Fed Says Labor Market Strengthened on Manufacturing, Retail

By Joshua Zumbrun
(c) 2011 Bloomberg News
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 2:10 PM

"Labor market conditions continued to strengthen modestly, with all Districts reporting some degree of improvement," the Fed said today in its Beige Book report, an anecdotal account of the economy released two weeks before meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee. Its last survey, released Jan. 12, said the job market was "firming somewhat."

Overall, the economy "continued to expand at a modest to moderate pace," the central bank said in Washington. Eleven of the Fed's 12 regional banks, including San Francisco and Philadelphia, described their regions as expanding, improving or experiencing moderate growth. Only Chicago reported growth "at a pace not quite as strong" as before.

Fed policy makers at their last meeting in January took a more optimistic view of the economy while maintaining their dissatisfaction with job growth. Policy makers, who are pressing ahead with their plan to buy $600 billion in Treasuries through June, raised projections for economic growth this year and made little change to forecasts after 2011 for unemployment and inflation.

The Beige Book reported that all districts except St. Louis "experienced solid growth in manufacturing production" and noted an increase in retail sales in every district except Richmond and Atlanta.

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, in congressional testimony today, said he's still not satisfied with the strength of the recovery from a recession that the National Bureau of Economic Research describes as the longest since the Great Depression.

"The economy's recovery is not firmly established, and we think monetary policy needs to be supportive," Bernanke said in semiannual testimony to the House Financial Services Committee.

Responding to a question from Representative Nydia Velazquez, a New York Democrat, Bernanke said the Fed's policy of keeping its benchmark rate near zero for an "extended period" helps provide support to the economy, "which in our judgment, it still needs."

The Beige Book's characterization of growth was little changed from the report in January, when six Fed regions, including Atlanta and Chicago, showed economies growing "modestly to moderately," and four, including New York and Boston, reported "improving" conditions.

The Commerce Department last week reduced its estimate of fourth-quarter economic growth to a 2.8 percent annual pace from 3.2 percent as state and local governments made deeper cuts in spending. Consumer purchases rose at a 4.1 percent pace, the most since 2006, providing a boost for retailers.

Last week Target Corp., the second-largest U.S. discount retailer, projected sales at stores open at least a year may rise as much as 5 percent this year, after a 2.1 percent gain the prior period.

"Retail spending strengthened compared with a year ago across all Districts except Richmond and Atlanta," today's report said, while noting that winter weather "had a negative impact on retail activity" in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Kansas City and Dallas.

The Beige Book report released today reflects information collected on or before Feb. 18 and summarized by the Atlanta Fed.

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