What garden hoses, mobile homes and tapas tell us about the economy


(AP photo)

The Federal Reserve will release the first Beige Book of 2014 on Wednesday afternoon, a report that summarizes the state of the economy through anecdotes from businesses across the country. The Beige Book is released eight times a year and is about as exciting as the color of its cover – to put it nicely. Information about everything from farm production to bank lending is conveyed in the Fed’s typical dry, matter-of-fact tone, as we find in the December 2013 report: "Manufacturing activity expanded at a modest to moderate pace in most Districts during the reporting period. Some slowing in single-family home sales was attributed to seasonal factors The Kansas City District indicated rising farmland values, although the rate of increase slowed."

But every so often, there is a gem hidden deep within the bland prose of central banking, one that proves that even the most mundane markets can provide clues to our economic future. Or at least make us laugh. We’ve unearthed a few here for your reading pleasure:

A plastics firm indicates that its core bulk chemical business is slowing--"coming in for a landing"--and its retail garden hose business is "the worst in memory."
-- December 2013

Fruit and peanut yields have been excellent, while cucumber production was reduced this autumn as a result of too much rain.
-- October 2013

She noted that restaurants were generally busy, although budget-conscious tourists were primarily frequenting "tapas and deck parties" instead of fine dining establishments.
-- September 2013

Broadway theaters report that attendance and revenues have been running below comparable 2012 levels in January and early December -- mainly reflecting a 20-30 percent reduction in the number of shows.
-- March 2013

Sales of frozen fish continue to be weak.
-- January 2013

Retail contacts in upstate New York also report that sales have been brisk since the beginning of the year, despite a brief lull in early January, with one Buffalo-area contact indicating that sales continue to be buoyed by a steady flow of Canadian shoppers.
-- March 2011

And from deep within the archives …

In response to the President's request to curb energy usage, District businessmen and Governmental officials have instituted fuel conservation programs. ... Furthermore, many firms are encouraging their employees to form car pools and are imposing 50 m.p.h. speed limits on company vehicles.
-- November 1973

Carpet manufacturing is also anticipated to expand in the near future.
The mobile home industry provides another example of an industry where employment and production seem to have bottomed out, attributed by one banker to a relaxation of tight money.
-- September 1970

Ylan Q. Mui is a financial reporter at The Washington Post covering the Federal Reserve and the economy.
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