The U.S. economy expanded at a modest to moderate pace across most of the country amid rising consumer demand for homes and autos, the Federal Reserve said.
“The majority of districts reported modest improvements in labor market conditions, although hiring plans were limited in several districts,” the central bank said in its Beige Book business survey, which is based on reports from the Fed’s 12 regional banks. “Residential real estate markets strengthened in nearly all districts and home prices rose amid falling inventories across much of the country.”
The anecdotal snapshot of the economy helps the Federal Open Market Committee evaluate whether the labor market shows signs of the substantial improvement it says would warrant shrinking or halting $85 billion in monthly bond purchases. The committee is scheduled to meet March 19-20.
Companies added 198,000 workers last month, more than projected and an indication the job market will keep expanding, according to figures released today by the Roseland, New Jersey- based ADP Research Institute. The jobless rate, while falling from a 26-year high of 10% in 2009, has stayed at 7.8% to 7.9% since September.
“We’re tracking growth right now that looks positive but not very exciting,” said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co. and a former researcher for the Fed Board in Washington. “House prices continue to go up. So far that seems to be holding up pretty well and doesn’t show any signs of faltering in the new year.”
The U.S. economy “generally expanded at a modest to moderate pace since the previous Beige Book,” the Fed said in a description that was similar to the prior report. Five districts reported economic growth was “moderate” and five as “at a modest pace,” with the Boston district expanding “slowly” and Chicago activity “at a slow pace,” the Fed report said.
Manufacturing tied to home construction “was a source of strength for many Districts,” the report said. It cited wood product manufacturing in St. Louis and San Francisco, household goods production in the Chicago region and cement makers in Dallas.
Housing has gained as Fed easing pushed mortgage rates to record lows. Home prices rose 6.8 percent in December from a year earlier, according to the Case-Shiller 20 City index, the fastest increase since 2006. The gauge rose every month last year. New home sales accelerated in January to a 437,000 annual pace, the highest since 2008.
Sales growth at Home Depot Inc., the largest U.S. home- improvement retailer, will be buoyed by about 2% economic growth and a “warming-up housing market,” this year, Senior Vice President Kevin Hofmann said at an investor conference March 4. “The housing market -- while it’s recovering -- we don’t expect a full recovery in 2013,” he said.
The Fed said inflationary pressures were “modest” and “most district contacts did not plan to increase prices.”
“The majority of districts reported modest improvements in labor market conditions, although hiring plans were limited in several districts,” the report said. “Wage pressures were mostly limited, but some contacts reported upward pressure for skilled positions in certain industries due to worker shortages.”
The anecdotal accounts were collected on or before Feb. 22 and compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
Minutes from the Jan. 29-30 FOMC meeting show officials were divided over the bond buying. Several participants at the gathering “emphasized that the committee should be prepared to vary the pace of asset purchases, either in response to changes in the economic outlook or as its evaluation of the efficacy and costs of such purchases evolved,” the minutes showed.
Chairman Ben S. Bernanke defended the Fed’s bond purchases in congressional testimony last week, saying the benefits of reducing borrowing costs and fueling growth outweigh any potential costs.
The Fed chairman said in a speech last week that “premature removal of accommodation” may weaken the three-year recovery. Vice Chairman Janet Yellen, the Fed’s No. 2 official, said in a speech in Washington this week that ending the bond- buying too soon could damp growth. Policy makers are tracking possible costs and risks from the record accommodation, she said.
Fed purchases of mortgage bonds and Treasuries helped push the Dow Jones Industrial Average to a record yesterday, erasing losses from the financial crisis after a four-year rally that was also fueled by the fastest corporate profit growth since the 1990s. The Dow rose 0.3 percent to 14,292.40 at 1:53 p.m. in New York.
The FOMC cut its target interest rate to a range of zero to 0.25% in December 2008 and has said it will keep the rate in that band as long as unemployment remains above 6.5% and inflation is projected to be no more than 2.5%. The committee at its January meeting said it will continue asset purchases until the labor market improves “substantially.”
During the fourth quarter, the economy grew just 0.1% amid the biggest drop in defense spending since the closing years of the Vietnam War.