U.S. Federal Reserve Beige Book: Philadelphia District (Text)

The following is the text of the Federal Reserve Board’s Third District-- Philadelphia.

Aggregate business activity in the Third District has maintained the modest pace of growth that was evident during the previous Beige Book period. In particular, general services and commercial real estate leasing continued to expand at modest rates. Activity in staffing services, transportation services, and residential construction appear to have accelerated somewhat to a modest rate of growth. Sales of new and used autos maintained a moderate rate of growth - joined by general retail sales that grew a bit faster than last period and by residential real estate sales that grew a bit slower. The manufacturing sector reversed course again, citing slight declines in overall demand. Lending volumes at Third District banks continued to grow slightly, and credit quality continued to improve. Ski resorts are enjoying a good season overall, while Atlantic City casino revenues continue to decline. General price levels, as well as wages and home prices, were reported to have increased slightly overall - similar to the last Beige Book period.

The overall outlook for modest growth remains the same as those views expressed in the last Beige Book. Ongoing uncertainty over fiscal issues has postponed many business decisions. Contacts reported a fundamental optimism in the economy and described new signs of emerging growth; however, the ongoing uncertainty over fiscal issues has been blamed for continued weak consumer confidence and reluctance of businesses to make needed investments in plant, equipment, and labor. Manufacturing. Since the last Beige Book, Third District manufacturers have reported that orders and shipments dipped slightly. Some of the current weakness was attributed to greater volatility in production swings associated with overall slow growth, a high level of uncertainty, and a reluctance to build inventories. As one contact said, “Who can plan?” Makers of food products, lumber and wood products, industrial machinery, electronic equipment, and instruments have reported gains since the last Beige Book. Lower activity was reported by the makers of primary metals and fabricated metal products. Contacts have attributed some growth to rising demand from sectors related to autos, housing, Marcellus shale, and other energy production.

Third District manufacturers expressed slightly more optimism that business conditions will improve over the next six months and their optimism emerged more broadly across all sectors since the last Beige Book. Firms have also further raised their overall expectations of future hiring and their plans for capital spending since the last Beige Book. Retail. Third District retailers reported a faster pace of sales in January than during the recent holiday period and cited continued gains in February for moderate growth overall. The stronger sales were evident throughout the region and across a variety of malls and outlet centers,regardless of the level of the stores’ quality. Contacts cited a return of cold weather and heavy promotions as prompting double-digit apparel sales of winter wear. Three other factors cited as contributing to the stronger growth were that sales may have borrowed from the soft ending to the holiday season, gift cards were more prevalent, and the comparison period one year ago had weak sales. Reports on leasing activity noted that retail tenants are more confident and taking longer lease terms, leading to net positive absorption, greater occupancy rates, and more landlord pricing power.

Auto dealers started the year as they finished last year - with a moderate pace of sales, continuing a run of steady growth that began a full year earlier. Sales in New Jersey are still stronger, a likely remnant of Hurricane Sandy’s impact. While the outlook among dealers remained positive, dealers continued to maintain lean inventories and lean staffing levels. They report that more hiring will occur if the recovery is sustained after more of the fiscal uncertainties are resolved. Finance. Overall, loan volumes have continued to grow at a slight pace across Third District financial firms since the previous Beige Book. Most loan categories have grown little or not at all, with somewhat more activity generated for small business lending and home mortgages, especially refinancings. Consumer lending is relatively flat. In areas with Marcellus shale gas, several banks have described customers paying down loans with royalty money and avoiding further debt by paying cash. Beyond the gas fields, energy projects are attracting substantial investment interest and loan opportunities for larger banks. The majority of banks indicates little change in credit standards and slow, steady gains in quality; however, a small, but growing number expressed concern about competitors’ standards. Financial institutions are generally optimistic about future growth, although most expect mergers and acquisitions to reduce the number of small community banks over the next few years.

Real Estate and Construction. Homebuilders reported contract activity at or near plan for January with a pickup in traffic for February. Year-over-year growth rates were strong off of low levels and builders attributed part of their growth to capturing greater market share. Prospects have greater confidence and are more prepared to buy, including entry-level purchasers that had been increasingly opting to rent since mid-summer. Residential brokers reported moderate year-over-year sales growth in January for a second consecutive year; mild weather helped this year, although January 2012 was also noted for its extremely warm temperatures and lack of snow. As with new home construction, existing home sales are growing from a low base. Builders and brokers are optimistic for sustained growth through 2013. According to one broker, “Better times are coming.”

Nonresidential real estate contacts reported continued modest growth in overall leasing activity and continued slight growth in construction. Contacts report that construction and repair work have grown, prospect activity has gained momentum and resolve, and money has been flowing more freely for investments. Current activity and prospects are emerging from recently quiet sectors, including some land development projects and retail, in particular, large warehouse facilities for national retailers. Activity is heating up in energy-related projects, with some repair work resulting from Hurricane Sandy. Contacts were decidedly more upbeat about future prospects, stating that the trends “feel sustainable.”

Services. Third District service-sector firms have maintained a modest pace of growth since the last Beige Book, according to contacts in various sectors. Tourist activity has shifted to the Poconos’ ski resorts, which are enjoying generous snowfalls and accommodating temperatures that already promise an extended season. However, contacts blame Hurricane Sandy for creating yet another economic casualty - the Poconos’ peak ski week. Many school districts in New Jersey and New York canceled their winter break during the week of Presidents’ Day to make up school days lost to the superstorm - causing many families to skip their traditional family ski vacation in the Poconos. Atlantic City casino revenues continued to struggle through January, prompting a recently-opened casino to file for bankruptcy protection while it continues to operate. In other sectors, work orders for temporary help have grown busier and busier since the start of the year at an area staffing firm; a logistics firm reported strong overall growth. A large consumer-oriented firm cited a good start to the current year. Firms with defense-related work and entities dependent on federal money for operations, including higher education, expressed a wait-and-see attitude to the most recent fiscal uncertainty. Overall, service-sector firms expressed confidence in their expectations for growth in the near future.

Prices and Wages. Overall, price levels continued to increase slightly, similar to the previous Beige Book. Cost factors among manufacturing firms moderated a little, while the prices they received fell slightly. Tight auto inventories maintain a price environment that slightly favors auto dealers over their customers. Homebuilders continued to note higher prices for lumber, drywall, and other manufactured inputs. Some slight wage pressure is appearing for contractors, which may be related to increasing construction activity, but may also be due to repair crews being drawn to the Jersey Shore by short-term, higher wage contracts. Real estate contacts continued to report that low-end house prices are firm or rising slightly, while high-end home prices are still falling in most markets. Contacts from most sectors continued to report that wages rose only a little, if at all. Health insurance costs are mixed, ranging from very high increases to no change.

SOURCE: Federal Reserve Board

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