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Federal Reserve Districts

First District--Boston

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First District retailers and manufacturers indicate their sales and revenues continue expanding or contracting mostly as in recent reports, but downside risks have become more prominent. Contacts at software and information technology services firms and staffing firms point to slower growth. Real estate markets continue to be soft. Price pressures remain an issue, with only a subset of contacts saying they are able to pass cost increases along to their customers, at least partially. Many respondents express concern about how soon and how smoothly turmoil in credit markets will be resolved.

Retail respondents in the First District cite mixed sales results for the months of January and February. Retailers report that sales of home-related and big ticket items have consistently been down, while sales of apparel, shoes, accessories, televisions, and sporting goods are strong. However, two respondents are concerned about credit market turmoil and its potential effects on their customers.

Inventory levels and employment are generally stable. Capital spending is mixed. A majority of contacted First District retailers mention varying degrees of price pressure, with several respondents pointing specifically to vendor items and their own operating costs related to oil. A few respondents note modest increases are being passed along to consumers where possible, or say they expect to raise prices in the near future.

Overall, First District retailers are cautious in their outlook and expect 2008 to be challenging. At the same time, many are confident in their ability to pull through this period of economic uncertainty.

Manufacturing and Related Services
For the most part, manufacturers and related services providers headquartered in the First District report unchanged revenue trends in fourth quarter 2007 and early 2008, but they indicate that downside risks have risen. A capital goods manufacturer is experiencing somewhat slower payments from customers and cites anecdotal evidence that highly-leveraged commercial real estate developers may have to curtail their purchases. A biotech equipment maker is experiencing year-over-year declines in sales to some of its largest customers. Suppliers to the home construction industry mostly indicate they do not see demand bottoming out before year-end. Many manufacturers have experienced robust overseas sales because of foreign economic growth or dollar depreciation, but some see signs that these factors will not be quite as favorable in 2008 as they were in 2007. Several firms are making efforts to reduce inventories.

Manufacturers continue to voice concerns about high, rising, or volatile materials costs, especially metals and petrochemicals; per-unit energy costs also are said to be high. Manufacturers are anticipating that input costs will remain high or increase further in coming months. Respondents generally indicate that their selling prices are either stable or rising to offset cost increases to some degree.

Manufacturers continue to adjust their U.S. headcounts only minimally. However, various firms have become more cautious with respect to hiring. One contact that expanded its headcount in fourth quarter 2007 is planning to hold employment steady in the first half of 2008 because of uncertainty. Another respondent that held its employment constant over the last several months is unlikely to continue to do so in the face of mounting pressures to cut costs. Average pay increases are expected to remain in the range of 3 percent to 4 percent, but several firms are planning somewhat higher pay raises in 2008 than in 2007. On the whole, contacts say their capital spending for 2008 is likely to be normal or steady.

Many manufacturers express growing concerns of one sort or another about financial markets for their own firm or its customers, or in the broader economy. For example, one respondent is concerned about the liquidity of its investments in light of pending payment commitments. Several contacts say they are thankful that their company's capital needs are limited, given current terms and availability.

Software and Information Technology Services
All software and IT services contacts in the First District report modest year-over year quarterly revenue growth for the most recent quarter, although several respondents indicate that some or much of the growth reflects special factors such as foreign currency gains or acquisitions. The majority of respondents are adding technology workers and sales staff, although at a slower pace than in the previous quarter. One firm notes a decline in turnover rates, while a few other contacts report that the labor market appears to have eased. All contacted firms have raised pay, generally by around 4 percent annually.

The majority of New England software and information technology firms are projecting revenues to continue growing at current rates. However, several note that downside risks have increased.

Staffing Services
Staffing respondents in the New England region give mixed reports on the level of business activity this quarter. The majority of firms are experiencing what one contact described as "a marked slowdown" after a busy holiday season, but year-over-year revenues have remained the same or increased, with one report of a 16 percent revenue rise in January 2008 as compared with January 2007. Respondents indicate high labor demand from the biopharmaceutical and aerospace industries, with particular need for data management hires. Labor supply has improved, but highly-skilled applicants for senior-level positions are still in short supply.

Most firms are taking new measures to attract clients, through strategic marketing initiatives, partnerships with other companies, and transitions from print to web advertising. Respondents report stable or increasing costs, with the primary increase being health insurance for employees. The main concern expressed by nearly all respondents is the health of the overall national economy. Contacts fear that instability will lead firms to delay new projects, with "trickle-down effects" in other sectors, including staffing. Despite this concern, respondents are hopeful for growth in upcoming quarters.

Commercial Real Estate
Contacts report that the financing situation for commercial real estate continues to worsen. They say the commercial mortgage-backed securities market remains largely dormant, with the exception of one successful offering of a group of mortgages on multifamily properties. Life insurance lenders have also pulled back significantly from commercial real estate lending in the past couple of months; one contact surmises they are rationing credit now to conserve their limited capacity for later in the year. A small bank in Boston reports a 30 percent increase in its commercial lending volume over last year, mostly in refinancing, but says it may reach its lending limits before the end of the year. Equity requirements have been pushed up to as high as 40 percent by some lenders. With buyers facing such tight credit, very few sellers are putting properties up for sale and very few deals are closing, making it difficult to assess price changes.

Leasing volume has remained steady or slowed in New England. In the downtown Boston office market, rents appear to be holding. The same goes for Hartford and Providence, but rents continue to fall gradually in Maine. Contacts see retailers eliminating underperforming locations and pulling back on commitments to new stores, but with no dramatic rise in overall retail vacancy or fall in rents. Rhode Island has some of the highest commercial vacancy rates in the region, up sharply from six months ago. Contacts expect absorption to hover around zero or slightly negative in the coming months, leading to gradual increases in vacancy throughout the region. Credit market turmoil is expected to persist into the third or fourth quarter of 2008. Some still characterize Boston as a very desirable market, but others see looming financial sector layoffs taking steam out of its office market in the coming months.

Residential Real Estate
New England residential real estate markets again showed large sales drops in December and January compared to a year ago. Massachusetts single-family home sales decreased 20 percent year-over-year in December while condo sales decreased 28 percent. Home sales also declined around 20 percent year-over-year for Maine in December and Rhode Island in the fourth quarter. New Hampshire saw sales declines of 21 percent in December and 25 percent in January. Contacts say potential buyers lack confidence because of all the talk of a housing "collapse" and broader economic slowdown. A New Hampshire contact says the market for second homes and vacation homes has been hit particularly hard.

Median home prices have declined modestly in New England markets, with prices down 3 percent to 5 percent in December or January from a year earlier in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Prices dropped 6 percent year-over-year in Rhode Island in the fourth quarter. However, median condo prices have held steady in Massachusetts; a contact says this is because the high end of the condo market has been somewhat insulated from general housing problems.

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Last update: March 5, 2008