The following is the summary text of the Federal Reserve Board’s Summary of Commentary.
Reports from the twelve Federal Reserve Districts indicated that the economy continued to expand at a modest to moderate pace from mid-February through late March. Activity in the Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts grew at a moderate pace, while Cleveland and St. Louis cited modest growth. New York reported that economic growth picked up somewhat. Philadelphia and Richmond cited improving business conditions. The economy in Minneapolis grew at a solid pace and Kansas City’s economy expanded at a faster pace.
Manufacturing continued to expand in most Districts, with gains noted in automotive and high-technology industries. Manufacturers in many Districts expressed optimism about near- term growth prospects, but they are somewhat concerned about rising petroleum prices. Demand for professional business services showed modest to strong growth and freight volume was mainly higher. Reports on retail spending were positive, with the unusually warm weather being credited for boosting sales in several Districts. While the near-term outlook for household spending was encouraging, contacts in several Districts expressed concerns that rising gas prices could limit discretionary spending in the months to come. New-vehicle sales were reported as strong or strengthening across much of the United States. Tourism increased in most reporting Districts. Residential real estate showed some improvement, with many contacts citing expansion in the construction of multi-family housing. Activity in nonresidential real estate increased or held steady in most Districts. Agricultural conditions were generally favorable. Mining activity expanded and oil extraction rose, while natural gas drilling slowed. Banking conditions were largely stable, with some improvement seen in loan demand. Several Districts reported increased credit quality.
Hiring was steady or showed a modest increase across many Districts. Difficulty finding qualified workers, especially for high-skilled positions, was frequently reported. Upward pressure on wages was constrained. Overall price inflation was modest. However, contacts in many Districts commented on rising transportation costs due to higher fuel prices.
Manufacturing continued to expand in most Districts, although respondents in the Boston and St. Louis Districts reported that manufacturing was mixed and Chicago reported that growth in manufacturing production leveled off after a strong start to the year. Contacts in automotive industries reported gains in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Chicago. The Kansas City, Dallas and San Francisco Districts reported increased sales for high-technology manufacturers, with Dallas noting key demand drivers continue to be mobile applications, cloud computing, and automobiles. The Philadelphia and Dallas Districts indicated improvement in demand for manufacturing with ties to residential housing and construction. Cleveland steel producers and service centers reported that volume was trending slightly higher, while Chicago steel producers said that capacity utilization was steady. For refiners in San Francisco, capacity utilization rates continued to hold largely stable, as weak domestic gasoline demand was offset by strong foreign demand for distillate products. In Dallas, Gulf Coast refiners noted steady margins overall.
Manufacturers in Boston, Cleveland, and Chicago are expanding payrolls but finding it difficult to find highly-skilled workers. Comments from the Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, and Kansas City Districts indicated a rise in capital spending. Manufacturers in over half the Districts commented on increasing input costs, focusing, in particular, on rising petroleum prices. Contacts in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Kansas City, and San Francisco remained optimistic that activity will increase in the near term. However, several respondents in Cleveland and Dallas noted that their outlooks have become more cautious. Manufacturers in Boston and Cleveland expressed concern about the European economy. Expectations were mixed in St. Louis.
Demand for professional business services was characterized as modest to strong in the Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts. St. Louis, Minneapolis, and San Francisco reported that demand was mixed. Boston and Richmond cited rising demand for advertising, marketing, and consulting services, while accounting services saw a modest pickup in Minneapolis and Dallas. Growth in technology-related services to the energy sector was noted in the Minneapolis and Kansas City Districts. St. Louis and San Francisco reported that activity in the healthcare sector was flat to down. Both Richmond and San Francisco noted increased sales for restaurants and food-related service providers. Freight transportation services were higher in the Cleveland, Richmond, and Kansas City Districts. Reports from Atlanta and Dallas were mixed due to declining air cargo volumes and railroad shipments. St. Louis reported that plans have been announced to close certain freight transport and distribution facilities. Contacts in Cleveland, Richmond, and Kansas City noted a shortage of qualified truck drivers.
Consumer Spending and Tourism
Retail spending continued to improve in almost all Districts. Contacts in the Boston, New York, and St. Louis Districts characterized retail activity as strong. Reports from Chicago and Richmond indicated a significant strengthening in retail spending. Sales expanded at a modest or moderate pace in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Dallas. Unseasonably warm weather boosted sales in the Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, and Chicago Districts. Grocers in Cleveland and San Francisco reported sales as unchanged. Apparel sales were strong in Boston and New York. Purchases at home improvement stores were up in Richmond and Chicago. Reports from Boston, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Kansas City indicate a positive near-term outlook for retail spending; however, contacts in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, and Kansas City expressed concerns that rising gas prices could limit discretionary spending in the months to come.
Automobile sales were reported as stronger or strengthening during late February and early March in most Districts. Mild winter weather boosted sales in Cleveland but depressed motor vehicle service spending in New York and Minneapolis. Rising gas prices lead to increased purchases of fuel-efficient vehicles in Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco. Contacts in Philadelphia and Kansas City expect continued sales strength. Reports from Cleveland showed a mixed outlook, with some respondents expecting solid sales and others seeing the current pace of sales as unsustainable. Used-vehicle sales were reported as strong or robust in Cleveland and San Francisco.
Tourism was characterized as strong by respondents in the Boston, New York, Richmond, and Atlanta Districts. Minneapolis indicated a slowdown in activity due to a general lack of snow this winter. Conversely, warm weather boosted tourism in Richmond. Bookings were strong in New York, and occupancy rates improved in the Boston, New York, Atlanta, and San Francisco Districts. In Boston and Kansas City, business travel continues to be the main driver of tourism activity. Contacts in Boston and Atlanta expressed concern over high fuel prices as a possible drag on leisure spending.
Real Estate and Construction
Residential real estate activity improved in most Districts, though Cleveland and San Francisco noted that activity remained lackluster or at low levels. The St. Louis and Minneapolis Districts reported increases in building permits. The construction of multi-family housing units, including apartments and senior housing, expanded in many Districts. Home prices continued to decline in Boston, New York, and Minneapolis, but were largely flat in San Francisco. Contacts in Boston, Philadelphia, and Kansas City indicated that mild weather had boosted real estate activity.
Non-residential construction activity improved in the Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, and St. Louis Districts, though many of these contacts characterized the improvement as slow. Boston, New York, and San Francisco characterized non-residential real estate activity as unchanged or steady. The energy and high-tech sectors were driving much of the demand in the Dallas District. San Francisco noted a rise in the demand for office space from the technology sector. Cleveland and Chicago saw a boost in healthcare-related construction. Projects related to the education sector are showing growth in Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Richmond. The outlook of builders is described as positive or slowly improving in the Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, and Kansas City Districts, and as cautiously optimistic in Boston.
Banking and Finance
For most Districts reporting on financial services, banking conditions remained stable, with modest improvements in demand for lending. Loan demand was reported as improved in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco, while lending activity was unchanged in St Louis. The Dallas District reported improved sentiment by national and regional banks due to improved middle-market and large corporate lending. Contacts in Cleveland, Richmond, and San Francisco reported that increased competition among lenders has been driving more aggressive loan pricing. In general, the demand for commercial and industrial loans remained steady, while several Districts reported an increase in commercial real estate lending activity. The Philadelphia and Cleveland Districts reported increased lending for multifamily housing and health care, and contacts in Richmond cited increased lending to small business to finance inventory and capital expenditures. Consumer lending has remained stable or risen modestly across a few Districts. The Cleveland and Richmond Districts reported increased home equity and auto lending, while bankers in Chicago noted improved credit availability for auto loans and credit cards. Several Districts reported that credit standards remain stable, but Richmond bankers reported that they were offering easier terms to attract new commercial borrowers. Several Districts reported increased credit quality, as delinquencies have continued to decline and few problem loans have been reported.
Agriculture and Natural Resources
Recent rain and snowfall has helped alleviate dry agricultural conditions from earlier in the year. Nonetheless, the Atlanta, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts have all reported certain areas where drought conditions continue to persist. Due to unseasonably warm weather, contacts in several Districts reported that the planting of some crops is beginning earlier than normal, including corn in Chicago and wheat in Minneapolis. San Francisco commented that there has been an increase in certain input costs, such as fertilizer, while Chicago reported tight supplies of some agricultural chemicals and corn seed. Atlanta and Chicago reported an increase in the prices paid to farmers for soybeans; Chicago noted that the increase was due to lower-than-expected harvests in South America. Livestock prices rose in the Chicago, Minneapolis, and Kansas City Districts, while orders for livestock were robust in San Francisco. Farmland values in Kansas City continue to rise and are at record highs.
Activity in natural resources remained strong. The Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts reported a shift from natural gas to oil exploration and production due to low natural gas prices and growing demand for oil. In the Cleveland District, leasing activity in the Utica shale is expanding. Cleveland and St. Louis noted that the production of coal has slowed over the past few months. The mining sector is expanding in San Francisco due to high prices for a variety of precious metals, and iron ore mines in the Minneapolis District continued to operate near capacity. Contacts in Kansas City reported a shortage of engineers and experienced technical support for oil and gas drilling.
Employment, Wages, and Prices
Hiring was steady or showed a modest increase in the Boston, New York, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts. Industries reporting some employment growth included manufacturing, freight transport, professional business services, and information technology. A preference for part-time and temporary workers was seen in the Richmond and Atlanta Districts. Atlanta noted that temporary workers were being utilized in order to contain costs and retain flexibility, while some employers in Richmond prefer temporary workers due to uncertainty about future demand. Some employers in the Boston, Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts reported having difficulty finding qualified workers, especially for certain high-skilled positions. Contacts in Philadelphia and Cleveland noted that new federal regulations are exacerbating a truck-driver shortage. New York commented that employers are planning to step up hiring activity in the months ahead. Boston, Richmond, and Atlanta said that employers in their Districts are cautious and need to see more robust growth before they expand their permanent payrolls further.
Wage pressures were characterized as contained or modest among reporting Districts. Contacts in Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco noted some upward pressure on wages for skilled jobs, especially in manufacturing and information technology. In the Minneapolis District, strong oil-drilling and production activity continued to bid up pay. Transportation contacts in Cleveland noted some wage pressure due to a tightening of the driver pool. And medical benefits continue to put pressure on labor costs in Philadelphia.
Overall price inflation was modest in most Districts. However, contacts in the Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts cited rising transportation costs due to higher fuel prices. Minneapolis and Dallas noted that airlines have raised their fares to offset higher fuel costs. Richmond reported that rising fuel costs were a serious problem for both land and ocean shippers, while intermodal transportation firms in Dallas said that they had increased prices in response to higher fuel costs. In Atlanta, higher transportation costs were passed through to consumers without much difficulty. In contrast, contacts in Cleveland, Chicago, and San Francisco said it was difficult to pass through higher costs to consumers. Input costs for manufacturers in Boston, Cleveland, and Kansas City rose somewhat, but with little pass- through. Price pressures have eased somewhat for manufacturing firms in Philadelphia. Higher prices for construction materials narrowed profit margins for contractors in Kansas City.
* Prepared by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland based on information collected on or before April 2, 2012. 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.