TEXT: Beige Book
The following is the full text of the Beige Book released by the Federal Reserve on March 5, 2008 and based on information collected on or before February 25, 2008:
Reports from the twelve Federal Reserve Districts suggest that economic growth has slowed since the beginning of the year. Two-thirds of the Districts cited softening or weakening in the pace of business activity, while the others referred to subdued, slow, or modest growth. Retail activity in most Districts was reported to be weak or softening, although tourism generally continued to expand. Services industries in many Districts, including staffing services in Boston, port activity in New York, and truck freight volume in Cleveland, appeared to be slowing, but activity in services provided some positive news in Richmond and Dallas. Manufacturing was said to be sluggish or to have slowed in about half the Districts, while several others indicated manufacturing results were mixed or trends were steady.
Residential real estate markets generally remained weak; reports on commercial real estate markets were somewhat mixed, but also suggest slowing, on balance, in many Districts. Most Districts reporting on banking cite tight or tightening credit standards and stable or weaker loan demand. Districts reporting on the agriculture and energy sectors said activity is generally strong.
Upward pressure on prices from rising materials and energy prices was noted in almost all the District reports, but Philadelphia said increases in input costs and output prices had recently become less prevalent, and San Francisco indicated pressures were limited for products other than food and energy. By contrast, wage and salary pressures were generally said to be modest, as the hiring pace slowed in various sectors and labor markets loosened somewhat in many Districts.
Consumer Spending and Tourism
Reports on retail spending were generally downbeat, although Boston, St. Louis, and Dallas described sales as mixed and Kansas City reported that consumer spending was "largely unchanged" since the previous survey period. The majority of Districts characterized sales as below plan, downbeat, weak, or having softened. Among product categories, apparel sales were soft in New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond, but strong in Boston. Several Districts noted declines in sales of big-ticket and/or home-related items.
Districts commenting on vehicle sales described them as slow or sluggish, with little exception. Contacts in Dallas attributed an uptick in auto sales to increased advertising and incentives. Chicago dealerships reported some increases in used car sales in February. Dealers in the Philadelphia District expected sales to increase later in the year, but Cleveland did not expect significant change in the upcoming months.
The majority of reports on tourism were positive, on balance, although most Districts mentioned some areas of softening. The San Francisco District commented that while tourism in Hawaii had fallen from previous levels, activity in California remained stable, partly because of growing foreign travel resulting from the lower exchange value of the U.S. dollar. Minneapolis reported an increase in tourism activity generally relating to winter sports. Tourism and travel in Kansas City, Atlanta, New York, and Chicago were also mostly positive.
Reports from nonfinancial services industries were mixed. Health-care services expanded in the Richmond, Minneapolis, and San Francisco Districts, while contacts in the St. Louis District reported a softening and plans to lay off workers. Software and IT services respondents in Boston reported modest growth.
Available reports from staffing firms pointed to mixed demand for temporary labor. The Boston, New York, Richmond, and Atlanta Districts reported weaker staffing requests relative to a year ago; Cleveland, Chicago, and Dallas reported stable to increased demand. Boston noted increased demand from the biopharmaceutical and aerospace industries, while Dallas contacts saw an increased demand for temporary workers in IT, engineering, and oil-related services. A large New York employment agency found that despite widely announced layoff plans at financial firms, they saw no noticeable increase in the number of job candidates. Boston and Atlanta noted improved labor supply.
All Districts reporting on transportation services noted weaker activity in the first quarter of 2008 compared with the previous quarter. Trucking and shipping respondents from the Richmond and Dallas Districts reported declining import volumes, which more than offset growth in exports, stimulated by the depreciation of the dollar. However, airlines in those Districts reported higher passenger volumes since the start of the year.
Reports on the manufacturing sector were mixed but, on the whole, subdued. New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Kansas City, and Dallas indicated that production or shipments were sluggish or falling. Atlanta, Minneapolis, and San Francisco characterized activity as varying across industries. Boston, Cleveland, and Chicago indicated stable levels or trends. Only St. Louis noted a strengthening relative to prior reports.
Various Districts cited strong demand for steel, aircraft and parts, energy-related equipment, and exports, but mostly continued weak markets for products and equipment used for building and furnishing homes. Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas indicated that automotive production and sales have been light or declining. On the other hand, the Cleveland District saw an uptick in the production of foreign nameplates during January, and St. Louis was anticipating additional capacity and employment in automotive parts manufacturing. Dallas reported that refining production fell in the face of weak margins. Reports on food processing were mixed, with some Districts indicating that high prices were constraining demand, while others cited rising demand. Boston and New York mentioned that some manufacturers are experiencing slower payments from their customers.
All Districts commenting on the near-term outlook mentioned caution or concern on the part of at least some segments of manufacturing. Boston, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and San Francisco indicated that some firms are adjusting their hiring or capital spending plans downward. A couple of Districts mentioned risks associated with financing constraints. For example, Chicago cited concerns on the part of the auto industry that tight credit would cause its customers to become more price-sensitive and less able to obtain car loans.
Real Estate and Construction
Residential real estate markets were generally weak over the last couple of months. Sales were low in every District with very few local exceptions. Sales declines were particularly large in the Boston, Minneapolis, Richmond, and St. Louis Districts; at least some respondents in each of these Districts reported drops in home sales of more than 20 percent year-over-year. Contacts in the Chicago, Kansas City, and Philadelphia Districts cited tight credit conditions as a reason for low sales; each of those Districts either reported or expected stabilization of demand for homes in the low and mid-price ranges.
Districts that reported home prices all saw overall declines; one exception was the Manhattan co-op and condo market, where prices increased 5 percent compared with a year ago. Inventories remained high as demand was still fairly low. A few contacts in the Chicago, Cleveland, and Richmond Districts reported an increase in inquiries, although this increase in traffic had not yet translated into increased sales. Residential construction declined or remained at low levels in most Districts.
The markets for office and retail space showed signs of a slowdown in several Districts. Office vacancies were reported up, and leasing volumes down, in Manhattan, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Memphis, portions of Maine and Rhode Island, and Las Vegas. Districts indicated that office vacancies held steady in Boston and the Carolinas, and were down in Philadelphia and in the Minneapolis and St. Louis Districts; however, contacts in the Boston and Philadelphia Districts and see some emerging slack. Office rents were mixed, however, coming in about flat in greater Boston and Manhattan, either flat or down in the Richmond District, and up in Philadelphia. Retail vacancy was reported up in the Minneapolis District and retail space demand was described as slow in the Chicago District. Demand for industrial space was described as either "firm" or "flat" in the Districts commenting on that sector.
Sales activity in nonresidential markets was down in the Boston, Dallas, Kansas City, and Chicago Districts, with contacts citing tight credit conditions as a major factor. Office sales activity remained strong, however, in the major cities of the New York District and in the San Francisco District. Eight of the twelve Districts reported that nonresidential construction activity was slow; countering these reports, the Cleveland, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts indicated that construction remained strong.
Banking and Finance
Reports on loan demand for commercial, industrial, and residential mortgage loans varied across Districts. Overall loan demand was flat in San Francisco and weakened in the Kansas City, St. Louis, Dallas, New York, and Richmond Districts. Consumer lending was flat or declining in the St. Louis, Chicago, and Cleveland Districts. Commercial and industrial loan demand was mixed in San Francisco and remained stable or declined in the Kansas City, St. Louis, Dallas, New York, and Richmond Districts. By contrast, the Chicago and Cleveland Districts reported increased business lending. Even as loan demand for new residential mortgages remained sluggish or declined, lower interest rates prompted increases in refinancing of existing mortgages in a number of Districts, including San Francisco, St. Louis, New York, Richmond, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Chicago. Cleveland cited a small rise in delinquencies, especially for real estate loans, and Atlanta reported an increase in mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures. New York, on the other hand, saw a rise in delinquencies for all loan categories except residential mortgages, which were unchanged. Tight credit standards were reported in the Atlanta, San Francisco, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, Dallas, Richmond, and New York Districts. Kansas City indicated a worsening of overall loan quality, Chicago reported a deterioration of consumer loan quality, and Cleveland also saw a decline in credit quality for business customers and consumers. By contrast, Dallas reported sound credit quality.
Agriculture and Natural Resources
The Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Dallas Districts reported strong conditions in the agriculture sector, including high prices for winter wheat, corn, soybeans, sorghum, and hogs, and increased production of some crops. By contrast, Atlanta and Richmond indicated that although recent rain had improved conditions in Maryland and Virginia, drought conditions persisted in other areas, and range pasture conditions remained poor. Farm incomes and/or value of production rose in several Districts during 2007, although Kentucky farmers saw no change and Tennessee farmers saw declines compared to 2006. Increases in input costs, including prices of fuel, fertilizer, and feed were mentioned by Chicago, Minneapolis, and San Francisco as potentially affecting future production and incomes; Chicago and Dallas also cited recent weather-related problems that threaten production this spring. Increases in the value of farmland were reported by Chicago and Minneapolis.
All Districts reporting on energy cited robust levels of activity and steady or higher prices; in addition, Kansas City and Cleveland mentioned increases in hiring. However, Dallas noted that drilling had flattened domestically and declined in the Gulf of Mexico, leaving activity outside of North America to drive future growth, while Kansas City, Cleveland, and Minneapolis expected exploration and capital spending to increase going forward. Rates for durable equipment, and drilling and evaluation services were reported to be flat to declining. However, price pressures, regulatory costs, and tightening credit were mentioned as providing possible future impediments to increased production.
Prices and Wages
Business contacts in many Districts cited price pressures from vendors and mixed success in raising their own prices to recoup the increased costs. Manufacturing contacts in the Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts pointed to rising costs for raw materials or other inputs, while manufacturing firms in the New York District reported more widespread increases in prices paid "than in well over a year." By contrast, Philadelphia noted somewhat less prevalent increases in input costs and output prices in February than in January, except for increased mention of rising prices for imported goods. Upward pressures on input costs from high or rising energy prices were frequently cited, which also translated into increased transportation and shipping costs. Price increases for metals, petrochemicals, and food were also mentioned often. The San Francisco District, however, indicated that price pressures were limited except for food and energy. Firms' ability to pass along cost increases by raising selling prices varied. The Boston District noted that retail contacts were passing some price increases on to customers, and some manufacturers were raising selling prices to partially offset rising costs; half the manufacturers contacted in the Cleveland District had raised prices or added surcharges since the previous report. The Dallas and Atlanta Districts reported that some firms raised prices but others were constrained by competitive pressures; Chicago indicated that contacts outside of construction and retail were passing cost increases along to customers. In the Kansas City District, factory goods' prices had escalated, but retail prices were mostly stable.
Most Districts indicated that contacted businesses reported limited wage pressures, moderate wage increases, and some loosening of labor markets. While Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco noted short supplies of selected types of skilled labor relative to demand, they and the New York, Richmond, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts cited pullbacks in the pace of hiring by some firms. Furthermore, several Districts, including New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Atlanta, reported increased prevalence of layoffs, reductions in work hours, or hiring freezes.
First District retailers and manufacturers indicate their sales and revenues continue expanding or contracting mostly as in recent reports, but downside risks have become more prominent. Contacts at software and information technology services firms and staffing firms point to slower growth. Real estate markets continue to be soft. Price pressures remain an issue, with only a subset of contacts saying they are able to pass cost increases along to their customers, at least partially. Many respondents express concern about how soon and how smoothly turmoil in credit markets will be resolved.
Retail respondents in the First District cite mixed sales results for the months of January and February. Retailers report that sales of home-related and big ticket items have consistently been down, while sales of apparel, shoes, accessories, televisions, and sporting goods are strong. However, two respondents are concerned about credit market turmoil and its potential effects on their customers.
Inventory levels and employment are generally stable. Capital spending is mixed. A majority of contacted First District retailers mention varying degrees of price pressure, with several respondents pointing specifically to vendor items and their own operating costs related to oil. A few respondents note modest increases are being passed along to consumers where possible, or say they expect to raise prices in the near future.
Overall, First District retailers are cautious in their outlook and expect 2008 to be challenging. At the same time, many are confident in their ability to pull through this period of economic uncertainty.
Manufacturing and Related Services
For the most part, manufacturers and related services providers headquartered in the First District report unchanged revenue trends in fourth quarter 2007 and early 2008, but they indicate that downside risks have risen. A capital goods manufacturer is experiencing somewhat slower payments from customers and cites anecdotal evidence that highly-leveraged commercial real estate developers may have to curtail their purchases. A biotech equipment maker is experiencing year-over-year declines in sales to some of its largest customers. Suppliers to the home construction industry mostly indicate they do not see demand bottoming out before year-end. Many manufacturers have experienced robust overseas sales because of foreign economic growth or dollar depreciation, but some see signs that these factors will not be quite as favorable in 2008 as they were in 2007. Several firms are making efforts to reduce inventories.
Manufacturers continue to voice concerns about high, rising, or volatile materials costs, especially metals and petrochemicals; per-unit energy costs also are said to be high. Manufacturers are anticipating that input costs will remain high or increase further in coming months. Respondents generally indicate that their selling prices are either stable or rising to offset cost increases to some degree.
Manufacturers continue to adjust their U.S. headcounts only minimally. However, various firms have become more cautious with respect to hiring. One contact that expanded its headcount in fourth quarter 2007 is planning to hold employment steady in the first half of 2008 because of uncertainty. Another respondent that held its employment constant over the last several months is unlikely to continue to do so in the face of mounting pressures to cut costs. Average pay increases are expected to remain in the range of 3 percent to 4 percent, but several firms are planning somewhat higher pay raises in 2008 than in 2007. On the whole, contacts say their capital spending for 2008 is likely to be normal or steady.
Many manufacturers express growing concerns of one sort or another about financial markets for their own firm or its customers, or in the broader economy. For example, one respondent is concerned about the liquidity of its investments in light of pending payment commitments. Several contacts say they are thankful that their company's capital needs are limited, given current terms and availability.
Software and Information Technology Services
All software and IT services contacts in the First District report modest year-over year quarterly revenue growth for the most recent quarter, although several respondents indicate that some or much of the growth reflects special factors such as foreign currency gains or acquisitions. The majority of respondents are adding technology workers and sales staff, although at a slower pace than in the previous quarter. One firm notes a decline in turnover rates, while a few other contacts report that the labor market appears to have eased. All contacted firms have raised pay, generally by around 4 percent annually.
The majority of New England software and information technology firms are projecting revenues to continue growing at current rates. However, several note that downside risks have increased.
Staffing respondents in the New England region give mixed reports on the level of business activity this quarter. The majority of firms are experiencing what one contact described as "a marked slowdown" after a busy holiday season, but year-over-year revenues have remained the same or increased, with one report of a 16 percent revenue rise in January 2008 as compared with January 2007. Respondents indicate high labor demand from the biopharmaceutical and aerospace industries, with particular need for data management hires. Labor supply has improved, but highly-skilled applicants for senior-level positions are still in short supply.
Most firms are taking new measures to attract clients, through strategic marketing initiatives, partnerships with other companies, and transitions from print to web advertising. Respondents report stable or increasing costs, with the primary increase being health insurance for employees. The main concern expressed by nearly all respondents is the health of the overall national economy. Contacts fear that instability will lead firms to delay new projects, with "trickle-down effects" in other sectors, including staffing. Despite this concern, respondents are hopeful for growth in upcoming quarters.
Commercial Real Estate
Contacts report that the financing situation for commercial real estate continues to worsen. They say the commercial mortgage-backed securities market remains largely dormant, with the exception of one successful offering of a group of mortgages on multifamily properties. Life insurance lenders have also pulled back significantly from commercial real estate lending in the past couple of months; one contact surmises they are rationing credit now to conserve their limited capacity for later in the year. A small bank in Boston reports a 30 percent increase in its commercial lending volume over last year, mostly in refinancing, but says it may reach its lending limits before the end of the year. Equity requirements have been pushed up to as high as 40 percent by some lenders. With buyers facing such tight credit, very few sellers are putting properties up for sale and very few deals are closing, making it difficult to assess price changes.
Leasing volume has remained steady or slowed in New England. In the downtown Boston office market, rents appear to be holding. The same goes for Hartford and Providence, but rents continue to fall gradually in Maine. Contacts see retailers eliminating underperforming locations and pulling back on commitments to new stores, but with no dramatic rise in overall retail vacancy or fall in rents. Rhode Island has some of the highest commercial vacancy rates in the region, up sharply from six months ago. Contacts expect absorption to hover around zero or slightly negative in the coming months, leading to gradual increases in vacancy throughout the region. Credit market turmoil is expected to persist into the third or fourth quarter of 2008. Some still characterize Boston as a very desirable market, but others see looming financial sector layoffs taking steam out of its office market in the coming months.
Residential Real Estate
New England residential real estate markets again showed large sales drops in December and January compared to a year ago. Massachusetts single-family home sales decreased 20 percent year-over-year in December while condo sales decreased 28 percent. Home sales also declined around 20 percent year-over-year for Maine in December and Rhode Island in the fourth quarter. New Hampshire saw sales declines of 21 percent in December and 25 percent in January. Contacts say potential buyers lack confidence because of all the talk of a housing "collapse" and broader economic slowdown. A New Hampshire contact says the market for second homes and vacation homes has been hit particularly hard.
Median home prices have declined modestly in New England markets, with prices down 3 percent to 5 percent in December or January from a year earlier in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Prices dropped 6 percent year-over-year in Rhode Island in the fourth quarter. However, median condo prices have held steady in Massachusetts; a contact says this is because the high end of the condo market has been somewhat insulated from general housing problems.
Second District--New York
The Second District's economy has softened since the last report. Manufacturers report substantial weakening in business activity as of mid-February. Port activity is also reported to be weaker, while, more generally, contacts outside the manufacturing sector report deterioration in business activity and a pullback in hiring. Retailers indicate that sales have been below plan thus far in 2008, though inventories are reported to be at satisfactory levels. Tourism activity in New York City has shown some signs of slowing in recent weeks but remains strong. Housing markets continue to be sluggish, though Manhattan's co-op and condo market has shown some resilience. Manhattan's office market remains tight, but vacancy rates have edged up and rents have decelerated. Finally, bankers report some continued weakening in demand for new loans but a pickup in refinancing activity; respondents also report ongoing tightening in credit standards and rising delinquency rates, particularly on non-residential mortgages.
Retailers report weak sales results for January and, to a lesser extent, for the first half of February. Overall, sales were characterized as below plan and down from a year ago. One chain reports sales of women's apparel as particularly sluggish, while another describes big-ticket home goods as the weakest category. Consumer surveys point to increased pessimism: Siena College's survey of New York State residents shows consumer confidence falling for the fourth straight month and reaching a new cyclical low in January, while the Conference Board's survey of Middle Atlantic residents shows confidence holding steady at a more than 2-year low in January, after falling precipitously in late 2007.
Tourism activity in New York City slowed a bit in early 2008 but was still at a high level. Hotel occupancy rates were reported to be roughly on par with a year earlier in January and early February; prices and total revenues decelerated slightly but were still up 10-12 percent from a year earlier. Broadway theaters report that attendance has been fairly strong in January and early February, rising 3-4 percent from a year earlier; however, total revenues were up just 1 percent, reflecting a decline in the average effective ticket price.
Construction and Real Estate
New York City's office market showed some signs of slackening in January, with some slowing in leasing activity. Manhattan's office vacancy rate rose modestly to 7.6 percent in January, about equal to a year earlier. Asking rents were little changed from year-end 2007 levels and were up more than 20 percent from a year earlier. Office purchase markets across the District have been mixed: sales prices and transactions volumes showed continued strength across most of the New York City area, as well as Albany and Buffalo, but were less robust in northern New Jersey and metropolitan Rochester. The market for industrial properties has shown more widespread weakness across the region.
Housing markets in the District have generally weakened since the last report. New Jersey's housing market is reported to have seen a decline in transactions, with large gaps between asking prices and offers. The inventory of available units remains high but has retreated somewhat, as some sellers have taken their homes off the market. Builders have curtailed most new construction projects; one industry expert cites as a major problem the fact that prices for redevelopment land have not come down in line with home prices.
Manhattan's co-op and condo market is reported to have remained fairly stable in early 2008, with transaction activity roughly on par with a year ago, and prices up by about 5 percent. There was a normal seasonal increase in the inventory of units on the market in January.
Other Business Activity
A major NYC employment agency, specializing in office jobs, reports that hiring activity slowed noticeably in January but picked up in early February and was almost on par with a year earlier. Despite widely announced layoff plans at financial firms, this firm reports no noticeable increase in the number of available job candidates. Large financial firms are reported to be hiring only sporadically but hedge funds and private equity firms are still hiring at a good pace.
New York State manufacturers report that business activity weakened noticeably in January and early February, while employment weakened moderately. Firms also report more widespread increases in prices paid than in well over a year. More than two in five manufacturing contacts indicate that their customers have become slower in paying their bills in recent months, and more than one in five say that they have grown slower in paying their vendors. Port of New York import traffic has reportedly slowed noticeably in early 2008. More generally, non-manufacturing firms in the District report widespread weakening in both general business activity and net hiring activity in January and early February. Firms have also scaled back capital spending plans somewhat.
Bankers report lower demand for all types of loans--most notably in the residential mortgage category, though to a lesser degree than in January. However, for the first time in more than four years, bankers report an increase in refinancing activity. For all loan categories, respondents indicated a tightening of credit standards, with close to a quarter of bankers reporting higher standards in each category; no bankers report eased standards for any type of loan. Bankers indicate no change, on balance, in the spreads of loan rates over cost of funds--a sizable proportion of respondents reported increases and decreases in each category, but the responses were evenly split. Bankers also report a widespread decrease in the average deposit rate. Finally, respondents indicated a rise in delinquencies in all loan categories except residential mortgages, where bankers indicated no change in delinquencies.
Business activity appeared to be weakening slightly in the Third District in February. Manufacturers, on balance, reported declines in new orders and shipments. Retailers generally reported small year-over-year decreases, and auto sales continued to fall. Overall bank lending has been rising slowly, although some banks reported drops in commercial and industrial lending. Residential real estate sales and construction remained well below the year-ago pace. Commercial construction has eased. Reports of increases in input costs and output prices were somewhat less prevalent in February than they were in January, although reports of rising import prices have become more widespread. Wage increases were reported to be moderate. Several firms in the District noted that they had implemented hiring freezes.
The outlook among Third District business contacts has become less positive. Manufacturers, on balance, expect decreases in new orders during the next six months, although they expect a rise in shipments. Retailers have generally revised their 2008 forecasts down and now expect only slight gains, if any, in sales. Auto dealers expect sales in 2008 to be below sales in 2007. Bankers anticipate very slow expansion in overall lending. Residential real estate agents expect sales to continue to be slow, but they expect to see some signs that the fall in sales might reach a bottom this year. Contacts in commercial real estate anticipate slower leasing activity this year compared with last year. Nevertheless, they expect rental rates, which rose last year, to show little change in 2008.
Third District manufacturers, on balance, reported falling shipments and new orders in February compared with January. Around one-fourth of the manufacturers surveyed noted increases and around one-third noted decreases. Manufacturers also reported a drop in order backlogs, on balance. Increased demand for their products was reported by makers of apparel and by some producers of industrial materials and equipment. Decreased demand was noted by producers of lumber products, furniture, construction materials, and metals. Several manufacturers noted that their business was being adversely affected by declining residential construction activity. They reported that demand for their products from the "housing and housing-related market, including home improvement is slow," with substantial declines from last year.
The outlook in the Third District manufacturing sector is not strong. On balance, manufacturers polled in February expect a further decline in new orders during the next six months, although they predict shipments will edge up. However, they expect order backlogs to fall further. Capital spending plans at area manufacturing firms have been cut back, on balance, since the start of the year. In contrast to a net increase in spending among firms surveyed in January, firms contacted in February indicated that their capital spending will be only steady, on balance, during the next six months.
Retailers in the Third District generally reported slight year-to-year decreases in sales for February. Most store executives attributed slow sales in all lines of merchandise to a decline in consumer confidence. Some also noted that sales of winter apparel were especially weak due to unseasonably mild weather. Retailers are limiting inventories in response to the slow pace of sales. Store officials said they have revised down their sales forecasts for 2008; they expect results for this year to show minimal improvement over last year, at best. Several noted that expansion and renovation plans for this year have been cancelled. One chain store indicated that its corporate capital spending plans have been "drastically reduced" and another said it has implemented a "company-wide belt tightening."
Auto dealers in the region generally reported slow sales in February, with most indicating that sales were below the year-ago rate. Dealers in the region expect sales to edge up later this year, but they do not expect sales for the year as a whole to match last year's sales.
Total outstanding loans at Third District banks were rising slowly in February. Most of the commercial bank lending officers contacted for this report indicated that loan volume outstanding has been rising modestly for all categories of credit; however, some noted that commercial and industrial lending has eased. Most bank contacts indicated that asset quality overall continued to weaken somewhat. All of the banks contacted for this report noted that they were "tightening credit standards across the board" and some indicated that they had ceased lending to lower-rated borrowers completely. Bankers reported that attracting deposits is "a struggle," with strong competition among banks in the District. Some said they have made increased use of purchased funds and Federal Home Loan Bank advances. Looking ahead, bankers generally foresee slow growth in overall lending. They expect earnings to be under pressure during the year as charge-offs increase, unless funding costs decline.
Real Estate and Construction
Residential real estate activity in February remained significantly below the year-ago pace. Residential real estate agents said buyers were deferring purchases in anticipation of further price declines, and sellers were deferring putting their homes on the market because they perceive demand to be weak. In general, residential real estate agents said downward pressure on prices persists. The forecast of one contact--that there will be "no appreciation for quite some time"--was representative of the consensus in the region. Home builders also reported a very slow rate of sales, despite increased incentives. Looking ahead, residential real estate agents and home builders believe there might be some "stabilization" in the lower to mid-price range, but they expect demand for homes in higher price ranges to remain weak, due in part to the reduction in financing for nonconforming mortgages.
Commercial real estate firms reported that office vacancy rates in most markets in the region have continued to decline over the past several months, and rental rates have increased. However, they noted that office vacancy rates have risen in some markets where financial services firms have reduced or ceased occupancy. Construction has eased in most office markets in the region. Industrial real estate firms reported that overall demand for industrial space remained firm, although increased supply has kept rental rates in check. Looking ahead, most contacts in the commercial real estate sector expect leasing activity to be slower in 2008 than in 2007, although they generally expect rental rates to be about level through the year in most markets.
Prices and Wages
Reports of increases in input costs and output prices from Third District business contacts were somewhat less prevalent in February than they were in January, although there has been an increase in the number of businesses noting increased prices for imported goods. Firms in the region noted increases in prices of textiles, food products, chemicals, industrial materials, metals, and machinery. They also reported rising costs for transportation and shipping and for electricity. Most of the firms reporting on employment costs in February indicated that wage increases remained moderate. Several firms noted that they had instituted hiring freezes in response to slowing business activity and rising general operating costs.
Economic activity in the Fourth District has slowed somewhat since early January. Overall, factory output was flat though shipments by steel producers and service centers rose. Production at auto assembly plants increased. The housing industry remains weak with little expectation of improvement in the near future. Nonresidential builders reported business was steady to increasing. Sales by District retailers weakened and fell below plan. Bankers cited a pickup in business lending while consumer loan demand was flat to declining. Further, deterioration in credit quality and a small rise in delinquencies were indicated. Energy production was steady to increasing. Truck freight volume slowed.
Employment levels across the District were largely unchanged, though workforce levels fell at a number of national banks and trucking companies. Staffing firms reported a modest increase in the number of job openings while the number of job seekers was unchanged. Demand was greatest in nursing and allied health professions. Apart from energy producers, little upward pressure on wages was noted. Almost all manufacturers cited increased costs for raw materials while homebuilders and nonresidential contractors noted rising metal prices.
Overall, factory output has been flat during the past six weeks. Reports of increased production were generally attributed to seasonal adjustments. On a year-over-year basis, reports showed output levels were the same to up slightly. Outlook by manufacturers is best described as cautious. In general, steel shipments were on the rise for both producers and steel service centers. Expectations are for steel demand to remain at current levels or increase. The strongest end markets for steel include energy, aerospace, and defense. District auto production increased in January. Output by foreign nameplates increased while their domestic counterparts held production levels steady. In terms of year-over-year comparisons, auto production was down slightly.
Reports on capacity utilization were mixed. Capital spending remains on plan with most producers saying that spending in 2008 will be at or slightly above 2007 levels. However, four of our contacts told us they plan to dramatically increase spending on new buildings and equipment. Almost all of our respondents reported increasing prices for raw materials, especially metals. Further, half of them told us that they have either raised prices or added surcharges since our last report. However, only a few contacts said they plan to raise prices in the near future. Most manufacturers also expect modest inflationary pressures to continue. On balance, there was little change in employment levels and limited hiring is expected in the near future. Minimal wage pressure was reported.
Residential contractors reported new home sales were flat, albeit at low levels, during the past six weeks. Year-over-year, sales activity was flat to down. Looking forward, home builders had mixed opinions. Half our contacts believe an upturn in the housing market will not occur for another 12-18 months while others think market activity may begin to increase late in 2008. Some of the latter group's optimism is based on an across-the-board pickup in traffic during the past couple of months. Inventories remain above desirable levels for most builders. New home prices and material costs--outside of metals--were largely unchanged. A small decline in homebuilding staffing levels was noted.
Almost all commercial contractors reported that business has been steady to slightly increasing since our last report and on a year-over-year basis. Current backlogs are at acceptable levels. Expectations for 2008 suggest that building activity will equal that seen in 2007. We heard some reports that residential contractors are beginning to move into the commercial sector, resulting in a more competitive bidding process. With the exception of a rise in steel prices, material costs have been stable. On net, workforce levels remain largely unchanged; however, a few builders said they may add workers in the second half of 2008. Little upward pressure on wages was reported.
Most District retailers reported a decline in January sales when compared to the previous month and on a year-over-year basis. The only segments showing strength were foods and pharmaceuticals. Expectations for the second quarter (2008) are for sales to remain flat or to increase slightly. Auto dealers cited weakness in new vehicle sales during the past six weeks, with little change anticipated in the upcoming months. For the most part, vendor prices were unchanged. Employment levels were adjusted to meet seasonal demands or for staffing new stores. Capital expenditures met projections during the past few months; however, half of our contacts told us that spending in 2008 would fall below 2007 levels.
Almost all bankers reported a pickup in business lending during the past six weeks. Several contacts attributed the rise to commercial real estate loans. In contrast, consumer loan demand--including autos and home equity--was characterized as flat to declining. The residential mortgage market remains sluggish; however, most of our contacts experienced a boost in refinancing activity. A majority of bankers told us that credit quality for business customers and consumers has deteriorated. Further, a small rise in delinquencies, especially for all types of real estate loans, was reported. Net margins were either stable or had narrowed a little with a few bankers expecting their margins to contract even further. Employment levels at community banks were steady although a number of national banks reported significant employment reductions related to mortgage lending and cost controls. Several contacts expressed concern about increased benefit costs, especially for health care.
Oil, gas, and coal production has been steady to increasing slightly over the past six weeks. Looking forward, over half of our energy contacts told us they expect demand to rise. However, tightening credit standards, regulatory issues, and price pressures were cited as impediments to increasing production. Reports indicated the price received for coal went up while oil prices were steady to declining and gas prices were stable to increasing. Equipment and material costs were stable while capital expenditures remained on plan. Several of our respondents said that they plan to increase capital spending during the next few months. Net employment levels increased slightly and some additional hiring is expected. Oil and gas producers reported upward pressure on wages.
Trucking executives reported freight volume has declined somewhat over the past six weeks and they anticipate little change in the upcoming months. Nevertheless, a few contacts believe a turnaround might occur in the second half of 2008. Rising fuel prices continue to plague the industry. Cost recovery through surcharges is becoming increasingly difficult. Some weakening in capital spending was reported and only modest increases are expected, primarily in the second half of 2008. Employment levels continue to decline as carriers are in the process of reducing capacity. No wage pressures were reported.