Beige Book: Southeast economy improved through March; but what about April?
On April 13, the Sixth District's most recent Beige Book was released. The opening paragraph, which summarizes the entire report, said, "Sixth District business contacts described economic activity as advancing modestly from mid-February through March. Retailers cited that consumer spending improved while auto dealers reported strong sales growth. Tourism activity remained positive as occupancy rates and air travel mostly increased. Residential brokers and builders indicated that sales growth of new and existing homes were mixed, but generally remained weak, while commercial contractors mentioned improving conditions as development increased slightly. District manufacturers experienced increasing levels of new orders and production. Transportation firms noted modest advances in shipments and tonnage. Banking contacts reported soft but improving loan demand. Labor markets continued to recover at a gradual pace. Cost pressures grew for most District firms, but the ability to pass through price increases continued to vary by industry."
The report discusses economic activity that took place from mid-February through March, but the official release date lagged by a couple of weeks. In a time when data and information are so easily available, this type of lag can make the information seem dated. The Atlanta Fed is continuously gathering information via meetings with our Regional Economic Information Network contacts. Recently, we held two advisory council meetings, which gave us more insight into their particular sectors. On April 12 our Trade and Transportation Advisory Council met in Atlanta, and on April 14 our Travel and Tourism Advisory Council met in Miami. What follows is some of the anecdotal information collected from these meetings.
Trade and transportation
Demand is up for almost all industries in the transportation sector, especially for those involved in export activity. The trucking industry is seeing a return to pricing power but is challenged with finding qualified drivers and mechanics and faces a shortage of drivers amid new regulations. Increases in the cost of fuel are challenging all modes of transportation, but fuel surcharges remain intact. Intermodal volume is benefiting from increased fuel costs as customers move certain types of goods from truck to rail. Inventories remain very low and inventory turns are high; slow steaming in maritime shipments is creating floating inventories. All industries reported increases in capital expenditures for replacement and new equipment, information technology, and infrastructure and buildings. Hiring is taking place at some level in most industries, and wage pressures are just beginning to surface in parts of the sector. Events in Japan have not caused major disruptions but lags in shipments of certain goods and equipment have been reported.
Travel and tourism
Activity is up in almost all industries of the sector. Occupancy, room rates, and cruise and convention bookings are increasing. A modest level of pricing power has returned; however, increasing fuel and commodity costs are challenging all segments of the sector. Restaurant activity is mixed, and price increases are being passed through. Capital expenditure is increasing in most of the sector, and the overall tone was one of optimism with a cautious eye toward rising commodity costs. The areas and locations adversely affected by last year's BP oil spill have regained business, and many are back to normal levels.
Based on these meetings, it appears that the Sixth District's economy is still moving in a positive direction.
By Shalini Patel, a senior economic analyst in the research department, Sarah Arteaga, a senior REIN analyst, and Lon Lazzeri, a REIN director
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