Thursday, January 14, 2010

Beige Book, Part 1

Yesterday the Federal Reserve released the Beige Book. This is a great document for getting an overall feel for the economy. I'm going to spend the day looking at the national level numbers and supplementing the Fed's text with graphs and other relevant information.

Consumer spending in the recent 2009 holiday season was modestly greater than in 2008 for eight Districts, although as retailers in the Philadelphia and San Francisco Districts noted, 2008 sales were so low compared with 2007, that the relatively small 2009 gains did not represent a significant shift in trend. Consumers were variously described as cautious, price sensitive, and focused on necessities, but sometimes willing to spend on discretionary purchases. Kansas City and New York reported holiday sales comparable to prior year sales, while Cleveland and Richmond reported weaker holiday sales in 2009 than in 2008. Entering the holiday period, retail inventories were maintained or lowered further to lean levels in the Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and New York Districts. Some Chicago retailers reported running out of high-demand items during the holiday season, but inventory levels rose slightly in the Kansas City District.

Auto sales were flat or up slightly for some dealers since the last Beige Book in the Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia Districts. Dealer incentives boosted year-end inventory clearance according to Chicago District contacts. In the Dallas, Minneapolis, New York, and San Francisco Districts auto sales held steady or were mixed across states. The Kansas City and Richmond Districts reported lower auto sales since the last report. Some dealers in the Cleveland and New York Districts cited difficulties securing floor-plan financing. Difficulties securing customer financing was a concern cited by some Kansas City District dealers, while Philadelphia District dealers credited easier financing for supporting their recent sales.

Early-season snowstorms gave ski resorts a big lift in the Richmond and Minneapolis Districts; otherwise travel and tourism reports were mostly flat or weak in these and other Districts. One Minnesota-based travel services firm shut down due to lack of demand, and Richmond's tourism contacts reported consumers searching for deeply discounted packages and dining out less despite special offers. The New York, Atlanta, and Kansas City Districts also reported flat or weaker tourism. New York City's Broadway theaters reported weaker attendance this past holiday season than in 2008. Atlanta reported sluggish tourism throughout their District, but expected a boost from hosting upcoming National Football League events, and from strong 2010 cruise line bookings--a result of deep discounting. Kansas City and San Francisco noted sluggish business travel, placing downward pressure on airline passenger volumes, while Dallas reported airline demand recovering and fares stabilizing. The San Francisco District reported greater visitor volumes in Hawaii and Las Vegas, while occupancy rates in Seattle and Southern California were down.

Let's look at the data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve. We'll start with personal consumption expenditures -- PCEs:

Overall real PCEs hit a floor in early 2009 at about $9.2 trillion. Since then they have risen about $100 billion. This is certainly not as must as in other years, but is an improvement nonetheless.

Interestingly enough, services -- which comprise about 65% of PCEs -- have been steady since early 2008.

Non-durable sales have also bottomed and increased from their bottom.

Finally we have durable goods sales. These are higher form their beginning of the year numbers. Also note that sales have risen since the cash for clunkers program. And then there was the end of the year news:

The auto industry closed one of its worst years in history on a positive note, with U.S. sales rising about 15% in December and many executives predicting a gradual recovery in 2010.

Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. all reported substantial sales increases in the year's final month. Toyota said the surge meant it sold more cars to U.S. consumers in 2009 than any other maker, passing General Motors Co. in "retail" sales for the first time.

In short the overall car buying atmosphere appears to be better.

The consumer is recovering -- however, he is far from recovered. But things are definitely moving in the right direction.