the recession and then as a byproduct of the European crisis, that has aided the “healing process” for overindebted U.S. consumers and the housing market, which is now well under way and gathering speed, he said.

“With each passing year, the U.S. economy progresses in its painful healing process,” he said. “One more year of deleveraging, one more year of increasing pent-up demand, and one more year of housing adjustment” puts the U.S. that much closer to more normal economic conditions and healthier growth.

Michael Fratantoni, vice president at the Mortgage Bankers Association, said that as far as interest rates go, what’s bad for Europe has been good for the United States.

The morass in Europe last week drove the rate on mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to a record low of 3.93 percent, while the rate on loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration fell to an all-time low of 3.73 percent, he said. That has spawned a surge in mortgage refinancings that promises to put even more spare change in consumers’ pockets.

While the short-term effect of the European crisis has been positive for the U.S. economy, analysts caution that things could turn nasty if political deadlock leads to a total economic breakdown.

One much-discussed scenario is that Greek voters will abrogate their debt-bailout deal with the rest of Europe, forcing the country out of the European Monetary Union — the 17 countries that use the euro.

Many analysts fear that development — which could occur as soon as next month after a scheduled June 17 election — would set off a catastrophic chain of events, including bank runs and major bank failures in Europe and a crisis and severe recession on the Continent that reverberates through the world economy.

Greece is very likely to be a starting point for a worldwide crisis: Europe spills to the U.S., U.S. spills to China,” said economist Harry Dent.

“I’ve been surprised by how relatively well the U.S. has been doing in its recovery in recent weeks,” he said. “But now the U.S. is next in line with a hit coming from Europe. It’s downhill worldwide from here.”

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