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August 29, 2012
Prepared at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and based on information collected on or before August 20, 2012. This document summarizes comments received from business and other contacts outside the Federal Reserve and is not a commentary on the views of Federal Reserve officials.
Reports from the twelve Federal Reserve Districts suggest economic activity continued to expand gradually in July and early August across most regions and sectors. Six Districts indicated the local economy continued to expand at a modest pace and another three cited moderate growth; among the latter, Chicago noted that the pace of growth had slowed from the prior period. The Philadelphia and Richmond Districts reported slow growth in most sectors and declines in manufacturing, while Boston cited mixed reports from business contacts and some slowdown since the previous report.
Most Districts indicated that retail activity, including auto sales, had increased since the last Beige Book report, although Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, and San Francisco noted the retail improvements were small. Atlanta said that retail growth had slowed, while Philadelphia indicated growth in retail sales was somewhat faster than in the previous report. Boston, New York, Richmond, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and San Francisco recorded strong performance in tourism. Many Districts reported some softening in manufacturing, either a slowdown in the rate of growth or a decline in the level of sales, output, or orders; among those with declining shipments and orders, Philadelphia noted that the rate of decline was tempering.
Districts mentioning nonfinancial services noted increased activity, although at a slowing pace in Boston, softening in New York, and "flattening" in Philadelphia; Kansas City reported that sales of high-tech services declined slightly. Several Districts cited declining demand for staffing services. According to District reports, bankers in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, and Kansas City saw increases in demand for most loan types in recent months; by contrast, St. Louis, Dallas, and San Francisco indicated that loan demand was mixed, softening, or slightly weaker.
Real estate markets were generally said to be improving. On the residential side, all 12 Districts cited increases in home sales, home prices, or housing construction. Reports on commercial real estate markets were also generally positive, although San Francisco noted stable demand, Boston indicated conditions were not much changed since the last report, and Richmond, Chicago, and St. Louis said commercial real estate conditions were mixed.
District reports indicated that energy and mining activity was generally high and increasing. However, Cleveland noted softening demand for coal, while Minneapolis and Kansas City had some energy sectors up and some down. The Midwest drought has reduced actual and expected farm output, especially cotton, soybean, and/or corn crops in the Chicago, Kansas City, and St. Louis Districts.
Most Districts reported that the selling prices of manufacturing and retail products were largely stable. By exception, several Districts noted concerns about rising agricultural commodity prices, and Richmond mentioned a small uptick in retail prices. Hiring was said to be modest across the Districts, and wage pressures were characterized as contained.
Consumer Spending and Tourism
Most Districts reported that retail spending in July and early August was up compared with the previous Beige Book. New York and San Francisco noted strengthening sales compared with a softer May and June, although in San Francisco's case, the rise was only "a bit further." Philadelphia, Richmond, Minneapolis, and Kansas City reported stronger retail sales, while Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, and Dallas all said that sales were up "slightly." In the Atlanta District, most retail contacts reported slower sales, while Boston's retail contacts provided a mixed assessment. The Atlanta and San Francisco reports noted that discount retailers performed better than traditional department stores, while the Chicago report attributed the pace of growth in consumer spending to heavy discounting by retailers clearing space for back-to-school items. Boston and Chicago reported continuing weakness in furniture sales; Boston also reported weak sales of electronics, but Chicago noted some improvement in this category. Adult clothing sold well in Boston, Chicago, and Dallas. The Atlanta District said that luxury goods merchants, while still largely positive, provided more mixed reports compared with earlier this year; Kansas City cited weaker sales for high-end jewelry. For the remainder of 2012, Boston retailers have mixed sales expectations, Philadelphia retailers are cautiously optimistic, and those in Atlanta are conservative; retail contacts in Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Dallas expect sales to rise through the end of the year.
Automobile sales are up in the New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Kansas City Districts, flat in Cleveland, Chicago, and Dallas, and a bit slower paced in Richmond and San Francisco; nonetheless, vehicle demand in the latter two Districts is still strong, especially for used cars. The New York District reported that new car sales are "particularly robust" and Kansas City cited a sharp increase in new vehicle sales. Atlanta, St. Louis, and Kansas City indicated that car dealers in their Districts expected these strong automobile sales to continue, while the Philadelphia and Dallas Districts reported concerns that consumer uncertainty might depress vehicle sales in coming months.
Respondents in the Boston, New York, Richmond, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and San Francisco Districts reported that tourist industry performance remains strong. The Atlanta District mentioned that Florida contacts reported a drop in European travelers, but said this decline was offset by an increase in business from Central and South America. Contacts in Boston noted some concern that weakness in Europe could soften tourist activity and that rising gas prices could affect leisure travel. The San Francisco District reported that the pace of growth had slowed in Las Vegas and other areas.
Manufacturing and Related Services
The picture in manufacturing was mixed. The Boston, Chicago, Kansas City and San Francisco Districts reported increasing demand and sales since the previous Beige Book, although the improvement was generally small and uneven, with two of these four Districts reporting that demand growth, while positive, was slowing. Six Districts reported that demand for manufactured goods was actually falling, although none reported a dramatic fall. The outlook was somewhat more positive, with six Districts reporting that manufacturers expected increasing demand and only two reporting the opposite.
Areas of strength were varied. The Cleveland and Philadelphia Districts both pointed to the revolution in natural gas production in the United States as a driver of demand, but the Chicago District said that a contact blamed cheap natural gas for weakness in demand for coal. Several Districts noted that improvements in residential construction boosted demand for products such as lumber, PVC, cement, and home goods. The Chicago and Philadelphia Districts said that auto production was positive, but Richmond said the opposite.
Weakness overseas remains a problem for U.S. manufacturing. Reports from the Boston, Atlanta, and Chicago Districts explicitly mentioned it. Although Europe represented one notable problem, several Districts also mentioned weakness in demand in Asia as an issue. In general, District reports indicate that the cost and availability of raw materials has not been an issue for manufacturers recently, especially as compared with the situation in previous years. Four Districts reported lower input costs, but contacts in New York reported a slight increase.
On the employment front, there was little movement. Across all Districts, few manufacturing firms reported any major hiring or layoffs, and the ones that did usually attributed it to idiosyncratic factors like new products or restructuring related to a merger. The Cleveland District reported that firms continued to have trouble finding skilled workers. Capital spending also showed little change; in addition, several Districts reported that contacted manufacturers had not revised their investment plans.
Activity in nonfinancial services generally picked up since the previous report, although results were mixed across Districts and service industries. New York and Philadelphia reported that overall service-sector activity was flat to down slightly, whereas Minneapolis and San Francisco noted expanding activity. Several Districts, including Boston, Richmond, and San Francisco, reported steady to increasing demand for information technology services; Kansas City, by contrast, cited decreased sales at high-tech services firms. Reports from the healthcare sector were also somewhat mixed, with Philadelphia and St. Louis reporting positive results and San Francisco noting a drop in the frequency of elective procedures. Advertisers in the Philadelphia and San Francisco Districts continued to report strong revenues. In the Dallas District, legal firms reported continued increases in demand for services, while accounting firms cited seasonal slowness. Demand for staffing services was generally lower than expected, with decreases reported by Boston, New York, Richmond, and Dallas. Even so, demand remained strong for highly skilled IT personnel in the Boston and Richmond Districts.
Reports on transportation services were generally positive. Rail contacts reported continued increases in intermodal shipments in the Atlanta District and increased cargo volumes in the Dallas District, with both Districts recognizing gains in lumber shipments. Atlanta and Dallas also reported steady to increasing demand for trucking services, whereas logistics firms and carriers in the Philadelphia District reported a relatively sluggish start to the traditional "freight season."
Banking and Financial Services
Credit conditions have improved over the reporting period according to District reports. Credit spreads were lower and competition for high-quality borrowers among lending institutions has increased. The New York District noted that shrinking spreads were observed particularly in commercial and industrial loans as well as in commercial mortgages. Some bankers in the Cleveland District mentioned a moderate loosening of lending guidelines. The New York, St. Louis, and Kansas City Districts reported unchanged credit standards; New York and Cleveland cited declining delinquency rates.
The direction and magnitude of changes in loan demand varied among the Districts and also with respect to type of loan. The Richmond and Atlanta Districts reported generally low demand for loans, but some pockets of growth. The Chicago District noted that growth in business loan demand was generated mostly from small and mid-size firms and for the purpose of refinancing rather than financing capital expenditures. Cleveland, St. Louis, and San Francisco mentioned small positive or negative changes in business credit demand, and relatively strong demand for consumer credit. The Kansas City District reported stable demand for commercial and industrial loans and commercial real estate loans, while Dallas noted softer demand for loans overall; however, both Districts cited increases in demand for residential real estate loans. The New York and Philadelphia Districts observed growth in most lending categories.
Real Estate and Construction
Housing markets across most Districts exhibited signs of improvement, with sales and construction continuing to increase. Dallas reported significant levels of buyer traffic, Richmond noted strong pending sales, and Minneapolis and St. Louis mentioned increases in building permits. New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago indicated improvements as well, but characterized the progress as slow and modest. Declines in inventory levels were reported in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, and San Francisco; these declining inventories put some upward pressure on prices according to Boston, Atlanta, and Dallas. A reduction in the stock of distressed properties was mentioned in New York, Richmond, and San Francisco. In Philadelphia and Kansas City, the possibility of shadow inventory entering the market remains a concern. In general, outlooks were positive, with continued increases in activity expected, although the projected gains were more modest in Boston, Cleveland, and Kansas City.
Commercial real estate market conditions held steady or improved in nearly all Districts in recent weeks. New York, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Kansas City all reported that commercial leasing increased and vacancy rates fell. New York and Kansas City reported increases in office rents as well; Kansas City also cited a rise in commercial construction. Commercial building permits were up significantly from one year ago in portions of the Minneapolis District. Chicago's report was mixed: office vacancy rates remained high, restraining demand for new office construction, but office leasing demand improved modestly and industrial construction picked up. Atlanta reported rising apartment rents and small gains in office leasing, with weakness in the retail and industrial sectors. Boston reported that office fundamentals were flat on average, with rising rents in portions of Boston proper and muted but steady activity elsewhere in the District. Nonresidential construction picked up in the Boston and Cleveland Districts. Office and industrial real estate markets remained healthy in Dallas. The St. Louis report noted an increase in commercial construction across much of the District and varied reports on leasing across areas within the District. In San Francisco, demand for commercial property was stable while commercial construction was limited. Richmond reported a decline in office leasing volume in Washington, D.C., but some portions of the District recorded increasing sales and construction. Multifamily real estate remained a strong submarket and a key driver of construction in many Districts, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, and San Francisco.
Agriculture and Natural Resources
According to District reports, agricultural conditions were mixed largely because of severe drought conditions that affected the Midwest more than the rest of the country. Producers in the Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City Districts were all severely affected by the drought, with cotton, soybean, and corn crops particularly damaged. Cotton production in the Dallas District was also badly damaged, while the northern part of the Minneapolis District reported good corn, soybean, and wheat crops, and the San Francisco and Richmond Districts reported strong demand for their healthy cotton crops. Although nearly all agricultural commodity prices rose, higher feed costs led to reduced herd sizes and lower livestock prices in nearly all Districts reporting on livestock. Reports from the Richmond and Kansas City Districts indicated that farmland values have continued to rise, although contacts in the Kansas City District expected them to hold steady for the rest of the year. Farm incomes generally rose or stayed the same in the Minneapolis District.
Oil and gas activity continued to be robust across most Districts. Extraction of natural gas and petroleum remained at high levels in the Dallas and Minneapolis Districts and expanded in the Cleveland and Richmond Districts, partly because of increased demand from electrical utilities. Production increased in Gulf Coast oil refineries in the Atlanta District as a result of closures along the East Coast, while higher demand for crude oil, diesel, and other distillates supported prices. However, natural gas producers in the Cleveland, Richmond, Minneapolis, and Dallas Districts reported a decline in exploration and drilling of new wells on account of high inventories and low prices. Coal demand was unchanged from 2011 in the St. Louis District but was expected to fall below 2011 levels in the Cleveland District due to reduced demand for thermal coal from domestic utilities and metallurgical coal from Europe and Asia. Iron ore, taconite, and sand mines in the Minneapolis District continued to operate at high capacity.
Employment, Wages, and Prices
Most Districts reported that employment was holding steady or growing only slightly. Several Districts including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond noted a softening in employment relative to expectations; upcoming layoffs were reported by a defense contractor in the Boston District and by firms in sectors such as air transportation, appliances, and business support services in the St Louis District. Almost all Districts indicated that manufacturers were continuing to hire, albeit modestly. Demand has been strongest for skilled manufacturing and engineering positions, as well as for IT services. Contacts in the Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts all reported some difficulty meeting demand for truck drivers.
Overall, upward wage pressure was reported to be very contained across Districts. The Philadelphia and Chicago Districts both noted that despite little wage pressure, some contacts reported upward pressures for medical benefits. Sources from Boston and Atlanta mentioned that continuing demand was putting some upward pressure on wages for highly-skilled positions in software, engineering, and information technology. The San Francisco District also noted specialized IT positions as an exception to generally limited wage growth. The Dallas District reported upward wage pressure for truck drivers and construction workers, and the Minneapolis District noted wage increases in areas with increased oil drilling.
Most Districts reported that overall prices for finished goods were relatively stable despite somewhat increased input prices. Higher prices for grain and other food commodities were cited by many Districts, primarily due to the drought. The Cleveland District noted increased upward pressure on lumber prices, while contacts in Boston, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis reported higher gasoline prices as a potential concern. Chicago mentioned some pass-through of higher crop prices to wholesale prices, while contacts in the Kansas City and Richmond Districts expected to raise future prices in response to more expensive raw materials.