Updated: Sep 11, 2020
The Beige Book ■ August 2020
What is The Beige Book? The Beige Book is a Federal Reserve System publication about current economic conditions across the 12 Federal Reserve Districts. It charac- terizes regional economic conditions and prospects based on a variety of mostly qualitative information, gathered directly from District sources.
The qualitative nature of the Beige Book creates an opportunity to characterize dynamics and identify emerging trends in the economy that may not be readily apparent in the available economic data. Be- cause this information is collected from a wide range of business and community contacts through a variety of formal and informal methods, the Beige Book can complement other forms of regional information gathering.
How is the information collected? Each Federal Reserve Bank gathers anecdotal information on current economic conditions in its District through reports from Bank and Branch directors, plus phone and in-person interviews with and online questionnaires completed by businesses, community contacts, econo- mists, market experts, and other sources. How is the information used?
The anecdotal information collected in the Beige Book supplements the data and analysis used by Federal Reserve economists and staff to assess economic conditions in the Federal Reserve Districts. This information enables comparison of economic conditions in different parts of the country, which can be helpful for assessing the outlook for the national economy. The Beige Book also serves as a regular sum- mary of the Federal Reserve System’s efforts to listen to businesses and community organizations.
Overall Economic Activity Economic activity increased among most Districts, but gains were generally modest and activity remained well below levels prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Manufacturing rose in most Districts, which coincided with increased activity at ports and among transportation and distribution firms. Consumer spending continued to pick up, sparked by strong vehicle sales and some improvements in tourism and retail sectors. But many Districts noted a slowing pace of growth in these areas, and total spending was still far below pre-pandemic levels. Commercial construction was down widely, and commercial real estate remained in contraction. Conversely, residential construction was a bright spot, showing growth and resilience in many Districts. Residential real estate sales were also notably higher, with prices continuing to rise along with demand and a shortage of inventory. In the banking sector, overall loan demand increased slightly, led by solid residential mortgage activity. Agricultural conditions continued to suffer from low prices, and energy activity was subdued at low levels, with little expectation of near-term improvement for either sector. While the overall outlook among contacts was modestly optimistic, a few Districts noted some pessimism. Continued uncertainty and volatility related to the pandemic, and its negative effect on consumer and business activity, was a theme echoed across the country.
Employment and Wages Employment increased overall among Districts, with gains in manufacturing cited most often. However, some Districts also reported slowing job growth and increased hiring volatility, particularly in service industries, with rising instances of furloughed workers being laid off permanently as demand remained soft. Firms continued to experience difficulty find- ing necessary labor, a matter compounded by day care availability, as well as uncertainty over the coming school year and jobless benefits. Wages were flat to slightly higher in most Districts, with greater pressure cited among lower- paying positions. Some firms also rescinded previous pay cuts. Others, however, have looked to roll back hazard pay for high-exposure jobs, though some have chosen not to do so for staff morale and recruitment purposes.
Prices Price pressures increased since the last report but remained modest. While input prices generally rose faster than selling prices, they were moderate overall. Notable exceptions included inputs experiencing demand surges or supply- chain disruptions, such as structural lumber, for which prices spiked. Several Districts also reported that costs for per- sonal protective equipment and inputs to it remained elevated. Freight transportation rates rose in several Districts due to a resurgence in demand. In contrast, contacts in multiple Districts cited weak demand or lack of pricing power as a factor behind slower growth in retail or other selling prices.
This report was prepared at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis based on information collected on or before August 24, 2020.
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