Well, he may not have done it the way he wanted to, but President Barack Obama managed to extend tax cuts to middle-class U.S. citizens and unemployment insurance benefits, all while the unemployment rate continues to slowly decrease. That's the good news. The bad news is that the real estate market is still underwater and Bernie Madoff continues to wreak havoc, even from behind bars. (Catch up on the news with last week's article, Water Cooler Finance: Steady Stocks, Big G's And Madoff News.)

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Kicking & Screaming
Investors drove stocks north last week, after the announcement that President Barack Obama would extend the tax cuts implemented under President George W. Bush for another two years. The cuts apply to all tax brackets - which opposes Barack Obama's initial plan of only allowing the tax cuts to remain for United States citizens who earn less than $250,000 every year. President Obama claims that the compromise of extending the cuts for all Americans is a necessary one, much too many democrats' dismay, as it prevents a tax hike for people in the middle class.

At the press conference held last Monday, President Obama also unveiled that payroll taxes, which are used to fund the Social Security program, will be reduced by 2%. The $120 billion price tag attached to the rollback, he says, will not hinder Social Security payments for those who need them.

Still Scamming
Even those who won, may lose. Last week, Irving Picard, the court-appointed trustee who is managing and distributing the estate of Bernie Madoff, announced that investors who ended up profiting from Madoff's ponzi scheme may be forced to pay back their profits. Picard is targeting those who withdrew a greater amount than their initial investments with Madoff, and is seeking clawback retribution in order to re-distribute the funds to those who lost money. (For more, see The Ghouls And Monsters On Wall Street.)

Complaints regarding Picard's tactics are beginning to filter through, with claims that he's adding "insult to injury" by suing those who are already struggling in troubled financial times. And of the investors being targeted, it's estimated that over 380 have already received notices that their earnings should be returned. (To learn more, see How To Avoid Falling Prey To The Next Madoff Scam.)

Jobs for Some
The initial unemployment claim numbers last week came in at lower than expected. Claims were anticipated to come in at 429,000 based on the trends of the previous weeks, but actually peaked at around 421,000. Analysts are saying this indicates a positive trend in employment rates, should the momentum continue. The previous week's initial claims were approximately 438,000.

Repeat unemployment claims were also down significantly. Those filing for at least their second week of unemployment coverage dropped to 4,086,000 - a two-year low. Many of the jobs being filled exist in the services industry and temporary work, which points to this being a holiday trend, as retailers and restaurants require a much beefed-up employee base at this time of the year. Still, analysts say that we've got a long way to go before the unemployment rate significantly drops. Right now, it is sitting at 9.8%, but may bump up slightly in the New Year. Until initial jobless claims drop below the 400,000 mark, employment will continue to be a hot topic.

Coincidentally (and contrary to his opposition's wishes), President Obama's media event last Monday revealed his plan to extend unemployment insurance benefits for 13 months at a price tag of $56 billion. (For more, see How The Unemployment Rate Affects You (Even If You're Working.)

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The Poor House
The buyer's market in the U.S. real estate field continues, as homes are now worth significantly less than they once were. According to CNN, it's estimated that houses overall are worth $1.7 trillion less than they were in 2009. It's assumed that this trend in declining home value will continue at least in the early part of 2011, as holding on to a house continues to be a struggle for many Americans. CNN reports that over the last few months, 23.2% of homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are actually worth.

The $1.7 trillion represents a low point in the housing market's recent history, and brings the total value of homes lost since the market's peak in 2006 to $9 trillion, overall.

The Bottom Line
The decline in initial jobless claims may represent a tipping point in our ongoing unemployment issues, but whether that trend keeps up is yet to be seen. As has been a common occurrence as of late, the "wait and see" approach seems to be the only consistent indicator that we can follow. (For more, check out Wall Street History: Orange County Crumbles And Dow Drops.)