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Beige Book Finds Economic Activity Still Expanding Modestly

 

Oct 10 - Reports from the 12 Federal Reserve Districts indicated that economic activity generally expanded modestly since the last report. The New York District noted a leveling off in economic activity, and Kansas City indicated some slowing in the pace of growth. In general, other Districts reported that growth continued at a modest pace.

Consumer spending was generally reported to be flat to up slightly since the last report. A number of Districts characterized retail sales as expanding at a modest pace, while reports from New York, Chicago, and Kansas City indicated flat or softening sales. Vehicle sales were also generally characterized as stable but up from a year earlier and generally at favorable levels. Used car sales were mixed. Most Districts described tourism as fairly robust, though Kansas City noted some general softening, while New York and Dallas indicated some scattered signs of weakening.

Residential real estate conditions improved since the last report. Most Districts reported strengthening in existing home sales, while prices were described as steady to increasing, with declining inventories noted in the Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts. Residential construction was also described as rising in most Districts. Commercial real estate markets were mixed since the last report. Office markets showed signs of softening in the northeastern Districts--Boston, New York, and Philadelphia--while most other Districts reported stable or mixed market conditions. Industrial markets showed some strength in the New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Atlanta Districts, while softer conditions were noted in Richmond.

Conditions in the manufacturing sector were mixed but, on balance, somewhat improved since the last report. The Boston, Richmond, Atlanta, St. Louis, Kansas City, and San Francisco Districts reported some expansion in activity, whereas New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis reported some weakening in activity. The nonfinancial services sector showed modest improvement in the latest reporting period. Richmond, Minneapolis, Dallas, and San Francisco reported some expansion in activity, while New York and Philadelphia indicated steady or mixed conditions.

Overall loan demand was steady to stronger in most Districts. Credit standards were little changed since the last report, and a number of Districts noted improvements in loan quality or steady to declining delinquency rates. Agricultural conditions were mixed, with drought conditions continuing to adversely affect much of the mid-section of the nation. Activity in the energy sector remained robust.

Districts mostly reported little change in prices of both finished goods and inputs. Prices for agricultural commodities and petroleum-based products were generally reported to be higher, while natural gas prices were said to be low or declining. Employment conditions were little changed since the last report. Several Districts continued to report shortages of highly skilled workers, but otherwise wage pressures remained modest. Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago noted increases in the costs of employee medical benefits.

Consumer Spending and Tourism

Consumer spending was mixed but generally reported to be flat to up slightly over the latest reporting period. Retail sales were said to have improved modestly in the Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and San Francisco Districts, while sales were characterized as flat to softer in the New York and Kansas City Districts. In general, retail sales were reported to be running only modestly ahead of a year ago. A number of reports noted various factors affecting sales, such as rising gasoline prices, political uncertainty, concerns about the "fiscal cliff" and weather. Atlanta and San Francisco noted that discounters have been outperforming traditional department stores. Cleveland reported that back-to-school merchandise sold well, while Chicago said that such sales were below expectations. Boston noted a pickup in furniture sales, Richmond cited brisk sales at building supplies stores, and San Francisco reported stronger demand at restaurants and food-service establishments.

Vehicle sales were mixed but generally at favorable levels. Sales of new vehicles were steady to stronger and running ahead of comparable 2011 levels. Philadelphia, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and San Francisco described sales as strong, while New York and Chicago reported some moderation in sales in September, after a fairly strong August. Kansas City and Dallas reported some softening or leveling off in sales. The Cleveland and Kansas City Districts noted that crossover SUVs have been selling well relative to less fuel-efficient vehicles. Sales of used vehicles were mixed, with San Francisco describing them as robust but New York and Cleveland characterizing them as flat.

Tourism was generally described as steady at robust levels, though there have been scattered indications of some softening. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Atlanta, Minneapolis and San Francisco described tourism as strong, whereas the Kansas City and Dallas Districts indicated some signs of weakening. Even Districts reporting strength noted some pockets of softening: Boston reported a small drop in advance bookings, New York indicated a dip in activity in mid-September, Richmond noted a significant drop in government-sponsored bookings, and Atlanta mentioned disappointing cruise bookings and on-board spending. The Dallas District noted weakening travel demand from Europe and Asia; Atlanta also indicated weakening traffic from Europe but added that Canadian and Latin American visitors largely picked up the slack.

Real Estate and Construction

Residential real estate showed widespread improvement since the last report. All twelve Districts reported that existing home sales strengthened, in some cases substantially. Selling prices were steady or rising. Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Dallas and San Francisco noted declining or tight inventories, which have put upward pressure on prices. Modest price increases were reported in the New York, Richmond, Chicago, and Kansas City Districts. New York and Richmond reported relatively strong demand at the high and low ends of the market, whereas Philadelphia and Kansas City noted relative strength for mid-range homes; Boston indicated a shift in the mix toward lower or medium priced homes. New home construction and sales were more mixed but still mostly improved: increased construction and/or new home sales were reported in the Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas and San Francisco Districts. Multi-family construction, in particular, was described as robust in the Boston, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas Districts. Residential rental markets continued to be characterized as strong, even in the New York and Atlanta Districts where rents increased somewhat less strongly than in recent months.

Commercial real estate markets were mixed since the last report. Office markets showed signs of softening in the northeastern Districts--Boston, New York and Philadelphia--with New York remarking on substantial new supply coming on the market in early 2013. In contrast, Atlanta, Minneapolis and San Francisco noted some improvement, while most other Districts reported stable or mixed market conditions. Industrial markets showed some strength in the New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Atlanta Districts, while conditions were described as sluggish in Richmond and mixed in St. Louis. Atlanta noted weakness in the market for retail space. Commercial construction activity was also mixed: Atlanta, Minneapolis and Kansas City reported some improvement in non-residential construction activity, while Richmond and Dallas noted that activity was sluggish.

Manufacturing

Conditions in the manufacturing sector were mixed since the last report, though on balance, more Districts reported that conditions had improved than worsened. The Boston, Richmond, Atlanta, St. Louis, Kansas City, and San Francisco Districts reported that activity expanded, though growth was generally seen as modest. Activity was reported as mixed in the Dallas District, while the New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis Districts reported that activity weakened, though declines were mild for the latter two. Significant gains in manufacturing related to the construction, energy, and transportation sectors were reported across several Districts, with particularly robust gains tied to the automotive industry. There were exceptions in the Kansas City and Dallas Districts where manufacturing related to transportation equipment was reported as mixed.

Steel production was said to be flat in the Cleveland and San Francisco Districts, and lower in the St. Louis District. Activity related to machinery and equipment was reported as lower in the Philadelphia, Chicago, and Kansas City Districts. Weaker sales growth in the high tech industry was reported by Dallas, and Kansas City said that growth among high-tech firms remained sluggish in its District. The Boston District noted some weakness in the semiconductor industry, while the San Francisco District said that new orders from the semiconductor industry had improved. Manufacturing contacts in the St. Louis District were tentative about the outlook for 2013, and contacts in the Dallas District noted some uncertainty about the outlook due to the upcoming election.

Nonfinancial Services

Activity in nonfinancial services was stable to slightly stronger since the last report. The Richmond, Minneapolis, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts reported that service-sector activity expanded, while such activity was reported as steady in the New York District and mixed in the Philadelphia District. Richmond noted that business activity strengthened for professional, scientific, and technical service firms, and Dallas noted strength in energy, accounting, and audit-related services. There was an increase in activity for a wide range of consulting services in the Boston and Minneapolis Districts. Activity related to health care was reported to be stable in the San Francisco District, but increased significantly in the Boston District. San Francisco reported continued sales growth for a wide variety of technology services, and noted that demand picked up for restaurants and other food-service providers.

Reports on goods transportation services generally remained positive. A pick up in such activity was noted in Cleveland, Atlanta, Richmond, and Dallas, while such activity was said to be flat in Kansas City. Contacts in the Cleveland, Atlanta, and Dallas Districts reported strong shipments of automotive, construction, and energy-related products. Port activity expanded to record levels in the Atlanta and Richmond Districts. Air cargo volume increased in the Atlanta District, but declined in the Dallas District due to weakness in the international sector.

Banking and Finance

Overall loan demand increased slightly on net since the last Beige Book report. New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, St. Louis, and San Francisco reported stronger loan demand on balance, while Kansas City and Dallas reported flat demand and Chicago reported somewhat weaker demand. Most Districts reported an increase in mortgage lending, especially for refinancing purposes. New York, Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City, and San Francisco reported some increase in demand for commercial and industrial loans, while demand for business loans was weak in Chicago and Dallas, and was characterized as mixed in Richmond. Demand for consumer credit, particularly for auto loans, was said to be strong in the Cleveland, Atlanta, St. Louis, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts, while consumer loan demand was more limited in New York, Richmond, Chicago, and Kansas City.

Credit standards were little changed since the last report. However, New York noted some tightening for consumer loans and residential mortgages, while Richmond and Chicago reported some easing for commercial and industrial loans. Still, loans remained difficult to obtain for many small businesses in the Cleveland, Richmond, and Chicago Districts. Banking contacts in the Philadelphia, Cleveland, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts reported stiff competition among lenders. Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Dallas noted general improvements in loan quality, and delinquency rates generally held steady or declined in the New York, Cleveland, and Dallas Districts.

Agriculture and Natural Resources

Agriculture conditions were mixed since the last report. Drought conditions continued to hurt the agriculture sector in the Chicago District, parts of the Minneapolis District, and the Kansas City and Dallas Districts. However, agriculture activity was reported as higher in the Atlanta and St. Louis Districts, as well as in parts of the Minneapolis District, and was reported as stable in the San Francisco District. The Chicago and Dallas Districts noted that increased rainfall had improved crop conditions. In the Dallas District, crops were reported to be mostly in fair to good shape, with production levels ahead of last year but below average due to ongoing dry conditions. Producers in the St. Louis District reported that crops were generally in better condition than at the time of the previous report, and harvest rates for corn and rice were well ahead of their five-year averages. Contacts in the Atlanta District reported that the rise in some crop prices related to the drought in the Midwest led to an increase in crop production in the Southeast. Higher feed prices continued to adversely affect livestock producers in the Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas and San Francisco Districts, though the Chicago District noted some easing in higher feed prices which provided a bit of relief.

Activity in the energy sector remained strong, with the Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts reporting robust gains in activity. The Minneapolis District reported that oil production hit a new record high in North Dakota, and the Cleveland District reported that oil and natural gas production held steady. Natural gas exploration was reported as lower in the Kansas City District and in parts of the Minneapolis District. Coal producers in the Cleveland District reported declines in production.

Employment, Wages, and Prices

Employment conditions were little changed since the last report. The Boston, Cleveland, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Dallas Districts indicated that employment levels were flat or up slightly, with stagnant demand and uncertainty related to the upcoming presidential election, U.S. fiscal policy, and European debt issues cited by some as restraining hiring. The New York and Chicago Districts noted weaker labor market conditions, and conditions were described as mixed in Richmond. Firms in the St. Louis District reported an increase in hiring plans. Several Districts continued to report that employers were having difficulty filling highly skilled positions. In response, a few Districts noted that firms were starting to increase training programs to meet their staffing needs.

Most Districts reported that wage pressures remained modest since the last report, though an increase in the cost of employee medical benefits was noted in Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago. To the extent that wage increases were observed, they were concentrated among highly skilled workers in information technology, health care, professional services, and some of the skilled trades, according to reports from the Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and San Francisco Districts.

Price pressures were said to be contained as most Districts reported that both finished goods and input prices were little changed since the last report. Higher prices were cited by some Districts for agricultural commodities and petroleum-based products, although low or declining natural gas prices were reported in the Atlanta, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts. Contacts in the Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts noted that drought conditions continued to result in higher feed prices. There were scattered reports of higher crop prices starting to show through to food prices at the consumer level. Atlanta reported an increase in corn and soybean prices, while Chicago and Kansas City reported that these prices declined somewhat. Slightly lower prices for some technology-related products were reported in the San Francisco District.

Click here to read information from the individual Reserve Banks.


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