March 3, 2010
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Prepared at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and based on information collected on or before February 22, 2010. This document summarizes comments received from businesses and other contacts outside the Federal Reserve and is not a commentary on the views of Federal Reserve officials.
Reports from the twelve Federal Reserve Districts indicated that economic conditions continued to expand since the last report, although severe snowstorms in early February held back activity in several Districts. Nine Districts reported that economic activity improved, but in most cases the increases were modest. Overall conditions were described as mixed in the Atlanta and St. Louis Districts, though St. Louis noted further signs of improvement in some areas. Richmond reported that economic activity slackened or remained soft across most sectors, due importantly to especially severe February weather in that region.
Consumer spending improved slightly in many Districts since the last survey, but severe snowstorms in early February limited activity in some Districts. Tourist activity was reported as increased or mixed, with some improvement in hotel occupancies. The demand for services was generally positive across Districts, most notably for health-care and information technology firms. Of the five Districts reporting on transportation, three characterized activity as improved over the previous survey. Manufacturing activity strengthened in most regions, particularly in the high-tech equipment, automobile, and metal industries. Residential real estate markets improved in a number of Districts, although several Districts noted that activity softened or remained weak partly due to extreme winter weather. Most Districts characterized commercial real estate and construction activity as weak or having declined further, but some Districts noted slight stabilization and a few signs of modest improvement. Loan demand remained weak, and lending standards remained tight across the country. Harsh weather continued to negatively affect agricultural activity, although some Districts reported favorable crop conditions. Districts reporting on energy activity said it continued to strengthen, particularly drilling for natural gas.
Price pressures were mostly limited, with the exception of some increases in raw materials prices. Even with input costs rising, selling prices remained stable due to competitive pressures and limited pricing power. Although some Districts reported an uptick in hiring or a slowdown in layoffs, labor markets generally remained soft throughout the nation, which resulted in minimal wage pressures.
Consumer Spending and Tourism
Auto sales were generally reported as flat or down, with a few Districts again noting that some of the sluggishness was likely due to poor weather conditions. New York, Cleveland, and San Francisco all noted some softening in new auto sales, though New York cited brisk sales of used vehicles. Chicago and Kansas City also reported declining auto sales, while Dallas noted some seasonal softness and Atlanta said sales remained weak. Some Districts reported modest improvement in auto credit conditions. Cleveland noted that many consumers remain reliant on manufacturers' incentives, and auto dealers in the Chicago District blamed part of their recent sales decline on reduced factory incentives.
Districts reporting on tourism said that activity was either rising or mixed since the last survey period. Ski resorts in the Richmond and Kansas City Districts reported at least modest rebounds in activity from year-ago levels, while Minneapolis characterized skier visits to a Montana resort as flat. New York said hotel occupancies in Manhattan were up considerably from a year ago in January and Broadway theatre activity was robust before falling off due to weather in February. Atlanta also reported rising tourism activity related to several successful major sporting events and a well-attended Mardi Gras in New Orleans. San Francisco noted increases in visitors to Hawaii and Las Vegas and said hotel occupancies stabilized in some other areas.
In transportation services, Cleveland, Atlanta, and Kansas City reported an improvement in activity since the last survey, while Dallas said activity was mixed and St. Louis noted large job cuts in the industry. Regional rail loadings were above year-ago levels in the Atlanta District, especially for autos, chemicals, metals, and some construction-related equipment. Intermodal firms in the Dallas District reported no change in cargo volumes, with a rise in exports being offset by a decline in imports. Although shipping volumes increased, Cleveland noted that margins remained depressed due to over-capacity issues, limiting investment in new trucks.
Real Estate and Construction
Commercial real estate conditions remained weak or declined further in most Districts, although some Districts noted slight stabilization or modest signs of improvement. Commercial real estate activity weakened in the Richmond, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts, though Dallas noted that leasing fell at a slower rate and San Francisco cited increased leasing in some segments. Boston and Philadelphia said conditions remain weak, but both noted some improvement in sales of commercial space. New York reported softer activity in the New York City area but some steadying in vacancies and rents elsewhere, while St. Louis said activity remained weak throughout the District. Several Districts also noted that many tenants were pushing for, and in some cases receiving, concessions on rents. All Districts reporting on commercial construction said that activity remained weak or slow, except for some moderate boost from federal stimulus projects and other public construction. Credit for commercial development and transactions was still very difficult to obtain in several Districts, though San Francisco noted a slight improvement in financing availability.
Banking and Finance
Most Districts indicated that banks remained cautious about lending. New York, St. Louis, and Kansas City reported somewhat tighter credit standards on commercial real estate loans, and New York noted tighter standards for commercial and industrial loans. In other Districts, credit standards were little changed but remained tight. Atlanta reported that banks had ample liquidity but were reluctant to reduce cash reserves. Chicago said a leveling in asset quality was causing large banks to become more interested in lending to prime borrowers, but strained balance sheets were holding back lending by mid-size banks. In the Dallas District, smaller banks reported that regulatory requirements were limiting their ability to expand real estate lending. Loan quality remained a concern but showed signs of stabilizing in some Districts. New York, Dallas, and San Francisco cited further declines in loan quality. In addition, banks in the Philadelphia and Kansas City Districts were reported to be slightly less pessimistic about future loan quality than in the previous survey.
Agriculture and Natural Resources
Energy activity generally strengthened since the last survey period. Kansas City and Dallas reported increased drilling activity, especially for natural gas, and Cleveland noted increased natural gas-related investment. However, producers in the Kansas City District were concerned that a boost in supply from shale gas production could lower natural gas prices later in the year. Minneapolis reported that oil exploration expanded in February, while oil production was stable in the Atlanta and San Francisco Districts. Coal production in the Cleveland and Kansas City Districts remained below year-ago levels. Minneapolis reported brisk activity in metal mining and continued energy construction.
Employment, Wages, and Prices
The majority of Districts reported limited price pressures, although several noted rising input costs due to higher commodities prices. Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, and Dallas noted an increase in metals prices, particularly steel, and Chicago and Kansas City said the upward pressure on some raw materials prices was likely to continue. Lumber prices rose in the Cleveland and Richmond Districts due in large part to weather-related supply issues. On the other hand, San Francisco reported commodity prices were stable or down, with declines in natural gas, copper, and aluminum prices. Some contacts in the Boston District said customers sought fewer price concessions from vendors in order to better ensure reliable deliveries. But nearly all Districts reported limited pricing power, with many firms unable to increase selling prices due to competitive pressure. Retail prices were stable in most Districts, although San Francisco noted heavy discounting. Districts generally expected stable prices overall heading forward.