Reports from the twelve Federal Reserve Districts indicated that economic conditions continued to expand since the last report, although severe snowstorms in early February held back activity in several Districts. Nine Districts reported that economic activity improved, but in most cases the increases were modest. Overall conditions were described as mixed in the Atlanta and St. Louis Districts, though St. Louis noted further signs of improvement in some areas. Richmond reported that economic activity slackened or remained soft across most sectors, due importantly to especially severe February weather in that region.
Let's go to the data to get some more detail.
Consumer spending showed signs of improvement in many Districts since the last report but was hampered in several regions by severe weather conditions in early February. Retail sales improved in the Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts, and New York said sales were well above year-ago levels in January and met expectations in February despite inclement weather. Philadelphia also reported that sales were moving up slowly until snowstorms hit in February. Boston and Cleveland characterized sales as mixed but slightly higher overall than year ago levels. Sales were lower than expected in the Atlanta and Kansas City Districts and were down from year-ago levels in the St. Louis District. Several Districts reported that sales were strongest for lower-priced items, while sales of luxury and big ticket items remained sluggish. However, San Francisco noted scattered reports of increased discretionary spending, and Cleveland said some retailers noted a broader, if still slight, increase in demand across a variety of products. Inventories were being managed carefully and held at fairly low levels in most Districts, but Chicago said rising sales were leading retailers to begin rebuilding inventories from low levels.
For more on this, see the recent post on personal income.
Nonfinancial services activity was reported as steady or improved by the majority of Districts. Boston, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and San Francisco reported generally solid demand in health-care services, although Minneapolis noted continued weakness in elective procedures. New York indicated that a growing number of service firms planned to increase capital spending in the months ahead, but investment expectations diminished among high-tech companies in the Kansas City District. Richmond reported that service revenues fell due to the record snowstorms, but a few contacts saw a slight pickup in demand, particularly architectural firms, hospitals, and financial service professionals.
See yesterday's post on the ADP employment report for more information -- this ADP report is largely concerned with service sector employment.
In addition, the ISM released their non-manufacturing index yesterday:
"The NMI (Non-Manufacturing Index) registered 53 percent in February, 2.5 percentage points higher than the seasonally adjusted 50.5 percent registered in January, indicating growth in the non-manufacturing sector. The Non-Manufacturing Business Activity Index increased 2.6 percentage points to 54.8 percent, reflecting growth for the third consecutive month. The New Orders Index increased 0.3 percentage point to 55 percent, and the Employment Index increased 4 percentage points to 48.6 percent. The Prices Index decreased 0.8 percentage point to 60.4 percent in February, indicating an increase in prices paid from January. According to the NMI, nine non-manufacturing industries reported growth in February. Respondents' comments vary by industry and company about business conditions."
Here is a chart of the relevant data:
Notice the clear improving trend that has been in place since the end of November 2008.
Manufacturing activity increased further in most Districts, although Minneapolis, Dallas, and San Francisco characterized overall activity as flat or mixed. Philadelphia reported widespread production increases across most industries, and manufacturers in the Cleveland District reported a general rise in capacity utilization. Many Districts reported strong production in metals, and the Boston, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts noted strength in high-tech equipment, particularly semiconductors. Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, and Dallas noted solid improvements in auto-related manufacturing. A consumer goods company in the Boston District said European sales were at healthier levels. Contacts in the Chicago District reported strong growth in Asian exports but remained concerned about China's underlying economic strength. Dallas reported that exports for natural-gas based products remained strong, but weak demand for refined products has trimmed margins and cut capacity utilization further. Construction-related activity remained weak in the Chicago and Dallas Districts, and new orders for commercial aircraft and parts were sluggish in the San Francisco District. Philadelphia and Richmond noted productions delays due to the winter snowstorms in February, but some factories were able to make up the losses with longer work hours and extended shifts. Several manufacturers in the Philadelphia District said production gains could be limited due to continued tightening in credit markets and adverse developments in taxes and regulations. Plant managers in a few Districts reported that a large number of customers were simply restocking inventories, leading to concerns about the sustainability of the increase. However, contacts in most Districts remained optimistic for future months, with several reports of planned increases in capital spending.
For more detail/information, see the latest post on the ISM manufacturing data.
Residential real estate markets improved in a number of Districts, remained weak or softened further in the New York, Atlanta, and Chicago Districts, was little changed in the San Francisco District, and characterized as mixed in the St. Louis District. Richmond also reported overall housing activity as mixed, but one contact noted that absent the harsh weather, market conditions might have improved. Adverse weather conditions also hampered home sales and construction in the New York, Philadelphia, and Atlanta Districts. Most Districts attributed stronger home sales to the home-buyer tax credit, with several contacts apprehensive about future sales once the credit expires on April 30. Philadelphia, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Dallas reported that sales were strongest for low-priced and starter homes, while Dallas cited financing difficulties for high-end homes. Home construction was down or stagnant in most Districts, with the exception of the Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts. Atlanta said the most pronounced weakness was among Georgia homebuilders, and San Francisco attributed weak construction activity to elevated home inventory levels. Home prices mostly remained flat or declined slightly, but signs of improvement were noted in the Boston and San Francisco Districts. A real estate agent in a relatively upscale area of the New York District said prices have continued to drift downward but that short sales were relatively rare and most transactions were still above the mortgage balance.
Commercial real estate conditions remained weak or declined further in most Districts, although some Districts noted slight stabilization or modest signs of improvement. Commercial real estate activity weakened in the Richmond, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts, though Dallas noted that leasing fell at a slower rate and San Francisco cited increased leasing in some segments. Boston and Philadelphia said conditions remain weak, but both noted some improvement in sales of commercial space. New York reported softer activity in the New York City area but some steadying in vacancies and rents elsewhere, while St. Louis said activity remained weak throughout the District. Several Districts also noted that many tenants were pushing for, and in some cases receiving, concessions on rents. All Districts reporting on commercial construction said that activity remained weak or slow, except for some moderate boost from federal stimulus projects and other public construction. Credit for commercial development and transactions was still very difficult to obtain in several Districts, though San Francisco noted a slight improvement in financing availability.
Housing is not doing well. New homes sales are bouncing along the bottom and existing home sales have dropped sharply over the last two months. This is an area of the economy where we need to see more improvement and quickly.
The pace of layoffs slowed in most Districts, but hiring plans still remained generally soft. New York cited a slowdown in layoffs at a securities firm and noted a pickup in hiring in what was still characterized as an exceptionally weak legal industry. Staffing firms in the Boston District also saw a strengthening in demand, particularly from the financial and manufacturing sectors. Several manufacturing and construction firms in the Cleveland District began recalling workers, and temporary staffing accelerated in the Richmond, Atlanta, and Chicago Districts. However, Chicago said demand for permanent workers was low, and a manufacturing contact in the Richmond District held back employment due to productivity improvements. Layoffs were also reported at several retail and manufacturing firms in the Dallas District, and Minneapolis said companies in the medical insurance and financial services industries reduced employment. Wage pressures were minimal, but Boston and Cleveland noted a lift in salary freezes and Richmond said wages rose at service and retail businesses.
The opening sentence says it all -- layoffs have slowed (but they are stuck at uncomfortable levels right now) but there is no hiring yet. In short, the bleeding has stopped but we aren't getting better from there.
The bottom line is clear: the economy is continuing to improve.