It wasn’t the strongest of endings to a quarter which saw financial markets, especially equities, steady after the great freefall in the December 2008 and the early months of the March quarter.

Markets were up 20% to 40%, oil by 57%, but gold by less than 5% as confidence returned to the faces of investors and the bank accounts of those who caused the mess in the first place, the dud banks of America and Europe and their investor mates.

From the US, the near free fall in house prices seems to be stopping, with a smaller fall in April in US home prices according to the Standard & Poor’s Case Schiller Index, the most accurate of all measures. Normally that would be a sign of ‘break out the bubble and lets go’ for investors, but fickle American consumers had to go and get all gloomy again, right out of the blue.

In fact confidence among US consumers dropped in June after two months of building optimism; that surprised economists and knocked the wind from markets.

House prices in 20 metropolitan areas fell just 0.6% month-on-month in April, according to the S&P Case-Shiller home-price index, following a 2.2% fall in March. Prices were still 18.1% lower than they were a year ago, but prices rose in eight of the 20 metro locations for the first time in a year or more in some cases. But the US is now in its prime real estate dealing period and economists say a real trend won’t emerge for another quarter, perhaps two.

But the really nasty news came from the Government and the shock report that arrears rates on prime home mortgages (the highest quality, held by the best borrowers) more than doubled in the first quarter of this year from the same period of 2008.

Prime mortgages 60 days or more past due climbed to 2.9%, from 1.1%, according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision. It means that the damage initially caused by subprime mortgages, is now spreading faster up the rankings of home mortgages. 2.9% compares with a rate of 0.48% for non performing mortgages held by Australian banks at the end of December. First-time foreclosure filings on prime loans rose 22% In the March quarter from the fourth quarter of last year and 73% from the March quarter.

Serious delinquencies on prime loans, which account for two-thirds of all US mortgages, rose to 661,914 in the first quarter from 250,986 a year earlier, according to the report. Overall, mortgages 60 days or more past due rose 88% from the same period of 2008, the report said.

But there was another bit of positive news: the Institute for Supply Management-Chicago said business activity shrank slightly less than forecast in June. So the squeeze is easing, but does it matter if jobs are being lost and homeowners losing their homes? From the consumer sentiment survey, the answer would be no.

Across the Atlantic the UK economy shrank by far more than previously estimated in the March quarter. In fact the 2.4% slump (early estimate 1.9%, which cheered markets a months ago) was the biggest contraction since 1958 when, as one writer in a London paper pointed out, was when Michael Jackson was born and Harold Macmillan was prime minister. Over the year to March, the UK economy contracted by 4.9%. Economists said the growth figures confirmed that the UK went into recession in the second quarter of 2008 (six months after the US), after the economy shrank by 0.1 per cent in the April to June period, rather than the zero growth figure originally reported.

In Europe, a rise in German unemployment was smaller than expected, which heartened the Government now three months away from elections, but the 0.1% fall in consumer price inflation last month immediately started analysts worrying about deflation. The market had been expecting a fall of 0.2%, which some saw as good news. But with the European Central bank meeting tomorrow night (Australian time) it will spark more debate about interest rates. The fall in inflation means the ECB’s record 1% interest rate has now been nudged up a touch.

The eurozone joins Japan and China in facing the prospect of contracting inflation for the next few months: in Japan and China though it could last a bout longer, especially for business.

And in Japan, with manufacturing output rising, inflation falling, consumer spending blipping higher (because of stimulus spending) and retail sales easing, it would probably come as no surprise to learn that the country’s unemployment continues to rise.

It it a new five year low of 5.2% in May and is now within sight of its post war low of 5.5% in April, 2003. Worryingly, job availability sank to a record low, with less than one job vacancy for every two people out of work. Naturally the politicians ignored that and said the country is past the worst, which it is, but nowhere near a rebound.