The Latest Fed Beige Book Report: Just a Little Better Than Bad

Economist looking for unambiguous signs of a national economic recovery won't it in the Federal Reserve's latest edition of the Beige Book that was released on March 3. The data come from the 12 Federal Reserve districts and are based on information collected before Feb. 22. Several of the districts said bad weather had hurt economic activity in their regions. However, "Nine Districts reported that economic activity improved, but in most cases the increases were modest."

The reports shows consumer spending improvements remain spotty and that tourism has picked up only modestly. The most encouraging sign in the data was that "the demand for services was generally positive across Districts, most notably for health-care and information technology firms." This shows that the recovery in the tech industry, which was evident in the earnings and forecasts of many publicly traded companies, remains on track.

The Beige Book report also bears out recent news that the real estate market is still in trouble. Data released both by the government and private research firms over the last month indicate that homebuying activity has been weak, mortgage defaults rates have not improved and commercial real estate problems are worsening. The Beige Book authors commented: "Most Districts characterized commercial real estate and construction activity as weak or having declined further."

The Beige Book also offered little hope on the unemployment front. While recent data from research firms Challenger Gray and ADP show that the pace of layoffs in the private sector is slowing, the addition of net new jobs in the economy has not begun. That means unemployment is likely to stay at current high levels.

Says the Beige Book: "Although some Districts reported an uptick in hiring or a slowdown in layoffs, labor markets generally remained soft throughout the nation, which resulted in minimal wage pressures."

An improvement in nine out of 12 districts looks good on paper, until you get to the fine print.

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