U.S. 2020 Economic Conditions and Commentary Considering COVID-19 and Continuing Economic Developments: Part Two
September 16, 2020
By Timothy P. Speiss, CPA, MST, PFS, IAR, CFMFO
Where We Are – September 2020 Observations
6. Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions by the Federal Reserve and Selected Districts
Most recently published on September 2, 2020, and commonly known as the Beige Book, this report is published eight times per year. Each Federal Reserve Bank gathers anecdotal information on current economic conditions in its District through reports from Bank and Branch directors and interviews with key business contacts, economists, market experts, and other sources. This edition of the Beige Book summarizes this information by District and sector, and as impacted by the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. An overall summary of the twelve district reports is prepared by a designated Federal Reserve Bank on a rotating basis, and we include Beige Book summaries of certain Federal Reserve Bank Districts herein.
A. Summary of 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.
B. 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 finding 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.
C. Price Pressures
Price pressures increased since the last report (July 15, 2020) 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 personal 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.
D. Illustrative Highlights by Specific Federal Reserve Districts
Business contacts continued to cite the disruptive effects of the pandemic on all aspects of their activity, even as recovery began or continued in some sectors. Employees of some firms have been called back, while others remain on furlough or have permanently lost jobs. The strength of the region's housing markets in July provided some support for contacts' optimism that the pandemic merely delayed the usual spring rebound.
Growth in the regional economy has stalled in recent weeks, with activity still well below pre-pandemic levels. Retail activity and the single-family housing market have continued to improve. The labor market remains weak, and hiring activity has slowed. Selling prices and wages have been mostly steady, on balance.
Business activity was flat during the current Beige Book period and remained far below levels attained prior to the onset of COVID-19. Firms continued to face hiring difficulties, and wages trended higher for low-wage jobs. Prices also trended slightly higher amid ongoing price spikes. Uncertainty is extremely high as contacts await layoffs, evictions, foreclosures, and bankruptcies while the coronavirus persists and the stimulus ends.
The region's economy grew modestly and at a pace similar to that of the previous reporting period. However, activity remained below pre-pandemic levels across most sectors. Staff levels changed very little and wages were mostly steady. Price pressures increased somewhat as input costs increased. Contacts expected moderate improvement in customer demand, although expectations have been scaled back.
Economic conditions were mixed. Labor markets improved modestly, and non-labor costs were subdued. Certain retail segments were strong, while others reported softness. Tourism activity remained soft. Residential real estate conditions improved, and commercial real estate activity was mixed. Manufacturing activity increased. Banking conditions rebounded slightly.
Economic activity increased strongly, but the pace of growth slowed, and activity remained below pre-pandemic levels. Employment and manufacturing increased strongly; consumer spending, construction and real estate increased moderately; and business spending increased slightly. Wages increased slightly, and prices rose modestly. Financial conditions improved modestly. The pandemic continued to weigh on agriculture.
Increasing COVID-19 infections in the Eleventh District have disrupted the budding economic recovery in some sectors. While manufacturing activity continued to expand, service sector activity declined overall in July but resumed its nascent recovery in August. Energy activity remained depressed. Sharply rising home sales were a bright spot. Outlooks were increasingly uncertain, as surging COVID-19 cases disrupted business sentiment.
Economic activity in the Twelfth District expanded slightly. Employment levels increased marginally. Price inflation remained generally unchanged. Sales of retail goods rose slightly, while conditions in the consumer and business services sectors remained precarious. Activity in the manufacturing sector increased modestly, and the agriculture sector remained weak. Residential construction activity picked up briskly, while activity in the commercial market increased a bit. Lending activity ticked up further.