The Beige Book prepared for the September 20-21 FOMC meeting indicates that there is no double-dip recession and that the economy continues to expand, although at a "modest pace." However, some Districts noted mixed or weakening activity. Overall, the report confirms the view that the recovery continues but at a very sluggish pace. Consumer spending is up somewhat but largely on motor vehicle sales. Manufacturing is growing but at a slower pace. Housing is still flat and depressed. Most Districts characterized commercial real estate and construction activity as weak or little changed, but improvements were noted in several areas. Labor markets were generally steady, although some Districts reported modest employment growth. On the inflation front, the majority of Districts reported fewer price pressures, but input costs continued to rise in select industries.
The recent federal debt ceiling legislative fiasco and resulting impact on financial markets did affect the outlook.
"Several Districts also indicated that recent stock market volatility and increased economic uncertainty had led many contacts to downgrade or become more cautious about their near-term outlooks."
The important consumer sector is trudging forward and Hurricane Irene did dampen sales in parts of the East Coast.
"Overall consumer spending increased slightly in most Districts, but non-auto retail sales were flat or down in some Districts. Hurricane Irene evacuations also produced widespread retail disruptions in late August in the New York District, where activity had been close to or above plan in July before slowing somewhat in early August."
Manufacturing conditions were mixed with the pace of activity slowing in many Districts. A positive appears to be that supply disruptions from Japan for the auto sector are easing and we may get some lift as noted by one Beige Book contact. A tire manufacturer in the Atlanta District noted particular pressure in meeting a recent surge in new orders due to supply chain normalization after the Japan disaster.
Most districts cited overall loan demand as stable to slightly weaker. However, most Districts said that loan quality was generally improving and that credit standards were largely unchanged.
Labor markets were generally steady, although some Districts reported modest employment growth. Several Districts reported a shortage of skilled workers such as engineers, mechanics, and software developers.
Overall, there were no real surprises in the latest Beige Book and no dramatic ammunition to push for another round of quantitative easing although some on the FOMC could continue to argue that the economy is too sluggish and needs help. Today's report likely leaves the next policy move on September 21 very much up in the air. Markets were little changed on the release.