NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Investors are waiting for one large part of the economy -- real estate -- to show signs of a revival before piling into the stock market.
Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab, says we're near a bottom in the housing market, leading her to predict the economy will improve steadily this year rather than to sag in the first half as many economists expect. So now might be the time for investors, who are fleeing mutual funds and the stock market in general, to buy equities.
Sonders' biggest gamble is her view that housing is indeed near its low point after declining for five years. There's been an uptrend in new- and existing-home sales, housing starts and builder confidence. Lennar Corp. (LEN - Get Report), the nation's third-largest homebuilder, said the housing market is beginning to stabilize. Lower home prices and interest rates are making it more affordable for consumers to buy homes.
While there remains a glut of inventory in the housing market, Sonders believes we are nearing the point in the chart of housing data that we will look back on and realize it was the low point. The recovery will be driven by local economies, with certain regions leading others.That said, the recovery in housing will be a slow and gradual one, similar to how Sonders sees the recovery in the overall economy playing out. While most economists are planning for the European debt crisis, among other things, to curb growth in the U.S. in the first half of 2012, Sonders disagrees. She points out that the U.S. has reduced exposure to the eurozone, from which we derive a small portion of U.S. GDP. Additionally, she believes the European Central Bank isn't getting enough credit for its long-term refinancing operation, or LTRO, by which it's injected liquidity into the market. Assuming there's no major negative catalyst in Europe, a la the collapse of Lehman Brothers here in the U.S. in 2008, Sonders thinks the U.S. economy will continue to improve and show growth throughout the year, albeit at a moderate pace. There is a $1.2 trillion spread between bond and equity mutual fund investing, an unprecedented level. Investors flocked to bonds in 2011 as European worries and a U.S. downgrade caused them to take risk off the table and seek safety in bonds. Because of the wide spread, as we enter 2012, Sonders is biased toward investing in stocks rather than bonds.