The second half of 2012 begins with a sense of economic foreboding. • Headlines identify the suspects: the accelerating Euro crisis; decelerating improvement in the jobs market; fear that political gridlock will extend past the election — and fail to deal with the "fiscal cliff" of expiring tax breaks and mandatory budget cuts; cooling economies in China and Brazil. • The swirl of uncertainty is a major reason the economy has been growing so sluggishly out of the Great Recession since 2009. • "You can drive in fog; you just can't drive very fast," Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner wrote in a recent report. • Amid the muddle, what's a person to do? • In times of uncertainty, paralysis is natural. But doing nothing to shore up your finances, protect your home or steer your career can be riskier than doing nothing. Here are some suggestions on where to start.
WHERE THE JOBS ARE
"We're seeing a big surge in executive search. … Companies are getting confident enough to bring people back on and willing to pay fees (to find talent)."
— Doug Arms, senior vice president at Ajilon Professional Staffing in Tampa
JOBS STATUS: Tampa Bay's unemployment rate has dropped a whopping 2 percentage points year over year, from 10.6 percent to 8.6 percent. The region has re-emerged as the Florida metro adding the most jobs.
OUTLOOK: Based on recent history, growth prospects are brightest in professional and business services, and trade/transportation and utilities. Construction and government are still top job losers. The pace of the unemployment drop has slowed and may even reverse as some job seekers who temporarily stopped looking now re-enter the labor pool.
WILD CARD: Baby boomers continue to steer the economy, even as they retire in droves. How many who were forced out early will come back to work? How many will take part-time jobs or jobs at entry-level pay, in competition with labor's next generation?
YOUR MOVE: Adaptability wins the day. Those open to being trained in a new field or to doing project work en route to a full-time job may find more doors open to them.
THE REALTOR REBOUND
"I can't imagine housing prices going much lower. The only hitch is that if you buy a house, in order for it to pay (off), you have to stay in it. It does make you somewhat less mobile."
— Chris McCarty, University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research
HOUSING STATUS: After plummeting more than 50 percent from boomtime highs, housing prices have slowly crept up so far this year. We're back at 2002 levels.
OUTLOOK: A sharp drop in inventory of available homes and near record-low mortgage rates set the stage for home sales — and prices — to continue heading north. Some neighborhoods are reporting bidding wars again, though we're a far cry from the heady days of 2004 to 2006.
WILD CARD: It could take a long time to purge the backlog of foreclosures that were held up by the robo-signing scandal of 2010. In May, foreclosures were up 3.5 percent in the bay area and up 7 percent statewide. Florida trails only California in volume of foreclosure filings.
YOUR MOVE: If you have any equity in your home, seize the moment to refinance while rates are low.
HITTING THE BOOKS
This is simple: Get better educated. The unemployment rate without a high school degree is 14 percent. With a degree it's 10 percent, and with a four-year college degree it's 5 percent. Enough said.
EDUCATION STATUS: Degrees count a lot in the job market. Finish high school. Get an associate's degree or more. From 2009 to 2010, Tampa Bay increased overall degree attainment to 33.4 percent of the population. That 1 percent jump translates to a $4.6 billion increase in overall income, an increase of nearly $800 per person.
OUTLOOK: Stay determined to learn more. St. Petersburg College, good at catering programs to work in growing fields, says registered-nursing programs are tops to fill future job demand. Then come associate's degree programs in computer/information technology. Shorter programs are available via certificates. And a veterinary technology program is heating up.
WILD CARD: There's no magic bullet to getting a job. Nearly 40 percent of the Class of 2008 college grads still live at home to save money. Beware borrowing too much for student loans. Too many area students never finish degree programs they start.
YOUR MOVE: In health care and tech, be sure what you train for is still relevant in a fast-changing market.
BANK ON YOURSELF
If the Great Recession is fading, the Great Wariness is not. Save more. Invest as your risk comfort allows. Refinance (if you can) at super-low interest rates. Pick three new ways to trim costs. Repeat as needed at end of 2012.
MONEY STATUS: The year started with the Dow at 12,397 and it hit 12,772 at Friday's close, a little over halfway through the trading year. Interest rates are astonishingly low, great for borrowers who qualify under tougher lending standards but perilous to risk-averse savers seeking any kind of yield. And who isn't seeking yield?
OUTLOOK: A Dow likely to waffle in the mid 12,000s through the year. Super-low mortgage rates and stabilizing home prices may mean a good time to buy for those seeking housing.
WILD CARD: Plenty of risks from Europe's future, market dips, a housing market that just won't rebound, political gridlock and a job market that remains insecure. Still, we are clearly better off than we were two or even four years ago.
YOUR MOVE: If you don't have six months of emergency funds, work toward that goal.
A lousy economy has made finding a bargain fashionable again. And the youth market has less disposable income to toss around than it used to. So, at least for now, the "in" thing is buying store brands and living within your means.
SHOPPING STATUS: Tourism's strong start this year is helping retailers, but slow growth is still the norm. Local retail vacancy rates have fallen from 11.5 percent a year ago, but still remain near the double-digit mark.
OUTLOOK: Slow growth is better than no growth. It bodes well that Tampa Bay's personal incomes rose 0.7 percent in the first quarter, on par with the national average. Though still tepid, it's better than the flat performance the quarter before, and it translates to more disposable income that may reach retailers' pockets.
WILD CARD: Three letters: RNC. Late summer is typically slower for restaurants and retailers as the muggiest weather arrives. But the weeklong Republican National Convention coming to Tampa in August could change that. It's already had a major, positive impact in advance hotel bookings.
YOUR MOVE: Be wary about spending now and betting on a windfall later. A drop in gas prices aside, inflation for many staples has been trending up faster than income.
Are you suffering from a medical condition and worried about future coverage? A 24-year-old hoping to stay on your parent's policies as long as possible? Bone up on the transformational Affordable Care Act to see how it affects you directly.
STATUS: The amount of money American families shell out for health care has more than doubled over the past decade. The Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Health Care Act, a particularly huge impact for a state like Florida, which has 3.8 million residents with no health insurance and millions more who fear losing coverage.
OUTLOOK: Florida Gov. Rick Scott is biding his time, waiting to see if the elections bring a new Republican president, Republican Senate and the potential repeal of the health care act. But, shy of a repeal, all states will have to set up health care exchanges that offer individuals access to group rates, with subsidies available on a sliding scale.
WILD CARD: A shortage of primary-care physicians could worsen with millions more vying for patient time.
YOUR MOVE: Plan ahead, both in finding a doctor you trust and taking care of your own health. An ounce of prevention …