July 29, 2009
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Prepared at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and based on information collected on or before July 20, 2009. This document summarizes comments received from business and other contacts outside the Federal Reserve and is not a commentary on the views of Federal Reserve officials.
Reports from the 12 Federal Reserve Districts suggest that economic activity continued to be weak going into the summer, but most Districts indicated that the pace of decline has moderated since the last report or that activity has begun to stabilize, albeit at a low level. Five Districts used the words "slow", "subdued", or "weak" to describe activity levels; Chicago and St. Louis reported that the pace of decline appeared to be moderating; and New York, Cleveland, Kansas City, and San Francisco pointed to signs of stabilization. Minneapolis said the District economy had contracted since the last report.
Most Districts reported sluggish retail activity. Cleveland, Richmond, and Minneapolis noted further declines in sales, although results were somewhat mixed or positive according to retailers in the Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Kansas City, and San Francisco Districts. Manufacturing activity showed some improvement in the Richmond, Chicago, and Kansas City Districts; while St. Louis and Dallas reported some moderation of declines; Philadelphia and Minneapolis saw activity decrease; and most other Districts indicated that manufacturing activity continued at low levels. Boston, Richmond, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and San Francisco reported contractions in services industries. Banking sectors in the New York, Cleveland, Richmond, St. Louis, Kansas City, and San Francisco Districts experienced weaker demand for some categories of loans. Residential real estate markets stayed soft in most Districts, although many noted some signs of improvement. By contrast, commercial real estate markets weakened further in recent months in two-thirds of the Districts and remained slow in the others.
Districts reported varied--but generally modest--price changes across sectors and products, with competitive pressures damping increases; however, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Dallas noted that some metals prices have increased in recent months. Most Districts indicated that labor markets were extremely soft, with minimal wage pressures, and cited the use of various methods of reducing compensation in addition to, or instead of, freezing or cutting wages.
Consumer Spending and Tourism Consumer spending in the early summer remained below previous-year levels in most Districts, as households continued to be price conscious. Boston, Kansas City, and San Francisco experienced either modest sales increases or less negative sales results than in recent reporting periods. Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis, New York, and Dallas cited flat or mixed sales, while sales in the remaining Districts remained soft. Several Districts noted that consumers focused on purchasing less expensive necessities, while sales of big ticket items languished. Retailers in Boston, Philadelphia, and Dallas characterized their outlook as cautious.
Auto sales were mixed across the country. Chicago, Minneapolis, and Kansas City saw modest increases in car sales, while New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Atlanta continued to experience subdued sales. The exception was sales of used vehicles, which continued to be strong or were strengthening, according to Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, Kansas City, and San Francisco.
Travel and tourism declined in the majority of Districts. The San Francisco District observed a sharp drop in luxury and business travel, while tourism activity in New York City was weak but stable since the last Beige Book report. Tourism contacts along the Atlantic coast reported that with the exception of July 4th holiday bookings, business was generally weaker than a year ago. Hotel room rates have declined in several Districts.
Nonfinancial Services District reports regarding nonfinancial services industries were largely negative, although they included a few bright spots. The Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Dallas Districts indicated that demand for professional services such as business support, architecture, and legal services continued to decline or remained soft. By contrast, reports from the healthcare sector were largely positive, with the San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Richmond Districts citing steady to increased demand for medical services, and the Atlanta, Cleveland, Chicago, and Dallas Districts reporting hiring activity in health care. Technology-related firms in the Kansas City District also reported heightened activity, especially in the clean technology and defense-driven aerospace markets. Richmond and Minneapolis noted increased demand for information technology workers, and Atlanta saw hiring activity in the defense and aerospace industry. Staffing industry contacts in numerous Districts suggested a higher demand for temporary or part-time workers over permanent hires, and Atlanta noted that employers were taking advantage of a higher supply of skilled labor to improve the quality of their workforces.
Nearly all Districts reporting on transportation services observed continued weakness. Freight transport respondents from the Atlanta, Dallas, and Cleveland Districts noted that cargo volumes remain below year-earlier levels. While Cleveland contacts reported that competitive shipping rates are being maintained, trucking contacts from the Atlanta District noted that an oversupply of trucks relative to demand has exerted downward pressure on rates. A few Districts also reported reduced airline traffic, especially amongst business travelers.
Manufacturing Reports on the manufacturing sector remained subdued but were slightly more positive than in the previous Beige Book. Many Districts characterized manufacturing activity as remaining depressed but with selected signs of modest improvement. Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Atlanta, and St. Louis reported decreased manufacturing activity; however, the latter two Districts noted that the overall rate of decline abated in the latest reporting period. Richmond and Kansas City reported rising manufacturing activity, albeit chiefly in nondurables industries. Districts attributed some of the recent increases in production to replenishment of finished-goods or customer inventories.
Chicago indicated that the quick resolutions of the Chrysler and GM bankruptcies have boosted business confidence, and that automakers were scheduling a pickup in production for July. However, ongoing shutdowns of domestic auto plants have led to precariously low business volumes for parts suppliers, according to Chicago and St. Louis. Steel production remained depressed but has leveled off or increased somewhat, according to Cleveland, Chicago, and St. Louis. Similarly, Dallas observed that refineries increased their capacity utilization slightly over the past six weeks, but that overall industry conditions remain weak because of low demand for fuels. Various District reports noted cancellations of orders for commercial aircraft and continued weak demand for most types of equipment and machinery. Among the positive developments in manufacturing, several Districts mentioned pickups in technology sectors, or cited strong or rising sales of military products or pharmaceuticals.
Comments on the near-term outlook varied across Districts, but on the whole they appear consistent with a forecast of modest and uneven recovery in manufacturing output beginning during roughly the coming six to twelve months. New York, Philadelphia, and Atlanta indicated that manufacturers have a generally positive or improved near-term outlook. Dallas reported that high-tech manufacturers "are seeing some upside potential in their forecasts instead of just down-side risks," but that construction-related manufacturers "expect no improvement in the near term." Boston indicated that many respondents expect continued sub-par revenue numbers for the remainder of the year, but "look forward to slowly improving business in 2010," while Cleveland and Kansas City reported that manufacturing contacts expect little or no change in demand through the end of 2009.
Real Estate and Construction Commercial real estate leasing markets were described as either "weak" or "slow" in all 12 Districts, although the severity of the downturn varied somewhat across Districts. While the office vacancy rate was up and rents were down in the Dallas District, market fundamentals there remained stronger than the national average. Market conditions in the New York District are significantly worse than one year ago, on average, but have been relatively stable in recent weeks and some parts of the District report improving fundamentals. Office vacancy rates continued to climb in the Atlanta, Boston, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Richmond, and San Francisco Districts, as well as in Manhattan, resulting in sizable leasing concessions and/or declines in asking rents. Significant weakness in the retail leasing sector was reported for the Boston, Minneapolis, and New York Districts, and industrial vacancy increased in the Atlanta, Dallas, Minneapolis, and St. Louis Districts. Commercial real estate sales volume remained low, even "non-existent" in some Districts, reportedly due to a combination of tight credit and weak demand. Construction activity was limited and/or declining in most Districts, although exceptions were noted for health and institutional construction in the St. Louis District, public sector construction in the Chicago District, and the reconstruction of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Tight credit was cited as an ongoing factor in the dearth of new construction activity. The commercial real estate outlook was mixed, both within and across Districts. Some contacts expect commercial real estate markets to improve within two quarters and others predict further market deterioration for the remainder of 2009 and possibly through late 2010.
Residential real estate markets in most Districts remained weak, but many reported signs of improvement. The Minneapolis and San Francisco Districts cited large increases in home sales compared with 2008 levels, and other Districts reported rising sales in some submarkets. Of the areas that continued to experience year-over-year sales declines, all except St Louis--where sales were down steeply--also reported that the pace of decline was moderating. In general, the low end of the market, especially entry-level homes, continued to perform relatively well; contacts in the New York, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts attributed this relative strength, at least in part, to the first-time homebuyer tax credit. Condo sales were still far below year-before levels according to the Boston and New York reports. In general, home prices continued to decline in most markets, although a number of Districts saw possible signs of stabilization. The Boston, Atlanta, and Chicago Districts mentioned that the increasing number of foreclosure sales was exerting downward pressure on home prices. Residential construction reportedly remains quite slow, with the Chicago, Cleveland, and Kansas City Districts noting that financing is difficult.
Agriculture and Natural ResourcesThe farm sector reported better weather in much of the country in June and early July. As a result, the supply and condition of many crops have improved, and prices have fallen. In the Richmond and Atlanta Districts, generally favorable weather has facilitated the vegetable, small grain or fruit harvest--much of which is in good condition. Similarly, contacts in several Districts including Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City indicated that the size and condition of the corn, soybean and/or rice crops have improved and that farmers are now planning to harvest more acres than previously expected; thus, prices and profits are--and for the short term are expected to remain--down. By contrast, the production of wheat or barley is expected to fall well below strong 2008 levels in the St. Louis and Minneapolis Districts. In the Dallas District, where a drought continues, much of the corn, cotton, and other crops were described as "not worth harvesting," and producers are collecting insurance.
Livestock contacts in the Chicago, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts report that prices for dairy, hogs, and cattle have fallen by more than operating costs and some ranchers are liquidating herds. In the Chicago District, livestock operations have reportedly lost their cash cushion and have been unable to get financing; contacts in Dallas, where the ongoing drought has destroyed forage, also note concerns about ranchers' cash flow.
With oil prices up to $70 per barrel in the first half of 2009 but recently trending down, oil production was reportedly flat in June and early July in the Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Kansas City Districts and up slightly in Dallas and San Francisco. Contacts in Atlanta indicate that the number of rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico had fallen by half year over year while in Dallas the number of working rigs was up slightly. Natural gas prices continue to fall, discouraging drilling in the Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts. Kansas City energy producers report financial strains and are cutting headcounts selectively, while contacts in Dallas observe much excess capacity and weak demand for energy services. In response to weak demand from the utilities, coal prices in the Cleveland District have fallen 50 percent since early 2009, and coal production, jobs and hours are down; capital spending has fallen to minimum maintenance levels. In Minneapolis, by contrast, new wind projects have been announced.
Banking and Financial ServicesIn most reporting Districts, overall lending activity was stable or weakened further for most loan categories. In contrast, Philadelphia reported a slight increase in business, consumer, and residential real estate lending. As businesses remained pessimistic and reluctant to borrow, demand for commercial and industrial loans continued to fall or stay weak in the New York, Richmond, St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts. Consumer loan demand decreased in New York, St. Louis, Kansas City, and San Francisco, stabilized at a low level in Chicago and Dallas, and was steady to up in Cleveland.
Residential real estate lending decreased in New York, Richmond, and St. Louis. Dallas reported steady but low outstanding mortgage volumes, while Kansas City noted that the rise in mortgage loans slowed. Refinancing activity fell dramatically in Richmond, decreased in New York and Cleveland, and maintained its pace in Dallas. Bankers in the New York District indicated no change in delinquency rates in all loan categories except residential mortgages, while Cleveland, Atlanta, and San Francisco reported rising delinquencies on loans linked to real estate.
Banks continued to tighten credit standards in the New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts; and some have stepped up the requirements for the commercial real estate category, in particular, due to concern over declining loan quality. Meanwhile, Cleveland and Atlanta reported that higher credit standards remained in place, with no change expected in the near term. Credit quality deteriorated in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Kansas City, and San Francisco, while loan quality exceeded expectations in Chicago and remained steady in Richmond.
Employment, Wages, and PricesAll Districts indicated that labor markets remain slack, with most sectors either reducing jobs or holding them steady and aggregate employment continuing to decline, on net. However, Boston, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, and Minneapolis noted selective hiring, including attempts by some firms to take advantage of layoffs elsewhere to pick up experienced talent. Richmond, Chicago, St. Louis, and Dallas cited moderation in the pace of manufacturing employment decline since the last report, and New York noted some signs of labor market stabilization. But Atlanta reported further deterioration in labor market conditions and additional job cuts already planned for coming months.
The weakness of labor markets has virtually eliminated upward wage pressure, and wages and compensation are steady or falling in most Districts; however, Boston cited some manufacturing and business services firms raising pay selectively, and Minneapolis said wage increases were moderate. Boston, Cleveland, Richmond, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco cited a range of methods firms are using to limit compensation, including cutting or freezing wages or benefit contributions, deferral of future salary increases, trimming bonuses and travel allowances, reducing hours, temporary shutdowns, periodic furloughs, and unpaid vacations.
Most Districts reported that upward price pressures were minimal. Manufacturers in the Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts indicated that most materials costs were flat or down; however, several Districts mentioned price increases for some metals, petrochemicals, and building materials. While the Boston, New York, and Kansas City reports say a few firms are making modest price increases stick, selling prices of most manufacturers and retailers were reportedly held down by competitive pressures. Services firms have increased discounting and/or cut fees, according to contacts in Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, and San Francisco, while Richmond indicated price increases for services were mild.