NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- With the major U.S. indices reaching new highs almost daily, investors may have concluded that the U.S. economy has recovered. After all, unemployment levels have dropped to just 6.1%, inflation is in check and the Federal Reserve is winding down its generous bond buying program.
What else is left for Wall Street to do but fist-pump and proclaim, "mission accomplished"?
But the fact of the matter is that the U.S. economy is on shaky ground. Yes, unemployment is down, but the underemployment rate remains above 12%, wages continue to stagnate, and debt levels remain dangerously high.
Even the U.S. housing market, the so-called silver lining, is tarnished -- unless, of course, you have lots of cash and are buying high-end real estate. In fact, when it comes to sustained economic growth, U.S. housing could be the greatest hurdle in the economic recovery.
According to the Case-Shiller Home Price Index, U.S. housing prices are up more than 25% since the beginning of 2012. However, they still need to climb more than 20% to just reach their prerecession highs.
More specifically, in June, existing-home sales climbed 2.6% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.04 million from 4.91 million in May. On the plus side, this is the highest pace since October 2013; on the other hand, June existing-home sales are down 2.3%, below the 5.16-million-unit level reached last year.
First-time home buyers, a benchmark for how well the U.S. economy is doing, accounted for just 28% of all purchases in May and June. The 30-year average -- and a number that economists consider healthy -- is 40%. For an economy that's apparently rebounding, the annual decline is worse. In June 2013, first-time home buyers accounted for 29% of all purchases, and in June 2012, the year the U.S. housing market started to rebound, they accounted for 32% of purchases.
Unfortunately, first-time home buyers continue to be squeezed out of the U.S. housing market by wealthy investors. All-cash sales accounted for 32% of existing-home sales transactions in June, up from 31% in June 2013 and 29% in June 2012.
What about new-home sales?
Same story, but a little bit worse. In June, new-home sales tanked 8% month-over-month and 11% year-over-year to a seasonally adjusted rate of 406,000. Amazingly, the data comes with a margin of error of plus or minus 12.3% month-over-month and 14.4% year-over-year. However, because newly built home sales only account for around 19% of all home buying activity, economists aren't too worried.