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Beige Book Report: Atlanta
March 3, 2021
Summary of Economic Activity
Economic activity in the Sixth District expanded modestly, on net, from January to mid-February. Labor markets improved some as employers added to headcounts, and wage pressures remained muted. Increases in certain nonlabor costs were noted, and pricing power among firms was mixed. Retailers reported continued strong demand in home furnishings and recreational products. Online sales continued to outpace brick-and-mortar sales. Auto sales increased, exceeding expectations. Tourism contacts saw an uptick in activity over the reporting period as domestic travel rebounded slightly. Demand for housing remained robust, inventories of new and existing homes fell, and home prices rose. Commercial real estate markets were mixed. Manufacturing activity accelerated as new orders and production levels increased. Conditions at financial institutions were stable, but loan demand weakened.
Employment and Wages
On balance, contacts indicated that employment levels and hours worked rose modestly over the reporting period. Most reported that employment levels were even with or below pre-pandemic levels, and about half of contacts expect to increase employment levels slowly as demand improves. Large leisure and hospitality firms reported a strong willingness from furloughed employees to return to work when called back. Among firms planning to reduce employment levels over the coming months, most planned to downsize through attrition rather than layoffs. Those hiring indicated that most jobs were easy to fill with the exception of lower-skilled positions, nurses, and long-haul drivers. The remote work stance was largely unchanged since the previous report, and several noted that this has allowed them to fill higher-skilled positions more easily. Many firms indicated that they planned to encourage employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine but at this point would not require it. Some contacts were offering paid time off to get the vaccine or were looking to provide the vaccine onsite.
Most contacts noted that wage pressure remained subdued. Shortages of nurses, skilled trades workers, warehouse workers, and commercial drivers were putting upward pressure on wages in those occupations according to several contacts. In Florida, most employers anticipate little impact from the mandated increases in the minimum wage (by 2026), although a few noted they were investing in capital to replace some of this labor. Many expect normal merit increases during 2021, with higher increases in critical and high-demand fields.
Consistent with previous reports, input costs, particularly for lumber and steel, continued to rise notably over the reporting period. Transportation and shipping costs continued to increase as well, with some contacts noting supply chain constraints creating upward cost pressures. Reports on pricing power were mixed. Sectors such as construction, manufacturing, and transportation that were affected by rising input costs implemented increases, while others were unable or unwilling to raise prices. The Atlanta Fed's Business Inflation Expectations survey showed year-over-year unit costs increased notably to 2.1 percent in February, up from 1.8 percent in January. Year-ahead expectations remained relatively unchanged at 2.2 percent.
Consumer Spending and Tourism
Home furnishings and recreation goods retailers reported a continuation of strong demand that began last March. Online sales continued to grow at a faster pace than brick and mortar sales. Auto sales in January outpaced expectations, and dealers reported a positive outlook for the balance of 2021; however, suppliers to the industry noted that shortages of semiconductors could impact future volumes.
Travel and tourism contacts reported a slight uptick in activity since the previous report. Domestic travel rebounded slightly and is expected to continue to strengthen as the COVID-19 vaccine is more widely distributed. Contacts expect that leisure travel will begin to normalize towards the end of summer, while business travel is expected to pick up in the fourth quarter of 2021 but remain well below pre-pandemic levels.
Construction and Real Estate
The District's housing market maintained its momentum as rising home sales continued to be fueled by low interest rates. In many markets, sales increased sharply from a year ago. Inventory shortages were prevalent as available homes for sale did not keep pace with demand. New home construction also fell short of market demand, and shortages of lots, materials, and labor increased costs for builders. As a result, both existing and new home prices have experienced significant upward pressure. Though low rates have helped offset rising prices, home ownership affordability declined overall. The level of mortgage delinquencies, while elevated due to the pandemic, remained stable over the reporting period.
Commercial real estate (CRE) contacts reported that the sector continued to be hampered by the effects of the pandemic; however, some areas of CRE showed improvement. Conditions in the retail sector improved modestly and rent collections recovered from the dismal results experienced in mid-2020. Multifamily conditions were mixed; however, leasing activity appeared to be picking up in some of the harder hit areas. The hospitality sector continued to be negatively impacted by low levels of tourism. Banks reported that financing for commercial projects was available and demand for new construction rose.
Manufacturing firms indicated that business activity accelerated since the previous report. Contacts reported an increase in new orders and production levels, while purchasing managers continued to see longer supply delivery times and slightly elevated finished inventory levels. Expectations for future production remain optimistic, with almost two-thirds of contacts expecting higher levels of production over the next six months.
On balance, transportation activity was consistent with the previous report. Railroads noted further improvements in overall traffic buoyed by double-digit increases in intermodal shipments. Freight brokerage firms reported robust demand and revenue growth as limited trucking capacity boosted rates per mile. Port contacts noted record container volumes amid surges in imports and an uptick in exports. Trucking contacts continued to benefit from strong demand for consumer staples; however, driver shortages remained a constraint in the industry despite rising wages. Inland barge and relocation contacts, however, continued to experience challenges due to COVID-19, and a return to pre-pandemic levels of activity is not expected until 2022 or beyond.
Banking and Finance
Conditions at financial institutions were steady. Net interest margins stabilized even as loan yields declined due to lower funding costs. Earnings also improved slightly as a result of lower provisions for credit losses. Loan growth declined due to tepid demand, especially among commercial customers, resulting in higher balances in banks' cash accounts and securities portfolios amidst healthy deposit growth. Despite concerns that increased unemployment levels might negatively impact loan payments, credit quality stayed strong at most banks. Customer loan payment performance continued to improve, with some banks reporting extremely low past due loan levels; however, retail delinquencies were still elevated in comparison to other commercial borrowers.
In parts of the District, residents and businesses grappled with power outages and rolling blackouts during mid-February winter storms. Refiners, chemical manufacturers, and liquified natural gas producers in Southwest Louisiana were forced to idle production. Fuel carriers in the region reported a severe backlog of deliveries as hazardous road conditions, power outages, and terminal shutdowns created delivery congestion and delays. Crude oil production was steady, and oil and gas rig counts gradually picked up. Contacts described a moderate recovery of consumer demand for petroleum products. However, refiners continued to experience low utilization resulting from weak global demand for refined products. Some refiners took production offline while others were forced to consolidate or shut down completely. Renewables remained strong, with considerable solar, wind, and battery storage projects in the works across the country. Within the utilities sector, contacts noted energy usage remained sensitive to COVID-19 conditions. More broadly, though, energy contacts continued to express optimism about COVID-19 vaccinations stimulating economic activity.
Agricultural conditions remained mixed. Abnormally dry conditions prevailed across much of the District. On a month-over-month basis, the February production forecast for Florida's orange crop was up while the grapefruit production forecast was unchanged; both forecasts were below last year's production. The USDA reported year-over-year prices paid to farmers in December were up for corn, cotton, rice, and soybeans but down for cattle, broilers, eggs, and milk. On a month-over-month basis, prices increased for corn, cotton, rice, soybeans, cattle, and broilers, but decreased for eggs and milk.
For more information about District economic conditions visit: www.frbatlanta.org/economy‐matters/regional‐economics