By Frank James
The latest edition of Federal Reserve's regularly released "Beige Book" survey of economic activity indicated that the economy continues to improve though economic activity "remains at a low level."
Reports from the twelve Federal Reserve Districts indicated that while economic activity remains at a low level, conditions have improved modestly further, and those improvements are broader geographically than in the last report. Ten Districts reported some increased activity or improvement in conditions, while the remaining two--Philadelphia and Richmond--reported mixed conditions. The last Beige Book reported eight Districts with increased activity or improving conditions and four Districts showing little change and/or mixed conditions.
Most Districts reported that consumer spending in the recent 2009 holiday season was slightly greater than in 2008, but still far below 2007 levels. Retail inventory levels remain very lean in nearly all Districts. Auto sales held steady or increased slightly since the last Beige Book in most Districts. Reports on tourism were mostly flat or weak, but for two Districts whose ski resorts enjoyed early season snowstorms. Nonfinancial services activity generally improved in Districts that reported on this sector. Of five Districts reporting transportation services, volumes were slightly up or mixed. Manufacturing activity has increased or held steady since the last report in most Districts. Among Districts reporting on near-term expectations, the manufacturing outlook was optimistic, but spending plans remain cautious.
Toward the end of 2009, home sales increased in most Districts, especially for lower-priced homes. Home prices appeared to have changed little since the last Beige Book, and residential construction remained at low levels in most Districts. Commercial real estate was still weak in nearly all Districts with rising vacancy rates and falling rents. Since the last report, loan demand continued to decline or remained weak in most Districts, while credit quality continued to deteriorate. Cold weather at the end of the year adversely affected some late crops and stressed livestock, but above-average yields for early crops were reported by some Districts. Energy-related production has risen moderately since the last Beige Book.