October, 19, 2011
Prepared at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and based on information collected on or before October 7, 2011. 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 twelve Federal Reserve Districts indicate that overall economic activity continued to expand in September, although many Districts described the pace of growth as “modest” or “slight” and contacts generally noted weaker or less certain outlooks for business conditions. The reports suggest that consumer spending was up slightly in most Districts, with auto sales and tourism leading the way in several of them. Business spending increased somewhat, particularly for construction and mining equipment and auto dealer inventories, but many Districts noted restraint in hiring and capital spending plans. By sector, manufacturing and transportation activity was reported to have increased on balance. A few Districts also reported slight improvements in construction and real estate activity; nonetheless, overall conditions for both residential and commercial real estate remained weak. Districts reporting on nonfinancial services cited mixed results with activity varying widely by industry. Loan demand by and large moved lower, with the exception of an increase in mortgage refinancing in many Districts. Crop conditions at harvest were generally less favorable than a year ago. In contrast, energy and mining activity continued to strengthen in several Districts, with the exception of some storm-related slowdowns in the Gulf of Mexico. Cost pressures eased in the majority of Districts, though there was some further pass-through of earlier increases to downstream prices. Wage pressures remained subdued outside of a few exceptions in which firms noted having difficulty finding appropriately skilled workers.
Consumer Spending and Tourism
Consumer spending was up slightly in September. The majority of Districts reported increases in auto sales, with the largest improvements in San Francisco and New York. Several Districts noted a greater availability of new vehicles as the supply disruptions that had plagued auto dealerships in the aftermath of the Japanese disaster subsided. Contacts in the Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, and Dallas Districts indicated that demand for used cars remained high and that some models were still scarce. A large number of Districts reported that non-auto retail sales were flat to down in September; but a few, such as Philadelphia, Richmond, and Dallas noted an increase in customer traffic late in the month and into early October. Back-to-school sales were described as being fairly strong in New York and satisfactory in Richmond. In addition, Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, and Dallas cited some strength in the sales of big-ticket or luxury items, while Minneapolis and Chicago noted that more consumers were trading down to value products at grocery stores.
Tourism was generally higher in those Districts reporting on the sector. Contacts in New York noted that, despite the negative impact of Hurricane Irene, Broadway and hotel revenues continued to rise. Richmond reported substantial damage from Hurricane Irene to some tourist destinations that were subsequently forced to close for repairs, but tourism remained vibrant in other areas. Boston, Atlanta, and Minneapolis also cited increases in tourism, with hospitality contacts in Atlanta expecting a robust holiday season. Tourism results were mixed across various destinations in the San Francisco district.
Business spending increased somewhat from the previous report. However, contacts in a number of Districts reported that a weaker and more uncertain economic outlook had increased caution and was weighing on future spending plans. Philadelphia, Richmond, and Chicago indicated that many retailers were reluctant to build inventories ahead of the holiday season, pointing to recent declines in consumer confidence. Auto dealers were an exception, as they continued to replenish inventories that ran low in the aftermath of the production disruptions caused by the Japanese disaster. Capital spending continued as planned in most Districts. Respondents in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Chicago noted increased purchases of equipment in the manufacturing, mining, and transportation industries. Boston and Minneapolis indicated that some manufacturers planned to expand capacity either through mergers and acquisitions or the building of additional facilities. Atlanta cited a pick-up in corporate expansion and relocation interest, and Chicago noted an increase in mergers and acquisitions activity among middle-market firms.
Reports regarding nonfinancial services were mixed in September. Richmond noted slower overall activity, and St. Louis cited reduced demand for telecommunications, media, and education services. Demand for accounting and legal services was reported to have been unchanged in both Dallas and San Francisco. On the positive side, contacts in St. Louis reported that demand for business support services increased, and Boston reported strong business conditions for economic consulting firms involved with litigation work and advertising firms helping to market financial services. In addition, San Francisco noted continued growth in demand for technology services, Minneapolis noted an increase in activity in software and engineering, and Philadelphia cited some growth in logistics. Staffing at nonfinancial service-sector firms was reported to have been up slightly in Richmond, but growth slowed in Chicago and Philadelphia reported flat activity.
Manufacturing and Transportation
Contacts indicated that manufacturing and transportation activity increased since the last report in most Districts. A large number of Districts reported higher production of autos and other transportation-related equipment. Cleveland, Atlanta, and Chicago noted increases in auto production, and Boston, Richmond, Chicago, and St. Louis all cited robust activity for auto suppliers. Dallas reported healthy demand for nondefense transportation goods. Boston, Richmond, Kansas City, and San Francisco indicated continued growth in commercial aviation and aerospace manufacturing. Steel production rose in Cleveland and Chicago, and in a number of Districts metal manufacturers’ new orders also rose. Other areas of manufacturing were more mixed. The Dallas report noted a decline in refining activity. However, both Dallas and Atlanta continued to note robust oil and gas drilling activity, and this activity was said to be propelling demand for related equipment from suppliers in Chicago. Manufacturing of construction materials or equipment was reported to have increased some in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Dallas but remained weak in most other Districts. Growth in high-tech manufacturing continued to be robust in Boston, but moderated in Dallas and San Francisco. Respondents reported that food production was up in Chicago, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, steady in Dallas, and lower in Boston. Manufacturers of consumer products reported a softening in orders in Richmond, Chicago, and Dallas, while new orders for apparel increased in San Francisco. Freight traffic increased in Cleveland and Atlanta, driven in large part by shipments of commodities, and Richmond also noted that port activity for commodities continued to be robust. However, Richmond also indicated that imports and exports, in particular of consumer goods, were both somewhat soft during what is typically the peak season for trade.
Real Estate and Construction
All twelve Districts reported that real estate and construction activity was little changed on balance from the prior report. Residential construction remained at low levels, particularly for single-family homes. That said, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Minneapolis noted small increases in single-family construction, and construction of multifamily dwellings continued to increase at a moderate pace in Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco. Home sales remained weak overall, and home prices were reported to be either flat or declining across all of the Districts. In contrast, rental demand continued to rise in a number of Districts. Commercial real estate conditions remained weak overall, although commercial construction increased at a slow pace in most Districts. Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cleveland cited some gains in demand for construction of education, healthcare, and institutional-related buildings, and New York reported an increase in hotel development. Furthermore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago noted an increase in demand for manufacturing and distribution facilities. Vacancy rates remained elevated, but Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis and Dallas reported an increase in leasing activity and Philadelphia and San Francisco indicated rising investor interest in well-leased office space.
Banking and Finance
Financial activity was reported to have weakened some since the last report. Dallas noted that the improvement in financial conditions had stalled, and Chicago indicated a further tightening of credit conditions, particularly for financial firms. In addition, New York reported noticeably weaker activity in the securities industry. Loan volumes were either flat or down slightly in most Districts. Consumer loan demand moved lower according to respondents in Cleveland, Chicago, and Kansas City, and it held steady in New York and San Francisco. However, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Chicago, and Kansas City all noted an increase in mortgage refinancing activity given lower mortgage rates and Cleveland also noted continued strength in auto lending and increased demand for business loans. Meanwhile, business loan demand was described as down somewhat in Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City and was little changed in most other Districts. Loan standards were described as still tight for many classes of borrowers. That said, several Districts indicated that strong competition among banks for high quality borrowers was leading to lower rates and fees for these customers.
Agriculture and Natural Resources
Contacts generally reported that crop conditions at harvest were less favorable than a year ago, although results varied by and within Districts. Lower yields than a year ago were reported for major crops in the Chicago, Minneapolis, and Dallas Districts and in most of the Kansas City District. Even so, yields were large enough to alleviate worries about shortages. Corn, soybean, and wheat prices moved down, while some contacts noted higher prices for cotton. Drought conditions persisted in the Atlanta, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts, and pastures were in worse shape than a year ago in many areas. Although there were declines in feed costs, poultry and livestock producers remained pressured by drought and the cost increases of the past year. Hog, poultry, and dairy prices decreased, while cattle prices increased. Still, agricultural prices tended to be higher than a year ago, boosting farm incomes outside of drought-stricken areas. Chicago and Kansas City reported higher agricultural land values.
Activity in energy-producing sectors strengthened in the Cleveland, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts. Atlanta reported a decrease in off-shore operations in the Gulf of Mexico due to Tropical Storm Lee. Cleveland and Atlanta also anticipated increased capital investments in oil and gas production, since new technology has lowered costs and boosted output. Contacts in Minneapolis reported plans for expanded wind generation of electricity. Mining activity in the Minneapolis, Kansas City, and San Francisco Districts was strong.
Employment, Wages, and Prices
Respondents indicated that labor market conditions were little changed, on balance, in September. Several Districts cited only limited and selective demand for new hires. Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, and Kansas City all noted that firms in some sectors that were hiring more broadly (such as manufacturing, transportation, and energy) were also experiencing difficulties in finding appropriately skilled or qualified labor. Respondents in the Boston, Richmond, Atlanta, and Chicago Districts indicated that hiring was being restrained by elevated uncertainty or lower expectations for their future growth. New York reported that deteriorating business conditions in the finance industry had led to a pull back in hiring with some layoffs anticipated in the months ahead. Richmond and Chicago reported reduced seasonal hiring in retail trade given apprehension about the strength of holiday sales, while New York indicated that seasonal hiring was likely to increase.
Most Districts reported that wage pressures remained subdued. Exceptions were generally for workers with specialized skills or in areas where firms were having difficulty finding workers. For instance, Atlanta and San Francisco cited wage gains for workers with specialized skills, such as in information technology, Minneapolis reported wage increases in the energy industry, and Cleveland noted higher wages for truck drivers. In addition, contacts in Minneapolis and Cleveland noted increases in non-wage costs such as healthcare. Most other cost pressures moderated in September. Although Kansas City and San Francisco reported increases in raw material costs, most Districts reported a general decline in commodity prices, including prices of oil and industrial metals. Many Districts indicated that there continued to be some further pass-through of past increases to wholesale prices. Though retail contacts noted a hesitation to increase prices with demand still weak, many Districts reported increased pass-through of costs in the retail sector, particularly for food and cotton-based goods.