U.S. Federal Reserve Feb. Beige Book Summary (Text)

The following is the summary text of the Federal Reserve Board’s Summary of Commentary.

Summary* Reports from the twelve Federal Reserve Districts suggest that overall economic activity continued to increase at a modest to moderate pace in January and early February. Activity expanded at a moderate pace in the Cleveland, Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts. St. Louis noted a modest pace of growth and Minneapolis characterized the pace of growth as firm. Economic activity rose at a somewhat faster pace in the Philadelphia and Atlanta Districts, while the New York District noted a somewhat slower pace of expansion. The Boston and Richmond Districts, in turn, noted that economic activity expanded or improved in most sectors.

Manufacturing continued to expand at a steady pace across the nation, with many Districts reporting increases in new orders, shipments, or production and several Districts indicating gains in capital spending, especially in auto-related industries. Activity in nonfinancial services industries remained stable or increased. Reports of consumer spending were generally positive except for sales of seasonal items, and the sales outlook for the near future was mostly optimistic. Tourism remained strong in some reporting Districts, but declined in the Minneapolis and Kansas City Districts because of reduced snowfall. Residential real estate market conditions improved somewhat in most Districts, with several reports of increased home sales and some reports of increased construction. Commercial real estate markets also showed positive results in some Districts. Banking conditions generally improved across the Districts. Agricultural conditions were mixed, while extraction activity generally increased.

Hiring increased slightly across several Districts, and contacts in a variety of industries faced difficulties finding skilled workers. Wage pressures were generally contained, and prices of final goods remained stable, although contacts in some Districts anticipate passing rising input prices through to consumer prices.

Manufacturing and Other Business Activity

Manufacturing has continued to increase across all twelve Federal Reserve Districts since the previous report. Most Districts reported gains in new orders, shipments, or production. Contacts reported increased capital spending in the Boston, Richmond, Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Dallas Districts; contacts in Philadelphia and Cleveland also anticipate higher capital spending. Manufacturing contacts in San Francisco also continued to invest in information technology equipment. Auto-related manufacturers in the Richmond, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Minneapolis Districts reported increased activity and announced plans to expand operations and open new plants. Primary metal manufacturing showed strong growth in the Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Dallas Districts. Fabricated metal manufacturing increased in the Richmond, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts but was essentially flat in the San Francisco District. Steel producers reported that shipping volume was trending higher in the Cleveland District and specialty metal contacts reported solid order bookings in the Chicago District. In contrast to the many positive reports, contacts in some Districts reported plans to decrease operations and close plants. Contacts in chemical and paper product manufacturing in the St. Louis District reported plans to close plants and lay off workers, while manufacturers of household goods and building materials reported soft demand on average in the Chicago District. Manufacturing contacts in the Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland Districts expressed concern about the risks posed by the situation in Europe.

Nonfinancial services activity was stable or increased in the New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Atlanta, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts. Transportation services were stable or trending higher in the Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, and Dallas Districts. In contrast, freight transportation contacts in the St. Louis and Kansas City Districts reported that business had slowed. Information technology service firms in the Boston, St. Louis, Kansas City, and San Francisco Districts have experienced increased demand since the previous reporting period. Additionally, contacts in health care announced plans to increase capital spending or expand operations in the Richmond and St. Louis Districts.

Consumer Spending and Tourism

Retail sales in the Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Kansas City Districts were higher than year- earlier sales. The Boston District reported strong same-store sales in the last few months of 2011, but mixed results for same-store sales in January. Retail sales increased in the Richmond and San Francisco Districts, but were mixed in the New York and Cleveland Districts and weakened in the Kansas City District. Retail sales growth in the Dallas District was tepid and consumer spending growth slowed in the Chicago District. The Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and Dallas Districts noted that mild winter weather had depressed sales of seasonal items. Mark-downs on winter merchandise to clear inventory were reported in the Boston, Chicago, and Richmond Districts. Aside from unsold seasonal items, inventories were more broadly reported to be at satisfactory levels. All Districts reporting sales expectations for the coming months indicated optimism among contacts that sales will improve.

Gains in auto sales were reported in the Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Minneapolis Districts. Chicago also reported sales increases in January, but noted that sales were down slightly in early February. Auto dealers in the New York, Cleveland, and Richmond Districts reported a slowdown in recent auto sales, while auto sales held steady in the Dallas District and contacts in the Kansas City District reported a post-holiday lull in sales. All Districts reporting on sales outlooks conveyed optimism. Dealers in the Kansas City District expect demand for smaller, fuel-efficient cars to spur sales in coming months, while contacts in the Cleveland District were optimistic but uncertain that sales increases in 2011 could be repeated in 2012.

Tourism strengthened or remained strong in the New York, Richmond, Atlanta, and San Francisco Districts. The Minneapolis and Kansas City Districts reported a decrease in tourism largely attributed to below-average snowfall.

Real Estate and Construction

Residential real estate activity increased modestly in most Districts. Boston, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Kansas City, and Dallas reported growth in home sales, while New York noted steady to slightly softer home sales. Philadelphia reported strong residential real estate activity. In contrast, home sales declined in St. Louis and San Francisco noted that home demand persisted at low levels. Contacts’ outlooks on home sales growth were mostly optimistic. Contacts in Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Dallas expect home sales to rise further. Home prices declined or held steady in many areas. Cleveland and Atlanta reported little movement in house prices, while contacts in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Chicago, and Kansas City reported some declines. Single-family residential construction was weak in Chicago and declined in St. Louis; Cleveland noted that the year-end uptick seen in construction has abated somewhat, and Minneapolis noted increased single- family building permits. In contrast, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, and San Francisco reported increased multifamily construction activity.

Commercial real estate markets displayed positive results in some Districts, as leasing showed overall improvement. Minneapolis, Richmond, Chicago, and Dallas noted increased leasing. Boston, however, reported mostly unchanged leasing fundamentals with some modest improvement since the previous report. Commercial vacancy rates were mixed in New York, decreased in Chicago, increased in St. Louis, and stayed high in San Francisco. Boston and Dallas noted limited levels of nonresidential construction, while Cleveland and Chicago noted improved nonresidential construction.

Banking and Finance

Reports on banking conditions were generally positive across Districts. Lending increased to varying degree in the New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts. Lending was little changed in St. Louis and Kansas City, while loan demand was described as weak in Richmond and soft at regional banks in Atlanta. Demand for business credit was flat to slightly higher in Cleveland and increased slightly in Richmond, San Francisco, and at some large banks in Atlanta. Dallas reported strength in middle-market and large corporate lending, and Chicago noted that business loan growth continued at a moderate pace. On the consumer side, loan demand saw little change in New York and San Francisco. Cleveland and Atlanta noted increased auto lending, while Kansas City reported slightly weaker consumer installment lending. Consumer lending in St. Louis ranged from moderately weaker to unchanged. Demand for residential mortgage loans increased in New York, Richmond, and Kansas City; mortgage demand was flat to moderately stronger in St. Louis and softened in Kansas City. Cleveland noted increases in requests for commercial real estate lending, while contacts in Chicago and San Francisco noted improvement in the availability of credit for this sector. Meanwhile Philadelphia and Kansas City reported flat or steady commercial real estate lending. Demand for commercial real estate loans was flat to moderately stronger in St. Louis.

Overall lending standards remained restrictive in San Francisco and Richmond and were largely unchanged in St. Louis and Kansas City. Lending standards tightened further for commercial borrowers in New York. Credit conditions in Chicago improved slightly, while quality improved in Philadelphia and Kansas City. Delinquencies were steady or declined in Cleveland. Mortgage delinquencies were steady in the New York District but delinquencies decreased in other loan categories.

Agriculture and Natural Resource Industries

Drought conditions and warm temperatures affected agricultural conditions in some Districts. However, recent rainfalls in parts of the Richmond, Atlanta, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts helped ease the dry conditions. Crop yields for St. Louis were mixed, with only winter wheat, rice, and tobacco showing positive gains for 2011. Tobacco and cotton yields in Richmond were lower than historical averages. San Francisco reported growth in orders and final sales for agriculture products. Farm values and incomes were stronger in Minneapolis and Kansas City, while Richmond saw a slight drop in farmland values.

Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco noted higher crude oil extraction activity. Similarly, Chicago and Minneapolis reported robust activity in energy and mining, and energy-related service firms in Dallas reported very strong demand. Mining for various metals also increased in the San Francisco District. Cleveland reported flat conventional oil and natural gas drilling and production, and San Francisco observed lower demand for natural gas. The Dallas District noted drilling cuts by a few gas- directed firms, but contacts anticipate that oil-directed activity will offset losses. Compared with a year ago, current coal production is lower in St. Louis and higher in Kansas City.

Employment, Wages, and Prices

Of the Districts reporting on hiring, most indicated a slight increase. Boston, New York, Cleveland, Richmond, St. Louis, and Minneapolis reported increased hiring in manufacturing, and contacts in Philadelphia and Kansas City anticipate future hiring in the sector. Several businesses in the Atlanta District also reported plans to increase payrolls. Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Dallas noted increased hiring among auto dealers. Contacts in Boston, Cleveland, Richmond, Chicago, Kansas City, and Dallas were having difficulties finding skilled or specialized workers in a variety of industries. In contrast, Boston manufacturing contacts reported fewer complaints about being unable to find qualified workers. Chicago noted that hiring remains selective and long-term unemployment elevated, while San Francisco noted limited demand for new workers. Staffing firms in Boston noted that the hiring cycle remains “elongated” despite stronger demand. Staffing firms in Dallas also noted high demand, while a major employment agency in New York indicated flat hiring.

Among Districts commenting on wages, upward pressures appeared limited. Boston noted limited pay rises in retail and manufacturing. Richmond reported some upward wage pressures in the service sector and manufacturing. Dallas and San Francisco reported minimal wage pressures, although upward pressure for certain specialized positions was reported in both Districts. Similarly, wage pressures remained largely subdued in Kansas City except for high-tech and energy positions. Wage pressures were modest or largely contained in Cleveland and Dallas, while Philadelphia noted flat wages and Minneapolis reported modest wage increases. New York noted that Wall Street compensation remains under downward pressure.

Prices of final goods and services were relatively stable in most Districts. Retail prices increased at a moderate pace in the Richmond and Kansas City Districts. Contacts in the New York District reported modest increases in selling prices and prices paid. Contacts in the Cleveland, Richmond, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts noted rising input prices with some expectation of pass-through to consumer prices. Cost pressures were largely unchanged in Chicago and input prices have stabilized in the Boston District, while business contacts noted some increase in cost pressures in the New York District. Minneapolis and San Francisco noted increases in the costs of employee benefits. Philadelphia noted mixed price pressures among manufacturing firms, with some firms unable to pass their higher costs along. Atlanta reported that concerns over increased input costs eased, although several manufacturing firms noted an increase in commodity prices since the previous report.

* Prepared at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and based on information collected on or before February 17, 2012. This document summarizes comments received from business and other contacts outside the Federal Reserve System and is not a commentary on the views of Federal Reserve officials.

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