Fed survey points to uneven growth across US

Published 10:55 pm Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The U.S. economy grew unevenly in early fall, with more than half the regions of the country expanding modestly while others struggled to grow.

A survey by the Federal Reserve released Wednesday found that seven of the Fed’s 12 regions reported moderate improvements in business activity. Three regions — Philadelphia, Richmond and Cleveland — described economic activity as mixed or steady. Only two regions — Atlanta and Dallas — suggested economic growth was slow.

The survey indicated that the economy isn’t weakening but is growing too sluggishly to drive down high unemployment, now at 9.6 percent. The jobless rate has been at or above 9.5 percent for more than a year.

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“Hiring remains limited, with many firms reluctant to add to permanent payrolls given economic softness,” the Fed survey concluded.

High unemployment is one of the Fed’s biggest concerns. That’s why Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues are widely expected to launch a new program at their Nov. 2-3 meeting to bolster the economy. The Fed is expected to buy Treasury bonds in a bid to drive down interest rates on mortgages, corporate loans and other debt. The hope is that cheaper credit will persuade Americans to increase spending, which would help the economy grow and lead companies to hire more workers.

The Fed’s survey, known as the Beige Book, will figure into Fed policymakers’ discussions at the November meeting about how the economy is faring.

The region-by-region survey is based on information collected from the Fed’s 12 regional banks on or before Oct. 8. It provides a more intimate look at the overall economy than broad statistics.

“The overall read wasn’t as depressing as it could have been,” said Jennifer Lee, economist at BMO Capital Markets. “Does it change the outlook on growth or the Fed? Nope. But it does continue to suggest that growth continues around the country — not contraction,” she said, referring to a slide back into recession.

The economic picture hasn’t changed much from early September, when the Fed’s previous survey noted that seven regions saw modest improvement in business activity. What is different is which regions are growing, and which are struggling.

For instance, New York and Chicago reported a pick up in economic activity after having slower growth in the previous cycle. Conversely, the Dallas region was more subdued this time around after showing modest expansion the last report.

Either way, the economy has slowed from just a few months ago. In June, all 12 Fed regions reported their economies were growing. It was the first time that happened since the start of the recession in late 2007. That’s a major reason the Fed is ready to launch a new round of stimulus next month.

Consumer spending was flat to moderately positive in most Fed regions, according to the new survey. The exceptions: the Richmond and Atlanta regions, where mall traffic and sales declined.

One of the main reasons why economic growth is so sluggish is because consumers aren’t spending a lot. Battered by the recession, they are trying to repair their finances by spending less, saving more and trimming debt. The Fed’s survey noted that shoppers remain price conscious and are largely limiting purchases to necessities.

A weak housing market also restrained economic growth in most parts of the country. There were, however, some scattered reports of improvement. The Philadelphia region noted a pickup in sales of previously occupied homes. The Richmond, Dallas and Kansas City regions all reported increases in the sale of higher-priced homes.

Factories expanded production in most regions. The only exceptions were the regions of Philadelphia and Richmond, where manufacturing activity softened, the Fed said. Exports to foreign countries helped to boost manufacturing activity in Cleveland, Chicago and Kansas City.

A separate Fed report released earlier this week, however, found that production at factories throughout the United States declined in September. A burst of manufacturing activity occurred earlier this year as companies placed orders for all kinds of goods to replenish stockpiles that had dwindled during the recession.