The Federal Reserve released Wednesday the Beige Book report summarizing economic conditions across its 12 districts from January through early February—and the word of the day was, naturally, "weather."
According to the Fed, reports from all districts indicated economic conditions continued to expand at a "modest to moderate" rate in most areas of the country, with only the New York and Philadelphia districts experiencing a decline in activity.
Most districts indicated slower growth in their housing markets thanks to severe winter weather conditions. Sales rose in Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, and Dallas, falling at the same time in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Kansas City. Despite taking the brunt of the early year's icy storms, Boston and New York reported mixed trends in sales throughout those regions.
Notably, demand for residential mortgages dropped in Richmond and St. Louis and "softened" in Dallas, suggesting that sales growth in those regions stemmed from cash purchasers—most often investors. Loan demand was also down in New York and Kansas City.
Overall, loan quality improved in many districts, including New York, Cleveland, and St. Louis, where delinquencies trended lower or at least remained stable. Bankers in Kansas City and Dallas also reported improved loan quality, though contacts in Cleveland and Atlanta offered up concerns about January's new regulations and the impact they might have on lending.
Most districts reported overall home price appreciation as housing inventories remained low.
Turning to building, new home construction picked up in Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, and Minneapolis; remained flat in Kansas City; and was down slightly in Philadelphia.
As might be expected, retail sales growth weakened for most districts as fewer Americans elected to brave the winter weather. That wasn't the case for all areas, however; "Richmond, Chicago, and Minneapolis reported that weather-related goods contributed to positive sales growth," the Fed reported.
Despite disappointing national numbers, the Beige Book also noted gradual improvements in employment levels in most districts, with sectors in New York, Cleveland, Atlanta, and St. Louis—though overall employment growth for those districts remains sluggish. In Philadelphia, a slowly improving outlook for long-term economic growth led to expansion in headcounts at many firms, while labor markets in Minneapolis tightened slightly.
Since the last report, the pace of hiring has reportedly softened in Boston, Richmond, and Chicago, thanks in part, of course, to "unusually bad winter weather."