Mirroring other economic indicators, the Federal Reserve Board’s Beige Book highlights “modest to moderate” growth in activity in recent months. It says, “Compared with prior summaries, the reports on balance suggest ongoing improvement in economic conditions in recent months, with most Districts highlighting more favorable conditions than identified in reports from the late spring to early fall.”
The report says manufacturing activity has picked up in most districts. According to their analysis, “The strongest reports came from subsectors such as heavy equipment manufacturing and steel, for which demand has been boosted by robust growth in the energy, agricultural, and auto manufacturing sectors.” Another positive for manufacturers has been the increase in consumer spending, which was driven largely by holiday sales. Export growth for manufactured goods has also been largely a positive.
There were exceptions to the trend of higher manufacturing activity, though, including some districts which were “stable” (Cleveland, Richmond and Dallas) or slightly declining (Kansas City). For instance, lower demand continues to be a challenge for manufacturers tied to the housing sector, and supply issues persist for some sectors because of the recent flooding in Thailand.
Pricing pressures, which have been a major challenge for manufacturers over the past year due to elevated energy and raw material costs, have eased somewhat. Price and wage increases have been limited. With that said, higher health benefit costs were cited as one compensation cost that was squeezing many employers.
This report is largely consistent with the last Beige Book release. While economic growth remains sub-par overall, there have been a number of modest improvements lately to say that the domestic environment is getting better. Still, the Fed continues to watch the developments in Europe and domestically very closely, as there continue to be a number of potential risks out there which could derail what progress has been made.
Chad Moutray is chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.