How’s The US Economy Doing? Nuggets From Fed’s Beige Book

 @moranzhang on December 04 2013 3:34 PM

The U.S. economy continued to grow at a “modest to moderate pace” from early October through mid-November, the Federal Reserve said in its anecdotal Beige Book report issued Wednesday.

Eight times per year, the Federal Reserve releases the Beige Book, a snapshot of business conditions in each of the Fed’s 12 regional bank districts. Although the findings are anecdotal and can be somewhat obscure, it has become an important part of the information discussed by the Federal Open Market Committee -- the Fed’s policy-setting body.

The Beige Book is updated two weeks before each FOMC meeting in Washington. That makes it relatively current compared with many other economic indicators, which can lag a month or more behind the period they report on. The policymakers are scheduled to meet Dec. 17-18, when some economists expect the Fed to begin scaling back its asset purchases. That said, the consensus is calling for a March tapering.

Here’s a rundown of some nuggets from Wednesday’s Beige Book. The report can be used to get a feel for the direction of the U.S. economy. Directly quoted from the report:

1. Sales of new motor vehicles were moderate to strong across much of the country.

Sales of new motor vehicles continued at a moderate to strong pace across most Districts, although Dallas reported a slight decline, which was attributed to a lack of consumer confidence and continued uncertainty. Motor-vehicle purchases in Kansas City were flat. Dealers in Cleveland and St. Louis saw a pickup in purchases of SUVs and cross-over vehicles.

Chicago indicated that lower gasoline prices were motivating buyers to shift away from more fuel-efficient vehicles. Used-car sales were mixed, with Cleveland and St. Louis reporting an increase, while purchases in the New York District were soft.

2. Retailers hopeful, but cautious about holidays.

Reports on retail spending were positive. Looking forward to the holiday shopping season, retailers reported being hopeful, but cautious.

A Boston retailer noted that sales performance during the 2013 holiday season will be a better test of what seems to be an improving trend. Philadelphia retailers reported hopeful, but very uncertain expectations for the holiday season, while retailer expectations in the Atlanta district for the holiday season are only mildly optimistic.

Stores in Minneapolis and Kansas City are cautiously optimistic about the buying mood of holiday shoppers. Demand for home furnishings was strongest in Boston, Richmond, Chicago and Kansas City. Apparel sales were strong in the Boston, Cleveland and Kansas City districts. Retailers in Boston, New York, Cleveland and Dallas indicated that their store inventories are at desired levels.

3. Tourism increased in most districts, although the federal government shutdown had a negative impact in some areas.

Reports on tourism varied. Due to the federal government shutdown, tourist destinations in the Boston, Richmond and Minneapolis districts experienced lower traffic. In Philadelphia, some superstorm Sandy-affected areas of the New Jersey shore continued to experience lighter traffic than normal. Boston reported that tourism activity at hotels and restaurants exceeded usual expectations due to additional business brought in by the World Series.

New York reported strong tourism activity attributed in part to Broadway performance openings. Cold-weather expectations have boosted ski bookings in Richmond. Contacts there noted that the strength in bookings has allowed them to raise rates for the first time in several years.

Atlanta and Minneapolis reported that tourism expanded. In the San Francisco district, Hawaii maintained its solid pace of growth. In contrast, Las Vegas tourism remained relatively weak, and contacts pointed to a moderate year-over-year decline in automobile traffic in the region.

4. Manufacturing activity continued to expand and plant managers were optimistic about the near term.

Firms in Philadelphia and Cleveland are beginning to take a more conservative stance toward capital spending, while capital outlays remain solid in Boston and Kansas City.

Companies across a number of sectors in Philadelphia noted a reduction in activity due to the federal government shutdown, while defense contractors in Boston reported that sequestration has not yet affected them significantly.

Chicago highlighted the motor-vehicle industry as a main source of strength due to a large number of new-vehicle launches and increasing demand for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. Cleveland and St. Louis also reported increased motor-vehicle production.

Steel producers in Dallas and San Francisco indicated that demand was steady, while producers in Cleveland and Chicago experienced a slight drop-off in production, even though they are beginning to see a reduction in the quantity of steel imports.

San Francisco noted an increase in demand for semiconductors, driven by demand for mobile-technology products, while the aerospace industry in the Pacific Northwest reported a large backlog of orders for commercial aircraft.

High-tech manufacturing firms in the Dallas district said that demand was flat to modestly weaker; however, respondents expect a gradual increase in demand over the next three to six months. In Kansas City, sales among high-tech firms moderated but were positive overall; several firms cited a reduction in government contracts due to sequestration as the main cause for the slowing.

Wood-product manufacturers in Minneapolis and San Francisco saw an improvement in business activity. Contacts in the Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis and Kansas City districts expressed varying degrees of optimism about near-term business activity. Nonetheless, some contacts in Cleveland and Chicago observed that heightened levels of uncertainty, driven in part by fiscal issues, could dampen demand.

5. Activity in residential real estate markets continued to improve.

Residential real estate activity improved in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis and San Francisco, while remaining steady or softening in other districts.

Some slowing in single-family home sales was attributed to seasonal factors. Nonetheless, sales remain largely above year-ago levels.

Increasing demand, low to declining levels of inventory, and slowly rising new-home construction were cited by almost all districts as reasons for a continued rise in home prices, but at a slower pace than was observed earlier in 2013.

Historically low inventories of unsold homes were reported in Philadelphia, Richmond, Chicago, Kansas City and Dallas. Chicago noted that the inventory of homes for sale is at a record low.

In the Philadelphia, Cleveland, Kansas City and San Francisco districts, builders continued to face a scarcity of highly skilled trade workers. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond and Chicago indicated that multifamily construction continued to experience moderate to strong growth, with strength concentrated in the apartment segment. Vacancy rates declined across most districts.

6. Banking conditions were largely stable, with some improvement seen in loan demand.

Loan volume showed a modest increase in Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco, while Boston and Atlanta reported a moderate rise. Dallas noted that loan demand softened across most lines of business during the reporting period.

An increase in business-credit activity was seen in a number of districts. Commercial real estate lending increased in New York, Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City and San Francisco. Demand for commercial and industrial (C&I) loans rose in the New York, Atlanta, and Kansas City districts, but weakened in St. Louis. C&I lending was unchanged in Chicago.

In the Philadelphia, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco districts, some bankers eased lending standards in response to aggressive competition for quality loans. Lending standards remained unchanged across loan categories in New York, Cleveland, St Louis and Kansas City.

Consumer borrowing weakened in a few districts, including New York, Richmond, and St. Louis. In Cleveland, Kansas City and Dallas, demand for consumer loans was little changed, while it increased in Chicago.

Lower residential mortgage activity was reported in many districts. Bankers in Cleveland, Richmond and Atlanta attributed the decline in part to higher interest rates than earlier in the year. New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas reported declines in refinancing activity as well.

Several districts reported increased credit quality, as delinquencies have continued to decline and fewer problem loans have been reported.

7. Hiring showed a modest increase or was unchanged across districts.

Hiring showed a modest increase in the Philadelphia, Richmond, St. Louis, Minneapolis and Dallas districts, while hiring in the remaining districts was largely unchanged.

Industries that reported moderate employment growth included construction, software and IT services, manufacturing and health care.

Temporary holiday hiring is in progress. Cleveland reported that year-over-year growth in retail holiday hiring is expected to be flat; however, some employers noted that they are having difficulty finding seasonal workers. In Chicago, part-time seasonal hiring is slightly lower than normal as a result of retailers' choosing to increase current employees' hours instead of hiring new workers.

Some employers in the Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Kansas City and Dallas districts reported having difficulty finding qualified workers for certain permanent, high-skilled positions. In Philadelphia, a builder reported that contractors are reluctant to hire workers who require training. Instead, contractors are aggressively hiring skilled labor from each other.

On net, staffing services across districts remain more optimistic than they were three months ago, expecting steady growth through the end of the year and into 2014.

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