A national economic snapshot taken in early October by regional Federal Reserve banks showed a mixture of slow growth and mild declines across the country, with growth holding a small edge, according to results released yesterday.
While no part of the country was reported to be either expanding or declining rapidly, both business and consumer confidence were weakening significantly in almost every region. Also, construction activity, both commercial and residential, continued to fall virtually everywhere, the Fed survey found.
The reports from the Fed banks in San Francisco, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland and Atlanta indicated their regional economies were still growing, although seemingly at a slower pace than earlier in the year. St. Louis said it was flat.
Dallas found its economy declining, as did the East Coast banks: Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Richmond, which covers the Washington metropolitan area.
The drop in consumer and business confidence, much of it related to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the large oil price increases that followed, could turn the slow average growth into a recession, but that doesn't seem to have happened so far, given the findings of the Fed survey.
The findings were published in the central bank's so-called "beige book," which is prepared eight times a year prior to a meeting of the Fed's top policy-making group, the Federal Open Market Committee. The FOMC will meet Nov. 13 to set a course for monetary policy for several weeks thereafter.
Officials at the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank, which surveyed retailers, manufacturers, bankers, transportation companies and other industries, found that "district economic activity generally weakened further in early October, and the attitudes of businesses about the near-term outlook became more pessimistic."
The comments from Philadelphia were similar: "Economic activity in the ... district was generally sluggish in mid-October, with further weakening in manufacturing and retail trade and mixed reports from the banking sector. Manufacturing activity in the region continued to fall in October, and reports of slower busi- ness were more widespread than they were a month ago. Area firms noted declines in orders, and shipments were weaker than they had expected for the fall."
In contrast, the report from San Francisco concluded that growth there was continuing, "although the pace of growth has slowed further in recent months. Western business leaders are pessimistic about the prospects for national economic growth during the next year."
Around Chicago, where manufacturing industries have been benefiting from steadily rising foreign demand for U.S. goods, the outlook was somewhat brighter, though not without worries. "Consumer spending still appears stronger in the Midwest than in the nation as a whole. District manufacturing activity is rising, although several sources reported some new weakness in export markets," the Chicago surveyors found.
The Richmond portion of the beige book did not include much good news for this region. "Retail sales -- including sales of big ticket items -- declined in early October," it said. "Most stores also reported declines in shopper traffic and many retailers indicated that they had trimmed employment."
In addition, department store executives indicated they have reduced their sales projections and that they plan to hold down employment and advertising during the Christmas selling season.
The bank's survey of manufacturers showed "decreases in shipments, orders and employment in early October. Nearly half of the respondents identified poor sales as their most important business problem," with rising oil prices blamed for most of the decline.
"Contacts in the commercial real estate and banking sectors indicated that high vacancy rates and tighter loan standards have virtually halted new construction starts in the district," the Richmond survey continued.
Financial institutions in the Richmond district indicated lower demand for consumer and commercial loans. "Lenders attributed the weaker demand to uncertainty resulting from Mideast tensions, the lack of a federal budget accord, and slower growth in the domestic economy," the bank said.