April 14, 2010
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Prepared at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and based on information collected before April 5, 2010. This document summarizes comments received from business and other contacts outside the Federal Reserve System and is not a commentary on the views of Federal Reserve officials.
Overall economic activity increased somewhat since the last report across all Federal Reserve Districts except St. Louis, which reported "softened" economic conditions. Districts generally reported increases in retail sales and vehicle sales. Tourism spending was up in a number of Districts. Reports on the services sector were generally mixed. Manufacturing activity increased in all Districts except St. Louis, and new orders were up. Many Districts reported increased activity in housing markets from low levels. Commercial real estate market activity remained very weak in most Districts. Activity in the banking and finance sector was mixed in a number of Districts, as loan volumes and credit quality decreased. Agricultural conditions were mixed as well, with positive conditions reported in Districts from the central and western parts of the country, while negative conditions were reported in the mid and southern Atlantic Districts. Mining and energy production and exploration increased for metals, oil and wind.
While labor markets generally remained weak, some hiring activity was evident, particularly for temporary staff. Wage pressures were characterized as minimal or contained. Retail prices generally remained level, but some input prices increased.
Consumer Spending and Tourism
Vehicle sales improved in a number of Districts during March. New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Dallas and San Francisco noted that auto sales picked up in recent weeks. Cleveland described sales as decent, while sales were steady in Kansas City and mixed in Richmond. Several Districts noted that favorable pricing and credit terms helped lure buyers into showrooms. Dealers in Philadelphia indicated that they expect sales to increase during the next few months.
Tourism conditions also improved during the reporting period. New York, Richmond, Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas and San Francisco pointed to signs of increased tourism activity. Tourism was described as stable in most parts of the Atlanta District. Hotel occupancy rates were rising in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, and San Francisco. Reports on room rates were mixed: New York and Kansas City noted increases, while Chicago reported rate cuts, particularly at luxury hotels. Managers at mountain resorts in the Richmond District reported that this winter was one of their best ski seasons ever. However, Atlanta noted that corporate bookings remained at very low levels at some high-end resorts.
Banking and Finance
Credit standards remained generally unchanged across the nation, while credit quality was mixed. New York, Cleveland and Kansas City reported tighter lending standards for commercial mortgages. In Atlanta several business contacts reported difficulty getting credit. Dallas and San Francisco said standards continued to be tight. New York saw increased delinquency rates for all categories except consumer loans, which were flat. Philadelphia and Richmond saw little change in credit quality, while Cleveland was mixed. Dallas reported that credit quality was either stabilizing or improving, and appeared to have turned a corner. Chicago noted an improvement in consumer and business loan quality, although credit quality for many small firms continued to decline.
Real Estate and Construction
Commercial real estate activity was slow across the nation. Notable exceptions were Richmond, which saw an uptick in commercial leasing, and Dallas, where the sector was mixed and might be nearing bottom. In Boston, leasing activity consists largely of renewals, with many renewing tenants leasing less space. Manhattan Class A office rents were down 20 percent to 25 percent year over year. Contacts in Philadelphia, Richmond, Kansas City and Dallas expressed concern that lease concessions from landlords were putting downward pressure on rents. Commercial construction continued to be weak in most Districts. Cleveland saw some development in the energy and industrial segments.
Agriculture and Natural Resources
Activity in the energy and mining sectors increased since the last report. Philadelphia, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas and San Francisco saw increases in oil exploration. Coal production was mixed in the Philadelphia District and increased in the Kansas City District. In the Minneapolis District, more wind energy projects are planned, and mining activity increased.
Employment, Wages, and Prices
Wage pressures were characterized as minimal or contained. In Boston, most firms reported instituting or planning to institute modest wage increases of 2 percent to 3 percent in 2010, while performance bonuses in the services sector were generally down. Richmond reported that average wages edged higher in March in the services sector, but declined slightly in manufacturing. Most companies hiring new workers in the Kansas City District were not offering higher salaries to attract qualified applicants. Dallas reported that just a handful of firms were planning on partially reinstating employer matches to retirement plans or giving small pay increases. In Chicago wage pressures were minimal; however, an increase in health-care costs was noted. San Francisco also reported significant increases in the costs of employee benefits, such as health insurance and pensions.
Retail prices generally remained level, but some input prices increased. Where producers faced cost pressures on inputs, they were largely unable to pass those prices downstream to selling prices, although in Kansas City some manufacturers were considering raising selling prices due to higher raw materials costs. In Boston retail vendor and selling prices were stable. Philadelphia reported that prices of most goods and services have been steady, although there were increased reports of rising prices for basic materials and construction-related products. Apart from rising prices for steel and petroleum-based products in Cleveland, raw materials and product pricing were generally stable. Richmond noted moderate price increases in the manufacturing and services sectors. Chicago reported upward pressure on prices for plywood, industrial metals and petroleum-based fuels. In the Dallas District prices of chemicals and related products rose sharply, primarily due to plant outages. Natural gas prices slipped during the reporting period because of continued high levels of production, low industrial demand and the end of the winter season. Richmond and San Francisco reported increased overseas shipping costs.