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

The following is the text of the Federal Reserve Board’s First District-- Boston.


Reports from business contacts in the First District indicate the region’s economy is expanding at a modest pace. Most retail and manufacturing contacts report sales or revenue gains from a year earlier, although the manufacturers say growth is slower than earlier in the year and some have seen actual declines. Consulting and advertising firms are generally upbeat, with results depending on specific client industries. Residential real estate contacts note increases in sales and only small changes in median sale prices. Commercial real estate leasing activity has slowed somewhat, while investment conditions remain positive. With the exception of a consulting firm that has expanded recently and a manufacturer citing especially strong growth, responding firms are doing only modest hiring. While contacts in most industries mention the upcoming election, so-called fiscal cliff, and Europe as risk factors increasing uncertainty, it is only in commercial real estate leasing that respondents say current activity levels are measurably damped by such concerns.

Retail and Tourism

First District retailers contacted for this round indicate that sales through mid to late September are slightly above 2011. Year-over-year sales increases in recent months range from low single-digit to high single-digit percentage gains, although one retailer reports that its 2012 sales to date are 2 percent to 3 percent below last year’s. Furniture sales have picked up after declining during the summer, while spending on apparel and household items remains strong. Contacts express some concern that consumer sentiment could be negatively affected by domestic politics and the fiscal cliff, which increases their uncertainty about how well the end-of-year 2012 holiday sales season will turn out. While such concerns lead retailers to expect the U.S. economy will remain flat over the next 6 to 8 months, respondents are nonetheless cautiously optimistic that their 2012 revenues will end up slightly ahead of 2011 levels.

The Boston tourism industry continues to benefit from a rebound in domestic and international business travel, although the leisure sector has seen a small drop in advance bookings compared to six months ago. The tourism industry has slightly downgraded its overall forecast for 2012, but this year’s performance looks to be the industry’s best since 1999-2000. Expectations are that Boston tourism will be strong again in 2013, with revenues rising slightly from 2012.

Manufacturing and Related Services

Discussions with manufacturing contacts in the First District paint a picture of an economy that is growing slowly but, on net, still growing. About half the respondents report a substantial slowdown in growth or outright fall in sales in the most recent period compared with a year earlier. Three contacts supplying equipment to factories note weakness in the semiconductor industry, which they say reflects its idiosyncratic cycle and not the macro economy. A contact in the toy business reports that orders for Christmas are coming later and later in the year, partly because lead times have shrunk and firms can order in September for November delivery.

Not all responding firms report softening. For example, a contact at a pharmaceutical firm says the company’s growth is strong. The firm plans to hire 1,000 people over the next year, which represents a 20 percent increase in headcount; the hires will be mostly in sales and marketing.

For the most part, firms reporting weakness indicate it has yet to affect either hiring or investment substantially. Only about one-quarter of respondents say they are actually cutting staff; for one firm, the layoffs are in Europe and another firm attributes them at least partly to increased productivity. Several contacts report that their firms are re-evaluating their benefits structures as a way to conserve cash. No contact reports making any adjustments or even projecting any adjustments to their capital spending plans. Indeed, one contact at a semiconductor equipment maker says they are maintaining their long-term investment plans despite quarter-on-quarter sales declines on the order of 20 percent in the third quarter which are expected to continue in the fourth.

In general, firms remain somewhat tentative about 2013, although this is partly because they are currently engaged in their annual “planning cycles” for 2013. One contact in the industrial distribution business says he expects they will plan for 1 percent to 2 percent growth in 2013, in line with Q3 this year; by contrast, their 2011 plan for 2012 assumed 5 percent to 6 percent sales growth. One contact in the publishing business says that they will “continue to thrive on low single-digit organic growth.” Many contacts say that slow growth is the “new normal.”

Selected Business Services

Consulting and advertising contacts in the First District report a generally positive, although not exuberant, third quarter. Only one contact cites flat revenues, while the others note varying levels of growth largely determined by the prospects of their respective client bases. Marketing and advertising contacts report weaker conditions than consulting firms. They note a large degree of uncertainty in the market as well as a shift in demand towards services focused on social media and e-commerce. Demand for health care consulting services has skyrocketed due to “unprecedented” levels of merger and acquisition activity among health care providers and the need for improved efficiency as a result of the ACA. At the same time, firms focused on the pharmaceutical industry have experienced slow growth because their clients have been hurt by blockbuster drugs losing patent protection and cost pressures from governments. Economic consulting remains strong, reflecting high levels of complex high-stakes litigation; management and strategy consulting contacts cite a recent upswing in business.

Contacts report little to no cost increases, with the exception of higher travel costs, and are keeping their prices relatively unchanged. Most contacts record some hiring, mostly in the low single digits, although one contact in government policy consulting has increased staff by 25 percent since last year to address a large backlog and ongoing demand growth. Plans for future hiring are modest.

Most contacts expect a continuation of current growth trends for the rest of 2012 and are more bullish about 2013. Respondents express concern about factors with the potential to slow the macro economy, such as political uncertainty, the fiscal cliff, and Europe. Several firms rely heavily on government spending and are thus especially concerned with the fiscal situation and upcoming election. Nevertheless, no respondent expects another recession and the overall tone is cautiously optimistic.

Commercial Real Estate

Contacts across the First District report that commercial real estate fundamentals have been basically flat in recent weeks. Leasing activity is said to be down in Boston as firms say political uncertainty makes them reluctant to make leasing commitments in advance of the national election. At the same time, the credit environment remains favorable, as interest rates on commercial real estate loans remain very low by historical standards. One contact notes that the supply of high-quality commercial properties for sale has declined recently, and hypothesizes that owners have nowhere better to park their money right now. Construction activity is proceeding as expected on large commercial projects in Boston. While the multifamily sector remains strong across the region, with numerous apartment buildings under construction in Boston in particular, one contact surmises that additional apartment projects under discussion may be delayed or shelved pending rent discovery once current projects come on line.

Contacts express a mix of cautious optimism and generalized uncertainty concerning the outlook; the fiscal cliff and Europe are noted as key risks to growth. Some contacts mention a longer-run concern regarding the consequences of an inevitable eventual increase in interest rates; the risk is that net operating incomes will not increase enough to offset increased financing costs when loans currently being underwritten at very low rates require refinancing.

Residential Real Estate

Year-over-year sales growth continued in August in both single-family home and condominium markets throughout the First District. According to contacts, low interest rates and affordable prices contributed to improving sales figures, along with increases in residential rents. Several contacts report improving conditions for borrowers, but many contacts say that qualifying for a mortgage remains difficult. As for prices, contacts in the region report mixed movements in median sale prices, with some areas experiencing modest price appreciation and others moderate depreciation. In the Greater Boston area, contacts say a slight decline in the median sale price was unexpected in light of significant demand and dwindling inventory levels; they attribute the decline to significant increases in the sales of low to mid-tier properties. Throughout the region, inventory continues to decline. Contacts say they fear declining inventory will discourage buyers searching for homes as well as potential sellers who may not be able to find another well-kept property. Increasingly, properties in “move-in condition” receive multiple bids, sometimes above original asking prices.

Contacts expect sales to continue to grow on a year-over-year basis in the next several months. Nonetheless, many note that the recovery remains fragile and could be derailed by deterioration in economic conditions. Declining inventory levels also remains a concern, but several contacts expect an influx of sellers in the spring market. Median sale prices are expected to remain flat or improve modestly in the coming months.

SOURCE: Federal Reserve Board.

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