SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
It is that time again, that very special time that only comes eight times a year - the Beige Book.
SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:
The Beige Book is a report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States. Each of the 12 Fed banks around the country contribute a chapter.
VANEK SMITH: And around here, we love the Beige Book. It is an economic report. But instead of numbers, the Beige Book relies on stories, anecdotes.
GONZALEZ: So economists that Federal Reserve banks all across the country - the Dallas Fed, the San Francisco Fed, the Boston Fed - they start calling local businesses and companies and asking them, what's up? How are things in your sector of the economy? And each of those reports from each of those banks becomes a chapter in the Beige Book.
VANEK SMITH: And here THE INDICATOR, we have a special place in our hearts for the Beige Book. And when it comes out, we like to find a particular anecdote or a fact that one of the Federal Reserve banks found that we think rises above the rest and present that bank with an award.
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GONZALEZ: Welcome to the Beigie Awards, brought to you by THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm your co-host today, Sarah Gonzalez.
VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. And today, Sarah, we have a very special Beigey Award - a first.
GONZALEZ: Right after the break, we present the first ever Beigie achievement award for a bank that went above and beyond and is helping to make an even better Beige.
VANEK SMITH: Imagine it.
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GONZALEZ: Welcome back to a very special edition of the Beigie Awards. Stacey, the Beigie, they are always such an exciting time. But this award, this one in particular, is extra special.
VANEK SMITH: It really is. So to explain, each entry of the Beige Book from each Federal Reserve Bank is broken down into different sections that examine different parts of the economy, like agriculture, retail, manufacturing.
GONZALEZ: These sections don't really change much. But now one bank is doing something different.
VANEK SMITH: Yes. And this Beigie award goes to the Federal Reserve Bank that added two brand-new sections to their Beige Book entry, sections that we believe will help contribute to our understanding of the economy for generations to come.
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GONZALEZ: And the Beigie goes to - rips envelope, rips envelope. That is a real envelope being ripped right in front of our audience.
VANEK SMITH: From paper.
GONZALEZ: It goes to (laughter) the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
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VANEK SMITH: Congratulations, Minneapolis Fed. They made two big additions to their Beige Book entry, and the first is the addition - this is so exciting - of a section called Worker Experience, where economists talk to individual workers to hear what they're going through rather than just talking to businesses.
GONZALEZ: And the second is an addition of a section called Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise, where they reach out to minority and female business owners to ask them what their experiences have been.
VANEK SMITH: Joe Mahon is an economist and regional outreach director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and I called him to tell him the good news.
Well, here at THE INDICATOR, we have this award called the Beigies, where we award our favorite entry in the Beige Book.
JOE MAHON: Mmm hmm.
VANEK SMITH: It might shock you to learn this, Sarah, but sometimes people that we award a Beigie to have not actually heard of the award.
GONZALEZ: That is so shocking. It's such an important award.
VANEK SMITH: I know. I know. It also creates a little bit of an awkward situation where I have to explain what the Beigie is while simultaneously awarding it. And, you know, usually I can just own it. I just own the situation. But this time, I did not own it.
We wanted to, like, award a different kind - I don't know, like, a new kind of Beigie, I guess, sort of...
MAHON: Oh, wow.
VANEK SMITH: ...I guess the sort of achieve - like, overall achievement award to you guys for adding this entry and kind of shaking up the Beige Book, which is not something that gets shaken up all that often. So we wanted to award you guys.
MAHON: So are you telling me we're getting a special Beigie?
VANEK SMITH: You're getting a special Beigie, yes.
VANEK SMITH: Yes.
VANEK SMITH: So how does it feel?
MAHON: Well, it feels good.
VANEK SMITH: Good (laughter).
GONZALEZ: Emotions running real high over here (laughter).
VANEK SMITH: Economists are dramatic people.
GONZALEZ: Oh, 100%. Joe says that the data they've gotten from these new sections has already given them a lot of new information. For instance, some of the information from the Worker Experience section actually helped them solve this economic mystery that's been brewing for the last year.
VANEK SMITH: A lot of employers have been saying for months and months that they cannot find workers. They have open jobs, and they can't fill them. And at the very same time, there are millions and millions of unemployed workers who say they are desperate for a job.
GONZALEZ: But Joe says when they started talking to actual workers, the mystery started to clear up. They heard from a lot of people who said that there were jobs they just couldn't take even when they really wanted to take them.
MAHON: For example, employers are really keen to fill 12-hour shifts, and these are much more difficult to fill if you have to manage child care. We're hearing a lot about transportation issues right now, in particular the impact of mass transit cuts in service, stories about child care responsibilities, how expensive child care is and how hard it is to find and how that's a constraint, particularly for women.
VANEK SMITH: Also, Joe says, women and minority-owned businesses have been harder hit by the pandemic than businesses in general. And we know that part of the reason for this is that women and minority-owned businesses tend to be concentrated in the service sector, retail and hospitality, and those have just been especially hard-hit by the pandemic.
GONZALEZ: Also, those businesses tend to be smaller, so they're more vulnerable to economic changes.
VANEK SMITH: But Joe and his team also discovered that many of these businesses were also doing worse because they had not taken advantage of government aid.
MAHON: We don't know as much about why, but we've heard some sort of compelling stories. And one of those stories is that, particularly among immigrant business owners, they've expressed concerns that applying for aid might jeopardize their future citizenship status.
GONZALEZ: A lot of government funding made available during the pandemic was not supposed to affect immigration status, but Joe says some visa holders were skeptical of that guarantee.
VANEK SMITH: Joe says the Minneapolis Fed expects these new sections to reveal more information like this in the future, and that could be helpful in guiding policy and supporting businesses and workers across the economy.
MAHON: In some ways, this has been on our minds for a really long time. It's been even more prominent on our minds the last year.
VANEK SMITH: The horror of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis has made issues of race and representation seem even more urgent.
MAHON: There's been, I would say, a growing emphasis in the Minneapolis Fed but also within the Federal Reserve more broadly to make sure that we're building a more inclusive economy and that we are being more representative and more inclusive in the economic data that we look at and that guides policymaking.
GONZALEZ: Good job, Minneapolis. We are excited to see what you discover in future Beige Books.
VANEK SMITH: And also, a shoutout to all of the Federal Reserve banks that contribute to the Beige Book. You guys do great work.
GONZALEZ: Until the next Beigies, we'll be reading.
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VANEK SMITH: This episode of the indicator was produced by Sam Caiand edited by Jolie Myers. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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