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

The following is the text of the Federal Reserve Board’s Seventh District-- Chicago.


Summary. Economic activity in the Seventh District continued to expand at a slow pace in late November and December. Many contacts expected that growth in 2013 would match or outperform 2012, but some remained more cautious than others, citing the impact of continued uncertainty over federal fiscal policy on the near-term economic outlook. Consumer spending increased somewhat, while growth in business spending remained tepid. Growth in manufacturing production was again moderate. Residential construction continued to increase at a slow but steady pace, but nonresidential construction remained weak. Credit conditions continued to improve gradually. Cost pressures eased some, and wage pressures remained moderate. Cattle and hog prices moved higher; while corn, soybean, and milk prices moved lower.

Consumer spending. Consumer spending increased somewhat from the previous reporting period. Retailers noted that holiday sales were slightly below expectations. Multiple retailers reported that store traffic volumes fluctuated more throughout the holiday season than in recent years. Apparel and jewelry sales were strong, while sales of toys and electronics were more in line with expectations, and general merchandise sales were weaker. Auto sales in the District lagged the national pace, with several dealers indicating that lower consumer confidence hurt year-end sales. Some auto dealers also noted that inventory levels were slightly high. However, dealers expected new car sales to be stronger in 2013 due to pent-up consumer demand, easing credit conditions, and rising used vehicle prices.

Business spending. Growth in business spending remained tepid in late November and December. Inventory investment was little changed while spending on equipment and structures continued to slowly increase. Some contacts again noted a reluctance to spend given heightened uncertainty related to federal fiscal policy. Labor market conditions were unchanged. Hiring plans for the coming year were limited. Retail employment increased with some seasonal hiring, but few significant full-time post-holiday additions were expected. A recruiting firm noted that customers that are heavily dependent upon government spending were very cautious about increasing headcount amidst the fiscal cliff negotiations. Companies with exposures to Europe were likewise being more conservative in their hiring plans. However, contacts indicated that there is still strong demand for talent in technology, engineering, accounting and finance, energy, and skilled manufacturing jobs. Manufacturers indicated a reluctance to reduce headcount despite the recent slowdown in activity, choosing to cut overtime hours instead in expectation of a rebound in production in the first quarter. In addition, some contacts are also beginning to limit hours for part-time workers to less than 30 hours in order to avoid the 30-hour (full-time employee status) rule related to the Affordable Care Act.

Construction/real estate. Construction and real estate activity was mixed in late November and December. Residential construction continued to rise. However, homebuilders noted that new construction would stay moderate in many regional markets as long as existing home prices remained well below new home prices. Existing home prices did edge up in some areas of the District, and rental rates continued to rise. In addition, contacts reported that in many cases credit for homebuyers remained tight, slowing the pace of home sales. Demand for nonresidential construction remained weak, but some improvement was noted in the light industrial and office markets. Several commercial real estate contacts observed that uncertainty surrounding federal fiscal policy continues to weigh on structures spending in a number of market segments. However, commercial real estate conditions improved slightly. Vacancy rates continued to decrease; and while the pace of leasing and acquisition deals remained slow, it picked up slightly as financing became easier to obtain.

Manufacturing. Growth in manufacturing production continued to be moderate over the reporting period. Capacity utilization in the steel industry increased slightly and service center inventories were noted to be at desirable levels. Specialty metal manufacturers reported a decline in quoting and new orders as customers continued to delay purchases until the last minute. In contrast, a contact in the defense industry noted a substantial rebound in orders due to the two-month delay in sequestration. Contacts noted a slight pick-up in demand for construction equipment due to improvement in the housing market, although demand from the public sector remained weak. The auto industry remained a source of strength for manufacturing. Auto suppliers reported strong orders through the end of the year, and many expected vehicle production to expand in 2013. Activity in the energy industry appeared to slow. The lower price of natural gas, in part due to abundant supply, has negatively affected coal mining. In addition, one contact noted the lower prices had also led to a pause in shale gas production. However, contacts expected activity in the energy industry to rebound in early 2013.

Banking/finance. Credit conditions continued to gradually ease over the reporting period. Credit spreads and financial market volatility remained low, and asset quality continued to improve. Credit line utilization rose substantially, with contacts citing end-of-year factors such as tax planning and special dividends as reasons for the increase. Banking contacts also reported moderate growth in demand for small business loans, particularly from manufacturing industries such as machining and packaging. Pricing for business loans changed little, while contacts cited some loosening of loan standards. Consumer loan demand, particularly for mortgage and auto loans, continued to increase. Contacts indicated, however, that less home refinancing activity was being processed than in the previous reporting period.

Prices/costs. Cost pressures eased in late November and December. Most raw material prices moved lower, although there was some pressure on lumber and drywall prices and concerns remained around potential food and energy price increases. In contrast, manufacturers supplying the defense industry said their customers were attempting to negotiate large price decreases; these contacts thought they could instead secure multi-year price agreements in exchange for more moderate price reductions. A contact in the grocery industry indicated that they have been unable to fully pass on recent meat and milk cost increases. More generally, retailers reported that discounting and promotions increased over the holiday shopping season. Wage pressures remained moderate, but nonwage costs increased. Contacts again cited higher healthcare costs; however, a few noted that increases this year were less pronounced than a year ago. Several contacts also reported increasing 401(k) payouts and year-end bonuses.

Agriculture. Although drought conditions eased, depleted soil moisture remained a concern in much of the District. The low levels of the Mississippi River hampered barge traffic moving both crops to market and inputs to farms. Crop operations tended to come out ahead for the year if they had adequate insurance coverage, and most crop farmers saw their net worth grow. Uncertainty regarding the tax treatment of capital expenditures led farmers to move up purchases of equipment and other capital improvements into 2012. Corn and soybean prices slid during the reporting period. Milk prices decreased, while cattle and hog prices increased. Of these agricultural products, only hog prices were below the levels of a year ago. Farmland values trended higher, with an extra spurt of farm sales at the end of 2012 in anticipation of tax code changes. Cash rents for cropland increased as well for the upcoming season.

SOURCE: Federal Reserve Board

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