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Searching for value in a week’s worth of economic news

It’s been an on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand kind of week for anyone trying to get a handle on the state of our economic health.

It started with word from the Cambridge, Mass.-based National Bureau of Economic Research that the recession — the longest the U.S. had endured since World War II — had ended in June 2009.

Oh, really? As the Associated Press dryly pointed out, Americans are still struggling with a 9.6 percent unemployment rate, meager wage gains, struggling home values and sales, and a foreclosure plague that shows little sign of slowing.

And on that note, there was plenty of real estate news this week — none of it very good. Sales of previously occupied homes crept up in August, but not enough to keep the summer from being the slowest for sales in a decade. New home sales were actually worse in August — the second-slowest pace on record. One economist called it “a pitiful performance.”

On the other hand, home construction is up 25 percent from the bottom in April 2009. But on still another hand, it is 74 percent below the peak in January 2006.

A private research group said its gauge of future economic activity rose modestly in August, suggesting that slow economic growth will continue this winter. But, while some analysts are worried that the economy could fall back into recession (we haven’t seen a double-dip recession around these parts since the early 1980s),  the Conference Board also said its index is not currently predicting another steep downturn.

The jobs picture, however, continues to cloud any signs of optimism. Maryland’s unemployment rate ticked up to 7.3 percent in August. And new requests across the country for unemployment benefits increased this week for the first time in more than a month.

Locally, Towson Commons was auctioned off for $28.5 million after staggering into foreclosure under the weight of $59 million in debt. The landmark Congress Hotel in Baltimore, renovated to the tune of $7.2 million in 2000 by local developer C. William Struever, is scheduled to be auctioned in foreclosure on Tuesday.

Finally, there’s the Blockbuster Video Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. It didn’t come as a surprise, as streaming video over the Web, movies on demand, the Redbox DVD vending machine and subscription services like Netflix have chipped away at the once-dominant home video retailer’s market share. It needs to pare $1 billion in debt down to about $100 million.

But for me, Blockbuster conjures memories of a more simple economic time, before collateralized debt obligations and debtor-in-possession (DIP) financing and the desperate search (despite a $33 billion valuation) for a business model when a hugely popular technology service is given away for free.

Time was, I drove to Blockbuster (when gas cost less than $2 per gallon), plucked my movies off its shelves and paid an actual human being for the privilege of keeping them for a night or two.

On the other hand, I’m at least partially responsible for Blockbuster’s plight: I renewed my membership this week to Netflix.