The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.
NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- 2011 has been a long, difficult year, with the economy continuing to limp along, unemployment hovering around 9%, Occupy Wall Street protesters in most major cities and Congress displaying an embarrassing inability to put partisan politics aside and address the nation's economic problems.
As the end of the year approaches, one can't help but hope for better news in the year ahead. Hope is not a strategy, however. To see whether 2012 will be any better, let's look at one key economic sector: the nation's housing market.
Trends in the housing market tend to provide good evidence of where the overall economy and consumer confidence are headed. People usually don't buy houses when they can't afford to do so, notwithstanding the housing bubble that culminated in the financial crisis of 2008.Consumers who can't produce solid job histories and reasonable down payments won't be approved for mortgages. (Again, putting aside the insanity that generated the subprime mortgage debacle.) Consequently, an uptick in new housing construction or purchase of existing homes should suggest that the economy as a whole is improving. It's also good news for retailers like Bed, Bath & Beyond (BBBY), Home Depot (HD), Lowe's (LOW), Target (TGT) and Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) that cater to new homeowners. A quick survey of the experts suggests, however, that the immediate future of the housing market is by no means clear, and it hasn't been for some time. In November 2008, just as the economy was collapsing, the Congressional Budget Office issued a report presenting three possible scenarios for new housing starts in 2009-2012. Based on three factors -- number of new households, trends in the overall economy and number of existing, unoccupied units -- the CBO predicted eventual growth in new-home starts. However, using the CBO's most pessimistic scenario, which most closely resembles what actually happened over the past three years, new housing starts aren't likely to increase until the second half of 2012. The CBO's most pessimistic estimate appears to be borne out by more recent projections. For example, CNN recently surveyed 21 economists to develop a composite picture of when the economy is likely to recover. Though cautiously optimistic about GDP growth, those economists apparently agreed that housing and employment would remain slow for at least the first half of 2012. Separately, CNN has predicted that the median price of U.S. homes will drop 3.6% in the coming year, and won't start to improve until after July.