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Financial Tricks and Treats of 2013

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Halloween is coming up, and the world of finance and economics is ready with a range of rich treats and sinister tricks.

In fact, reviewing the financial landscape these days is a bit like looking up and down a neighborhood street just before Halloween: Based on the way those houses look and the way the people in them act, you can get some idea of what will be in store for you when you encounter them.

Here's a rundown of the houses in the neighborhood this year:

  1. Mortgage rates. Mortgage rates have risen by a full percentage point in recent weeks, so maybe you could look on this as a trick rather than a treat. However, a closer look shows those rates are still among the lowest in history. So perhaps this is the house where the owner likes to give you a little scare, but hands you a pretty good treat before you go.
  2. Real estate. According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Indices, home prices have put together an impressive streak of consecutive monthly gains, and are consistently posting double-digit year-over-year increases. Even so, housing values are still down more than 20 percent from the 2006 peak. So, this is the house that gives out pretty good treats, but that the older kids keep saying used to be even better a few years back.
  3. The stock market. The stock market has reached new highs while posting a gain of nearly 19 percent in the first nine months of the year. These treats are so rich that you can't help but wonder if they're incredibly bad for you.
  4. The Federal Reserve. A Ben Bernanke costume might be the ultimate outfit for financial nerds this Halloween. Actually, it would be quite popular with stock market investors and home buyers, who have benefited greatly from low interest rates. However, when you go to this house this year, someone else may answer the door, and no one knows just yet what tricks or treats Janet Yellen plans to hand out.
  5. Savings accounts. With even the best interest rates on savings accounts below 1 percent, this is the house where a benign but clueless couple hand you a penny at the door. It's a treat so meager you can't help but wonder if it's meant to be a trick.
  6. Job growth. From November 2012 through April of this year, the economy generated a net average of 214,500 jobs per month. Since then, that monthly average has fallen to a less-promising 155,250. This is the house that has some good stuff to give out, but they run out of it way too early and fall back on hard candy left over from last year.
  7. Fiscal showdowns. This is the scary house that everyone knows is really dangerous, yet a few bullies from the neighborhood say they're going to make everyone go there. There's no telling exactly what might happen if you do, but you can be pretty sure it's going to be bad.
It hasn't been a great year for the economy, but a review of the trick-or-treating haul from these places suggests there have been more treats than tricks. Then again, it may only take one nasty trick from that last, scary house to ruin all the treats.