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Federal Reserve Banks Still Seeing Positive Movement in Economy

 

Jan 16 - Reports from the 12 Federal Reserve Districts suggest economic activity continued to expand across most regions and sectors from late November through the end of the year, according to the Beige Book released Jan. 15, 2014. Nine Districts indicated the local economy was expanding at a moderate pace; among these, the Atlanta and Chicago Districts saw conditions improve compared with the previous reporting period. Boston and Philadelphia cited modest growth, while Kansas City reported the economy held steady in December. The economic outlook is positive in most Districts, with some reports citing expectations of "more of the same" and some expecting a pickup in growth.

Three-quarters of the Districts indicated that retail activity had increased since the last Beige Book report. The exceptions were St. Louis and Kansas City, where retail results were mixed, and the Richmond District, which cited a softening of retail sales. Richmond, Atlanta, and San Francisco noted strong auto sales. Districts mentioning nonfinancial services noted increased activity, except for Richmond, which cited "little change" in demand for non-retail services. All Districts reported year-over-year increases in manufacturing activity, although Kansas City noted slower growth in December.

Real estate markets generally continued to improve, according to District reports. Although a few Districts indicated home sales or residential construction in some areas had slowed or declined in recent months, most cited increased residential sales activity and construction as well as rising home prices. Reports on commercial real estate were also positive, with commercial construction generally increasing. Two-thirds of the Districts reported increases in commercial sales and leasing activity. According to District reports that mention banking, loan volumes have not changed substantially since the last reporting period. The eight Districts reporting on energy indicated that activity continued increasing; Cleveland and Atlanta cited robust growth in the energy sector. Reports on agriculture were also mostly positive.

Almost half the Districts reported that prices were stable; most other Districts noted small increases in prices. Upward movements in wages were cited by 8 of the 12 Districts; the increases were described as small to moderate. Two-thirds of Districts noted increases in hiring; the Richmond District cited "numerous reports of strong labor demand."

Consumer Spending and Tourism

Most Districts reported that retail spending was up, with activity described as modestly to moderately higher and holiday sales on plan or up a bit compared with 2012. However, Richmond noted a general slowdown in retail spending in recent weeks and the Kansas City District cited lower than expected holiday sales, which retailers there attributed to a shorter selling season and harsh weather conditions.

Atlanta and San Francisco both noted that in-store sales were softer than online sales. Apparel sales were reportedly strong in Boston and Richmond, while Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago indicated that cold-weather gear and winter items were selling well. Home furnishings, home improvement items, and/or furniture sold particularly well in the Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, and San Francisco Districts. Demand for electronics was quite strong in the Cleveland and Minneapolis Districts, but San Francisco reported that electronics sales were weaker than in recent years. Kansas City and Dallas reported lagging sales for higher-priced big ticket items.

New York, Philadelphia, and Kansas City reported that automobile sales declined a bit in December; dealer contacts in the New York and Kansas City Districts reported higher inventory levels. Contacts in the Richmond, Atlanta, and San Francisco Districts said that automobile sales remain strong. Auto sales were mixed across areas within the Dallas District. Chicago and Minneapolis reported that light-vehicle sales increased; Cleveland observed that consumers continue to shift from smaller, more fuel-efficient cars to SUVs, crossovers, and light trucks. The 2014 outlook for vehicle sales is strong in the Philadelphia, Richmond, Cleveland, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts.

Reports on leisure and tourism spending were mixed across and within Districts. The Richmond District reported flat to slower bookings in recent weeks, except for resorts specializing in winter activities. San Francisco indicated that travel and tourism were down in Hawaii and remained somewhat weak in Las Vegas. Minneapolis reported that winter tourism activity was off to a solid start on account of snowy weather. The Kansas City District indicated that tourism activity increased slightly since the last survey and increased modestly year-over-year. Hospitality contacts in the Atlanta District reported strong advance bookings and increases in occupancy rates, room rates, and revenue per room during the 2013 holiday season compared with year-earlier levels.

Nonfinancial Services

Districts mentioning consumer and business services reported that demand for nonfinancial services increased moderately since the previous Beige Book report. The Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and San Francisco Districts cited increased growth in information technology services; in the San Francisco District, this growth reflected strong demand for cloud services. The Boston District generally reported strengthened activity in the consulting and advertising industries with the exception of a firm that provides consulting services mostly to government agencies.

Healthcare, internet technology, restaurant, telecommunications, and distribution firms expanded in the St. Louis District. Other reports of growth included legal and real estate services in the Dallas District and professional and business services in the Minneapolis District. By contrast, contacts in the Richmond District generally reported flat nonretail service growth, citing soft demand in the trucking and healthcare sectors. Demand for staffing services increased in the New York, Cleveland, Richmond, Chicago, and Dallas Districts, notably to serve the internet technology and engineering sectors.

Reports on transportation services were generally positive. Port activity remained strong in the Richmond District. Logistics contacts in the Atlanta District reported expansion in the movement of industrial and healthcare-related goods. Rail contacts noted year-over-year increases in intermodal traffic in the Atlanta District and heightened cargo volumes in the Dallas District.

Similarly, freight transportation executives in the Cleveland District reported that shipping volume was in line with or exceeded expectations. One contact in the Philadelphia District observed "booming" growth for most modes of transportation. In contrast, transportation companies in the Kansas City District reported a slight decrease in business activity in recent weeks, while both intermodal cargo volumes and air cargo volumes fell in the Dallas District. Airline demand in the Dallas District was largely unchanged.

The outlook for 2014 is positive, with most Districts reporting that contacts expected activity in nonfinancial services sectors to continue to increase at a moderate to strong pace.

Manufacturing

Reports from the 12 Districts generally painted a picture of steady growth in manufacturing. All but one District reported both growing sales and an optimistic outlook; only Kansas City reported a decline in manufacturing production and shipments in December, although activity remained above year-earlier levels. A manufacturer in the Dallas District said that for the first time since before the recession, his firm had too many jobs to bid on. Employment was generally described as "steady" with few instances of rapid growth but very few reports of staff cuts or plant closings. Contacts in several Districts reported concerns about health care cost inflation. Capital spending was generally up and contacts anticipated further growth.

Three specific areas of strength in manufacturing were mentioned by multiple Districts: commercial aviation, autos, and construction materials. The Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco Districts reported exceptional strength in commercial aviation driven by record backlogs at major aircraft producers. The Richmond, Chicago, and San Francisco Districts said that the recovering housing market had led to increased demand for construction materials going all the way from raw materials like lumber to finished products like kitchen cabinets.

Similarly, the Boston, Cleveland, Atlanta, and Chicago Districts reported above-average strength in the auto industry. Contacts in the Cleveland District said that most auto suppliers were at or near capacity; one respondent there estimated that 85 percent of auto suppliers should be adding capacity right now but indicated that many are reluctant to do so.

News about semiconductors was mixed, with contacts in the Boston District citing strong demand for semiconductor manufacturing equipment and contacts in the San Francisco District reporting gradually increasing sales of chips. Contacts in the Dallas District said that demand for memory chips was rising but demand for logic devices remained soft. The one area of weakness was manufacturers of defense-related products; contacts in the Cleveland District expressed hope that the recently enacted federal budget agreement would provide a boost to defense contractors this year and next.

Real Estate and Construction

Most Districts reported increases in home sales in the closing months of 2013 compared with last year, but the Atlanta, Cleveland, and Kansas City Districts indicated that year-over-year residential sales growth had slowed relative to earlier quarters in 2013. The Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Dallas reports noted that at least some areas within those Districts saw home sales below year-earlier levels. Home selling prices continued their upward trend in the Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and San Francisco Districts, while remaining stable in the Cleveland and Richmond Districts; New York noted mixed changes in sale prices across the District. Residential construction saw slight to moderate increases in most Districts; by contrast, Dallas cited a slight decline, New York reported no change, and Cleveland cited strong growth.

Notwithstanding its decrease in overall residential construction, the Dallas District noted elevated construction levels for multi-family units; the Atlanta, Cleveland, and Chicago Districts also cited strong multifamily construction. Reporting Districts indicated that residential real estate contacts remained optimistic looking forward, while voicing concerns about declining inventory and potential changes in the mortgage market. The Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts reported that contacts expected residential construction to pick up in the near term.

District reports on commercial real estate contained much good news, although performance within some Districts was uneven across locations and property types. Commercial leasing activity increased in the Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and San Francisco Districts, as well as in New York City and Long Island, and held roughly steady in the Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts. Industrial leasing activity weakened in the New York District in the fourth quarter but improved in both the Richmond and St. Louis Districts. Office and other commercial vacancy rates were mixed across and within metropolitan areas and across property types. Commercial rents increased at least modestly on average in the Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts and held steady in the New York and Richmond Districts.

Commercial real estate investment continued to strengthen across numerous Districts, with brisk sales activity in the Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis Districts and rising prices in those same Districts as well as in the Richmond and Kansas City Districts. Excepting the New York and Dallas Districts, which gave no information on recent construction, all other Districts reported increases in commercial construction activity in recent weeks. In the Boston and Richmond Districts, construction activity increased in the education and healthcare sectors.

A significant number of commercial high-rise structures are being built (or planned) in the San Francisco District. Information concerning the commercial real estate outlook was largely positive where it was reported. Contacts in the Boston, Atlanta, and Kansas City Districts were optimistic that commercial real estate fundamentals would continue to improve at least slowly in 2014. The outlook for commercial construction activity was positive in the Philadelphia, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Dallas Districts.

Banking and Financial Services

Among Districts reporting on banking, none noted substantial changes in loan volume. Philadelphia, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco reported slight to moderate growth. The Cleveland, St. Louis, and Kansas City Districts reported no change, whereas New York cited a moderate decline in loan volume. In addition, while no Districts reported major changes in credit standards, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco cited instances where financial institutions relaxed their underwriting standards. Some contacts attributed this relaxation to increased competition in lending markets. Among reporting Districts, credit quality held steady or increased, with the New York District citing declines in delinquency rates for all lending categories.

Residential real estate loans declined in the New York, Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, and Kansas City Districts, mostly due to slowdowns in refinancing activity rather than in new purchase loan applications; in fact, the latter have slightly increased in some Districts. The St. Louis District reported no change in residential real estate loan volume.

Commercial real estate loans increased in the Cleveland District, remained steady in the New York and Kansas City Districts, and fell in the Philadelphia and St. Louis Districts. Business and industrial loan demand increased in the Richmond, Chicago, and San Francisco Districts while remaining stable in Cleveland and Kansas City and declining in the St. Louis District. The Cleveland, Richmond, Chicago, and Dallas Districts reported increases in auto lending. Regarding demand deposits at financial institutions, deposit volumes increased in the Cleveland and Dallas Districts, remained stable in Kansas City, and decreased in the St. Louis District. Contacts in some Districts expressed concern about new banking regulations and their potential negative impact on lending and operating costs.

Agriculture and Natural Resources

Most Districts reporting on agriculture indicated that yields and growing conditions were generally strong and improving in late November and December; by exception, the Atlanta District observed mixed results and Minneapolis cited weaker farm conditions. Corn and soybean prices remained very low across the country, and the Chicago and Kansas City Districts reported that some farmers have been holding onto fall crop inventories rather than sell at current prices.

Kansas City and Dallas reported that the winter wheat crop is in good shape due to moisture provided by winter storms, although storms slightly delayed the cotton harvest. The Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts cited increased profitability in cattle production attributed to flat or rising cattle prices coupled with reduced feed costs and better pasture conditions. Builders in the San Francisco District reported that timber supplies were sufficient to meet rising demand.

District reports indicated continued strong energy demand and production. The Atlanta, Kansas City and Dallas Districts cited robust oil drilling activity both inland and offshore, despite rising costs to transport crude oil along the Gulf Coast; meanwhile exploration in the Gulf of Mexico has been bolstered by the completion of pipeline infrastructure projects. Coal production was slightly up in the St. Louis and Kansas City Districts but mixed in the Cleveland and Richmond Districts, as Appalachian producers struggled with low coal prices and regulation. Natural gas production was stable at a high level in the Cleveland District, up slightly in the Richmond and San Francisco Districts, and mixed in the Minneapolis District. Most Minneapolis District iron ore mines continued to operate near capacity; however an environmental impact report on a proposed copper-nickel mine has brought the future of the project into question. A judge's ruling brought a proposed $250 million solar power project in Minnesota closer to development.

Wages and Prices

Most District reports indicated that wage and price pressures were contained and did not present major problems for local contacts. Prices were said to be generally stable in the Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Kansas City Districts; they reportedly increased slightly in the Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco Districts. New York and Dallas cited modest price increases; both mentioned that some service-sector firms plan to raise their selling prices in the near term. Most District reports indicated that cost pressures remained stable or increased only slightly. Manufacturers in a number of Districts reported that raw material prices were generally steady, with small increases in the prices of some metals. Kansas City cited an increase in the prices of some raw materials but not in the prices of finished products. Cleveland indicated that both input and finished products prices remained mostly unchanged.

The Cleveland and Atlanta Districts reported steady wages, with Atlanta noting that merit increases remained in the 1 to 3 percent range. The Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, Chicago, Kansas City, and San Francisco Districts reported slight to modest increases in wages; among these, Richmond noted that average wages declined in the service sector but increased in manufacturing, while Chicago and Kansas City observed that wage pressures were lower compared with the previous reporting period. By contrast, Dallas noted a pickup in reports of pay increases and wage pressures, while Minneapolis indicated that labor markets were showing signs of tightening, and wage increases were moderate.

Click here to read the reports from each Federal Reserve Bank District.


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