ROBERT SMITH, HOST:
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ADRIAN MA, HOST:
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SMITH: So many microphones - they're so expensive.
MA: I have no less than eight microphones going at once.
SMITH: You've got to have it for that super quadraphonic sound.
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MA: Again, that's donate.npr.org/indicator. Thanks, and here's the show.
SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
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SMITH: 'Twas the week before Christmas, and all across the nation, not an indicator was stirring.
MA: Except for inflation.
SMITH: Well, sure, yeah. Prices are rising for labor and for oil.
MA: And we got stock market jitters and supply chain turmoil.
SMITH: Only one econ report can see through this haze. It's put out by the Fed in a book that is beige.
MA: It's the Beigie Awards, the final one of the year. I'm your host, Adrian Ma.
SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. December is a time of stories and tradition, and we'll combine the two tonight as we celebrate the biquarterly moment when the government releases an economic update known as the Beige Book.
MA: And there was a lot of drama in the book this time.
MA: The economy has been pushing and pulling at the seams. And we'll see some companies and workers that are finally at their breaking point.
SMITH: We'll be back with all the highlights and finalists from the December Beige Book and, of course, the winner - a very special one this time of year - after a few words from our sponsor.
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SMITH: The Beige Book is made up of stories - little anecdotes from the 12 different Federal Reserve regions. We read it every time it comes out and give awards to the best entries. But as we look back at the year of Beigie winners, we noticed something strange. The winners were all from the East Coast and the Midwest. We gave awards to the Boston Fed and Philly. The Atlanta Fed won twice.
MA: And the regional Feds in the West were overlooked, like, every time. And we think we figured out this problem. The Beige Book is always written in the same order. It starts with Boston, New York. And you don't get to California until the very end of this pretty long report.
SMITH: And so we thought, what if we were just tired and grumpy by the end of reading? I mean, maybe we needed to be more fair.
MA: So this time, we read it in reverse, from back to front. And lo and behold - and this is a little embarrassing - but our geographic eyes were opened.
SMITH: The things you see when you look at the world from a different perspective.
MA: (Laughter) I'm not going to say that this was a problem with our process. It's probably just a coincidence.
SMITH: But listen to the winners this year. We'll start with our runners-up. The second runner-up was this succinct line from the Dallas Fed that sums up the joys of the season. Quote, "an airline reported offering flight attendants triple pay to work during peak periods over the coming holiday season."
MA: And we should say this report was written before, you know, everybody was talking about the omicron variant. So maybe that should be, like, quadruple pay now to fly over the next week?
SMITH: I know. So coming in as the first runner-up, the regional Fed that is standing by in case the winner cannot perform his or her Beigie duties - ladies and gentlemen, first runner-up, the Minneapolis Fed.
MA: The Minneapolis Fed is always innovating, Robert. This time, they sprinkled a bunch of spicy quotes into their Beige Book entry. We love to see it. And here's just one example. They were quoting a health care professional. Let me just get into character real quick. Staff is exhausted. Patients are frustrated, and we're unable to attract doctors to the area.
SMITH: Too bad we don't have a Beigies acting award 'cause you definitely get it, Adrian.
MA: Thank you. Thank you. You can't see me, but I'm bowing right now.
SMITH: So those are the two runners-up - Dallas and Minneapolis. And you can sort of see where this is heading. Reading from the back of the Beige Book to the front really makes us appreciate the work done by the largest and the farthest west Federal Reserve region. This month's Beigie Award goes to...
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SMITH: ...The San Francisco Fed.
MA: Accepting the Beigie is economist Luiz Oliveira.
SMITH: He's moving toward the stage now - very, very calm, very cool, very collected.
LUIZ OLIVEIRA: Yes, thank you. Thank you. I gladly take the prize, the Beigie this time around. And myself and my colleagues in San Francisco are excited to do so.
SMITH: What are you going to do - pass it around, take it out to the bars, drink out of it?
OLIVEIRA: I'll probably just take it home and never tell my colleagues that I got it.
SMITH: It's totally natural to want to keep the Beigie all to yourself.
MA: So the San Francisco Fed is tasked with monitoring a huge area of the country - the whole West Coast, from Nome, Alaska, to San Diego, Calif.
SMITH: And the whole Intermountain West - the district includes Idaho, Utah, Arizona. And what we loved about your Beige Book entry is that you, in San Francisco, spotted something that we've sort of worried about here at THE INDICATOR. We were worried that with all of the stresses on this strange economy right now, some people would just give up and shut things down.
MA: And here is the winning line from the Beige Book. Quote, "a few contacts noted tighter availability of new lots for construction projects. A contact in Alaska highlighted that a large multifamily housing development project was postponed due to inflation uncertainty."
SMITH: What are they worried about? Is it the price of lumber, the price of labor, the price of nails or wallboard?
OLIVEIRA: Input costs, as we would say - so that includes supplies and labor, as well as anything that goes into putting these multifamily construction projects together.
SMITH: Now, inflation is one of those weird things - right? - where the expectation of inflation is both a worry and the thing that causes more inflation.
OLIVEIRA: Yeah, that's right. Inflationary pressures, in theory, they have two pieces - actual inflation and expected inflation. But I do believe that theory there goes perhaps a little bit beyond what the Beige Book is focusing on.
SMITH: Is that what they tell you on the first day you work for the Beige Book? - which is like, for the love of God, don't try to predict the future.
OLIVEIRA: (Laughter) I guess that's part of our job, yes, to be cautious about predictions.
Luiz is a cautious man, and he says we should also be cautious about being pessimistic while reading the Beige Book. A lot of people - OK, I'm talking about us as news reporters here. A lot of us focus on the downside, the troubles with the economy. But Luiz says you can always look at the silver lining. The tight labor market may be making construction more expensive in Alaska, sure. But he says...
OLIVEIRA: It's usually a good thing. It usually means that people that wouldn't necessarily get many opportunities to join the labor force get those opportunities when the labor market is tight. So there is a positive to it as well, and I like to focus on that. On a personal level, I'd like to see a tight, healthy labor market as a good thing.
SMITH: Well, Luiz Oliveira, congratulations on receiving the last Beigie Award of 2021.
OLIVEIRA: Thank you, on behalf of our team here in San Francisco.
MA: Shall we finish off the Christmas poem?
SMITH: I think we shall. Let me skip to the very end.
For the Fed, there's no holiday, no time off, I fear. They're already working on the book for next year.
MA: I heard the economists exclaim ere they drove out of sight, happy Beige Book to all, and to all, a good night.
SMITH: You would make a killer Santa, Adrian.
MA: Maybe I'll make some side money this Christmas.
SMITH: Work on the look a little bit.
MA: Oops, got to hurry up - we're out of time. This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by senior producer Viet Le with help from James Willetts. It was fact-checked by Taylor Washington. The show was edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.
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