|Skip to content
The economy in the Fourth District showed further signs of strengthening since our last report. Manufacturers told us that the rise in production which began late last year continued, although orders remain below pre-recession levels. Contacts in non-residential construction noted some signs of renewed growth, but they are concerned about its sustainability. Financing remains a major issue for residential and commercial contractors. Sales figures from District retailers and auto dealers showed a moderate improvement. Energy production was mixed and reports indicate a continuing upturn in freight transport volume. Demand by businesses and consumers for new loans remains weak, although some bankers noted that the lending environment is starting to grow more competitive.
A pickup in employment was notable in the manufacturing sector, where businesses are recalling some workers and increasing production hours. A majority of staffing-firm representatives indicated that new job openings increased, primarily in healthcare. Wage pressures continue to be contained. Apart from rising prices for steel and petroleum-based products, raw materials and product pricing was generally stable.
Reports from District factories showed that production was largely stable or rose slightly during the past six weeks, with a few of our contacts citing an increase in their backlogs. Most manufacturers told us that production levels have increased on a year-over-year basis, though by varying amounts. In general, our respondents are cautiously optimistic and expect their sales to increase at a modest rate going into summer, but they are not expecting a return to pre-recession levels through the end of the year. Steel shipments were better than anticipated, with rising volume being driven primarily by autos, energy, and heavy equipment. Looking forward, many of our steel contacts said that they are uncertain if the rise in volume is sustainable in the long-term. Nonetheless, they expect shipping volume during the next few months to at least approach levels seen in the first quarter. District auto production was stable in February on a month-over-month basis, and showed a substantial rise when comparing year-over-year data for both domestic and foreign nameplates.
Reports on inventories were mixed. Half of our contacts said that product supplies are low relative to demand, while others reported that their inventories remain well balanced. Capacity utilization continued a slow upward trend. Capital outlays are on target, with monies being allocated primarily for maintenance projects, new equipment, or IT upgrades. Manufacturers said that outlays will remain below pre-recession levels until a robust recovery is underway. We heard many reports of increasing steel prices, which were attributed primarily to rising raw materials (iron ore, scrap, and alloys) costs. There was little response on the part of manufacturers to raise their own prices because of relatively weak market conditions. However, some of our respondents are beginning to initiate materials surcharges. We heard numerous reports of recalling laid-off workers and increased work hours, while new hiring was limited to temporaries. Wage pressures are contained.
In general, new home sales improved slightly during the past six weeks and on a year-over-year basis. Nonetheless, some builders are struggling to close sales. Purchases of entry-level homes continue to do well, and several contacts told us that the move-up category is gaining momentum. Builders expressed concern about the potential effect on home sales when the first-time home buyers' tax credit expires and the downward pressure on home prices, which they attributed to unreliable appraisals. They also reported that banks remain unwilling to lend money for constructing spec houses or buying land. Homebuilders are not anticipating a big turnaround in the housing market, and they expect total sales volume in 2010 will equal or be slightly greater than last year's volume. Little change was noted in the list prices of new homes, construction material costs, and subcontractor pricing. General contractors and subcontractors continue to operate with skeleton crews.
Activity in non-residential construction showed early signs of a pickup. Inquiries have improved, and many contractors said that they are beginning to rebuild their backlogs. Most projects currently under-way fall within the industrial and energy categories. Half of our contacts are uncertain about the level of construction activity for the remainder of 2010, while others see a small improvement when compared to 2009. We continue to hear accounts of difficulties in obtaining project financing, even for credit-worthy borrowers. Increased costs for construction materials were limited to steel and petroleum-based products. General contractors reported that other than seasonal hiring, their employment levels have been flat. Subcontractors are still struggling, with many of them taking on projects at cost.
For the period from mid-February through mid-March, retail sales were generally stronger when compared to the previous 30-day period and were up on a year-over-year basis. Although consumers continue to focus on buying necessities over discretionary items, retailers noted that they see a pickup in the sales of home furnishings. Looking forward, retailers are cautiously optimistic, and most expect sales to improve somewhat during the second quarter. Vendor and store pricing has been relatively stable. Retailers commented that they are placing less emphasis on promotions and markdowns, and store inventories continued on the lean side. Auto dealers characterized new vehicle sales from mid-February through mid-March as decent, with little change when compared to year-ago sales. Used-vehicle purchases are holding steady. Overall, sales are expected to show a modest improvement at best during the second quarter. Dealer inventory positions have improved since our last report, though a few dealers still characterize it as light. Several contacts told us that buyer credit is beginning to loosen, as community banks and credit unions are becoming more aggressive. Reports show little change in staffing levels at retailers or auto dealers.
Demand for new business loans remains weak, although a few bankers noted that they are beginning to see their pipelines become more active. Interest rates were steady. Some of our respondents also commented that the lending environment is growing more competitive. On the consumer side, loan demand was mixed. While several bankers said that demand was very weak, others are seeing a slight increase, which they attributed to seasonal factors and draw-downs on HELOCs. The residential mortgage market is stable, with most activity dominated by refinancings. Core deposits continued to show strong growth at most banks. Interest spreads are widening due primarily to term deposit repricing. Credit standards have not changed appreciably in the past six weeks, though commercial real estate lending is receiving closer scrutiny. Reports on the credit quality of loan applicants were mixed. Almost all of our respondents told us that delinquencies have stabilized or declined. Employment growth at banks was limited to some strategic hires.
Little change in oil and natural gas output was reported during the past six weeks, with only a slight increase expected during the second quarter. Spot prices for natural gas are on the decline, while oil prices are fluctuating within a narrow range. We heard mixed reports on coal production. One producer noted that demand from off-shore customers for metallurgical coal has increased significantly and that his company is reopening one of its idled mines. Prices for coal were mixed but tended to the upside. In general, capital expenditures showed a modest improvement. Production equipment and materials costs were flat, although we heard some reports that the rise in steel prices is making its way down the supply chain. Employment was steady, and little hiring is expected in the near future. Wage pressures are contained.
Freight transport executives reported that shipping volume continues to show a gradual improvement, and they expect this trend to persist for the remainder of the year. However, profit margins remain constrained due primarily to overcapacity and rising fuel costs, which have to be absorbed into the current rate structure. Apart from fuel prices, operating costs have been relatively stable, although there is some concern about rising costs associated with regulatory compliance. Equipment purchases remain at low levels, with little change expected until there is a substantial pickup in shipping volume. Hiring was limited to replacement only.