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

The following is the text of the Federal Reserve Board’s Fourth District-- Cleveland.


Business activity in the Fourth District expanded at a modest pace during the past six weeks. Many of our contacts reported that their outlook for the new year is uncertain due to unresolved fiscal policy matters. Manufacturing orders and production were mainly flat or down slightly. Residential and nonresidential construction activity rose, with particular strength noted in the multi-family segment. On balance, retailers described the holiday shopping season as solid. Sales of new and used motor vehicles increased on a year-over-year basis. Shale gas activity continued at a robust pace, though coal production trended lower. The slowdown in freight transport volume seen in September and October has abated. Demand for business credit flattened out, whereas credit use by consumers picked up.

Hiring was sluggish across industry sectors. Staffing-firm representatives saw little change in the number of job openings and placements during the past six weeks. Vacancies were found primarily in manufacturing and healthcare. Wage pressures are contained. Input prices were stable, apart from increases in construction materials.

Manufacturing. Reports from District factories indicated that new orders and production were flat or down slightly during the past six weeks. Companies seeing increases were largely suppliers to the motor vehicle and energy industries. Compared to a year ago, production activity was mixed. Steel producers and service centers described shipping volume as lower relative to levels seen in the third quarter. Many of our contacts expect a slight weakening in business activity during the next few months due to seasonal factors and uncertainty surrounding the outcome of fiscal policy issues. Auto production at District plants showed a moderate decline during November on a month-over-month basis. Relative to prior year levels, production was largely higher, especially for foreign nameplates.

Inventories are being reduced to become more aligned with demand. Manufacturers noted that capacity utilization has fallen in recent weeks; however, rates were within or slightly below their normal range. Capital spending was largely on track for 2012. About one-third of our contacts plan on cutting back capital outlays during this year, and few producers anticipate expanding capacity. Raw material prices were either flat or trended lower, while finished goods prices held steady. On balance, manufacturing payrolls were little changed. Less than half of our contacts expect to hire new workers during 2013. Wage pressures are contained, and rising health insurance premiums remain a challenge.

Real Estate. Home builders reported that the upturn in sales of new single-family homes continued into December. Although a seasonal slowdown is expected, builders expressed confidence that sales will pick up again in the spring. Contracts were found mainly in the mid- to higher-price-point categories. The number of single and multi-family housing starts in December was significantly above year-ago levels. List prices of new homes are increasing, which was attributed to shrinking inventories and rising construction costs. Builders have cut back on discounting. Tight lending standards are still seen as restraining the effect of low interest rates for builders and home buyers. Multi-family developments are expected to be the driving force behind new housing construction during the next one to two years.

Nonresidential contractors reported that business activity grew across market segments and was better than a year ago. Nonetheless, margins are still tight. Although inquiries are down, which is typical for this time of year, builders are satisfied with their backlogs going into 2013. Project financing is available, but it is very time consuming to close a deal. As a result, some developers are turning away from banks and looking more to private lenders. Our contacts are optimistic about near-term activity due to customers wanting to complete must-do projects, such as maintenance or production consolidation. However, there is a heightened level of uncertainly about the medium to long term. A general contractor reported that his customers are postponing the design phase of some of their projects. Other builders expect a slowing in health care construction, as providers evaluate the implementation of recently enacted laws.

Residential and nonresidential builders reported higher prices for drywall and lumber, due to rising demand and a declining supply base. Contractors anticipate widespread price increases for building materials during the first quarter of 2013. General contractors and subcontractors expect to increase their payrolls at a modest pace this year. There is concern about the availability of highly skilled trade workers and back-office personnel, and the potential impact a shortage of either could have on wage pressures.

Consumer Spending. Reports on the holiday shopping season were generally solid. Most retailers were encouraged by results during the Thanksgiving weekend, and a majority said that sales during this holiday season were above those of a year ago. However, some contacts reported that sales figures fell below expectations for the entire season. Increased volume was seen particularly in electronics and apparel. Sales for the first quarter of the new year are expected to trend higher relative to prior-year levels. Vendor and shelf prices held steady. Capital spending remains on target. A majority of our contacts reported that they plan to increase outlays slightly during 2013, particularly for warehousing, store improvements, and e-commerce. Little new hiring is anticipated, except for staffing new stores.

Year-to-date sales of new motor vehicles showed a moderate increase during November compared to the same time period a year ago. Dealers reported that purchases of fuel-efficient cars, including hybrids and compact SUVs, are doing well. New-vehicle inventories were described as adequate to strong. A seasonal slowdown in sales is expected during January and February. Several dealers cited uncertainty over the resolution of fiscal policy issues as a factor that may affect auto sales in upcoming months. Year-to-date sales of used vehicles increased slightly during November, though inventories are still tight. Leasing continued to trend slightly higher, which should help to replenish the used-vehicle inventory by mid-2013. One dealer noted that the balance between leasing and traditional financing has returned to normal. Some of our contacts reported that their employment level is lower than prior to the recession, and most do not expect to increase payrolls during the next 6 to 12 months.

Banking. Demand for business credit was steady or down slightly since our last report. Some contacts cited a rise in the number of applications for commercial real estate loans and refinancings, but on balance, demand was little changed across sectors and product categories. Several bankers noted that their loan-to-deposit ratio was much lower than desired. On the consumer side, reports indicated an increase in drawdowns on home equity lines of credit and rising credit card receivables, which were attributed to holiday shopping. A few bankers saw an increase in auto loans. Activity was strong in the residential mortgage market, with a large majority of applicants looking to refinance. Delinquency rates held steady or declined across consumer and commercial loan categories. Core deposits grew, with an ongoing transition from time-deposit to transaction accounts. Little change in banking payrolls is expected in the near term.

Energy. Conventional oil and natural gas production was stable during the past couple of months. Shale gas activity continued at a robust pace: in West Virginia, well output at the end of 2011 was up 138 percent from the prior year, and during the first six months of 2012, well output across Pennsylvania rose by 42 percent compared to the previous 6 months. In eastern Ohio, 187 wells have been drilled in the Utica shale in the past year, with 44 currently producing. Coal production for 2013 is expected to be flat relative to 2012 levels. Demand for thermal coal increased slightly due to colder weather and a slowdown in switching from coal to gas by electric utilities. Demand for metallurgical coal in the U.S. held steady, but declined from offshore customers, particularly those in Europe. Falling prices for metallurgical coal have leveled off, while steam-coal prices were mixed. Capital expenditures by conventional drillers and coal producers are expected to decline during the first six months of 2013. Production equipment and material prices were flat across most categories. Apart from shale gas companies, little hiring is anticipated during the next 6 to 12 months.

Freight Transportation. Reports on freight transport indicate that shipping volume has improved since the start of November after an unexpected drop-off during the prior two months. Some contacts attributed the boost to rising demand coming from the retail sector and areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. Freight executives were fairly positive in their outlook for 2013, with the caveat that a resolution is reached on issues involving fiscal policy. Costs associated with truck maintenance held steady, while diesel fuel prices fell. Reports on capital spending were mixed. Some freight haulers said that 2012 expenditures reached targeted levels. Others reported a postponement in purchasing equipment for replacement and expansion due to a sluggish economy and supply issues related to Class 8 trucks. Spending in 2013 is expected to be similar to 2012 levels, and it will be mainly for replacement. Due to uncertainty about the economy, hiring plans for 2013 are tentative. Wage pressures were contained.

SOURCE: Federal Reserve Board

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