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Federal Reserve Districts

Sixth District--Atlanta

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Reports from Sixth District contacts suggested that business activity continued to expand during September. District residential housing markets continued to post steady growth, whereas commercial real estate markets displayed small improvements. Factory activity showed further signs of stabilizing and transportation contacts reported increased freight volumes in September. The pace of retail and auto sales moderated somewhat, although several reports noted that sales for the month exceeded expectations. Commentaries on the District's tourism and hospitality sector were mixed: reports from South Florida were mostly upbeat, but others were more subdued. Responses from the banking industry noted steady deposit flows and a further drop-off in mortgage refinancing. Overall, employers appeared to be reluctant to add to payrolls, and wage increases were modest in most sectors. Environmental conditions were favorable for the District farmers' in September.

Consumer Spending
Retail contacts indicated that sales growth moderated somewhat in September from the strong pace set in August, but activity still managed to exceed retailer's expectations in many cases. Contacts noted that apparel sales improved in September and electronics and home-related products continued to sell well. Overall, inventories were described as balanced. Reports noted that the retail outlook for the fourth quarter remained positive, and some regional consumer confidence measures showed a modest improvement in September from August. Meanwhile, District auto dealers reported weaker sales in the first part of September than in August.

Real Estate
District single-family housing markets were generally stable in September. Homebuilders continued to report that new home construction and sales were flat to up slightly during September. Reports from District real estate agents mirrored those of builders. Most contacts appeared more optimistic regarding single-family housing through year-end than they had in the last report. Higher mortgage interest rates have apparently not curtailed activity as much as had been initially expected. The region's commercial real estate markets continued to show only small, isolated improvements, and contacts reported that vacant space continued to fill slowly. Commercial construction remained at low levels.

Manufacturing production in various industries picked up or was stable in September, although there were some reports of layoffs. Many firms were still reportedly planning to limit the extent of new capital spending and hiring in the near term. However, factory contacts in Tennessee saw a pickup in orders for machine tools and equipment as their customers' sort to improve productivity. Florida contacts noted stabilization in manufacturing activity, but saw little evidence of a rebound. An Alabama steel producer indicated that business was improving, but capacity utilization rates remained low. A manufacturer in Georgia reported that the weaker dollar was helping exports, but a textile producer noted smaller sized orders. Further layoffs were announced in the District's chemical industry.

Tourism and Business Travel
Reports from the District's hospitality and tourism sector were mixed. Although early fall is traditionally a slow period for tourism in south Florida, visitor traffic was better than expected and restaurant business was reported to be quite brisk. In contrast, the international market remained weak and the sluggish demand for lodging in central Florida reportedly forced the closing of at least two hotels there. As before, hotels throughout the District catering to business travelers reported low-occupancy levels. Convention attendance in Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, and Miami continued to suffer from restrained business spending.

Most reports indicated a steady flow of deposits into banks and that the rate of loan delinquencies remained manageable. Reports also noted a drop in demand for mortgage refinancing because of higher interest rates. Some loan officers reported that they were receiving more business loan requests for projects aimed at reducing costs or increasing productivity. However, overall business loan and venture capital investment activity remained low.

Reduced capacity combined with higher than normal seasonal demand for shipping services led to improved conditions for the District's transportation sector. Trucking firms reported increased freight volumes and stable rates in September. In Georgia, an increase in shipments of pulp and paper for the packaging industry was noted.

Employment and Prices
Contacts reported that labor markets were stable overall in September, although the demand for additional permanent staff was rising in only a few sectors and was notably absent in manufacturing. Some factory contacts, however, reported that they had increased the amount of overtime as production turned up. Part-time and temporary workers also continued to be in demand. Some businesses noted that they were reluctant to hire permanent employees because of the associated benefit costs.

Prices for most goods and services remained stable in September. However, the rising cost of healthcare and pension benefits were holding down salary and wage increases according to some contacts. Local lumber prices were reportedly the highest in several years because of wet weather, fires in the West, and recent high demand for plywood.

Rains and cooler weather produced favorable conditions for most of the District's agriculture sector in September. Some commodity prices moved higher in September. Local poultry growers were encouraged by the new U.S.-Russia market access agreement that should lead to additional poultry exports to Russia.

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Last update: October 15, 2003