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The Atlanta Fed's SouthPoint offers commentary and observations on various aspects of the region's economy.

The blog's authors include staff from the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network and Public Affairs Department.

Postings are weekly.


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03/12/2015


Southeast PMI Surges in February

The Southeast purchasing managers index (PMI) report was released on March 5, and it indicates that any lingering effects from the late 2014 manufacturing slowdown have abated. If you recall, the December Southeast PMI dipped into contraction territory, but it has rebounded nicely since. The PMI index has risen 14.9 points since December and now sits at its highest reading since April 2014.

The Atlanta Fed's research department uses the Southeast PMI to track southeastern manufacturing activity. The Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University produces the survey, which provides an analysis of current conditions for the manufacturing sector in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The PMI is based on a survey of representatives from manufacturing companies in those states and analyzes trends concerning new orders, production, employment, supplier delivery times, and inventory levels. A reading above 50 indicates that manufacturing activity is expanding, and a reading below 50 indicates contracting activity.

The Southeast PMI's overall index rose 4.9 points to 60.5 in February (see the chart). The subindexes also suggest some positive future developments:

  • The new orders subindex rose to 63.4, a 6.0 point increase over January and a 29.4 point increase over the last two months.
  • The production subindex increased 3.5 points over the previous month and now reads 64.6.
  • The employment subindex rose 7.8 points over January to 67.1, indicating that manufacturing payrolls grew for the 17th consecutive month.
  • The supply deliveries subindex increased 1.8 points from the previous month to 53.7.
  • The finished inventory subindex increased 5.5 points compared with January.
  • The commodity prices subindex fell 1.7 points and now reads 35.4.

Southeast Purchasing Managers Index

Optimism for future production fell in February. When asked for their production expectations during the next three to six months, 46 percent of survey participants expected production to be higher going forward, compared with 61 percent in January. The good news is that no survey respondents expect production to be lower than their current levels during the same time period.

The change in energy prices and severe winter weather are just a couple of challenges manufacturing faces. Some isolated reports of reduced orders from manufacturers closely tied to the energy sector have emerged, but on the other hand, the drop in oil prices has other contacts saving money on fuel costs. However, most contacts in the Southeast have expressed little direct energy-related effect on their business activity. Judging by the February PMI report, southeastern manufacturing is holding strong. We'll see if the positive momentum sustains into spring.


March 12, 2015 in Economic conditions, Economic Indicators, Inventories, Manufacturing, Prices, Productivity, Southeast | Permalink

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10/30/2014


Regional Housing Sales, Construction Slowing

The Atlanta Fed conducts a monthly poll of regional residential brokers and homebuilders to track emerging trends in housing markets. The latest results, which reflect activity in September 2014, suggest continued slow growth in sales and construction activity.

Many residential brokers and builders indicated that home sales were flat to slightly up from the year-earlier level. The report from brokers and builders on buyer traffic was mixed. Those who indicated a decline in traffic suggested that seasonal factors and a decline in buyer confidence were behind the decline. A growing share of residential brokers and builders reported that home inventory levels had increased slightly from the year-earlier level. Comments suggested that well-priced homes are moving quickly, but that many sellers are pricing their homes fairly optimistically, causing inventory to build until prices are adjusted.

Many builders reported that construction activity had increased from the year-earlier level. The drop depicted in the chart below reflects the fact that a growing share of builders reported construction activity as flat to down slightly.

September 2014 Southeast Construction Activity

Most builders indicated that they continue to experience upward pressure on materials prices. Builders’ reports ranged widely when we asked them to specify the materials experiencing the greatest pricing pressure, and their responses included concrete, drywall/sheetrock, and lumber. These reports are fairly consistent with year-over-year changes in the Engineering News Record’s cost indices: on a year-earlier basis, concrete prices are up 3–4 percent, drywall/sheetrock products are up 10 percent, and lumber products are up 7–9 percent.

Builders also continued to report upward pressure on labor costs and that they are having a tougher time filling positions compared to a year earlier. In addition to asking about builders’ difficulty filling positions, we posed a special question about labor shortages. Two-thirds of builders indicated that they were experiencing a labor shortage. Reports about the trades most affected by these shortages were also fairly wide-ranging, but there seemed to be a fair amount of consensus around the idea that framers, masons, carpenters, and drywall installers were the hardest tradespeople to come by on job sites. These results are fairly consistent with report released by the National Association of Home Builders earlier this year.

To explore these results in more detail, or to view other results that were not discussed in this post, please see our Construction and Real Estate Survey results.

Note: The latest poll results, which reflect activity in September 2014, are based on responses from 40 residential brokers and 25 homebuilders and were collected October 6–15. Please sign up if you would like to participate in this poll.

Photo of Jessica DillBy Jessica Dill, senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department


October 30, 2014 in Construction, Economic conditions, Economic Indicators, Prices, Real Estate, Southeast | Permalink

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10/27/2014


Southeastern Transportation Continues Rolling

Members of the Atlanta Fed’s Trade and Transportation Advisory Council met in Atlanta on October 8 to discuss the latest updates on and insights into the industry. Most council members reported expansion continuing into the fourth quarter. Year over year, demand was greater across the majority of industries represented. In rail, shipments of frac sand, which is used in the hydraulic-fracturing process (commonly referred to as fracking) to produce petroleum products such as oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids from rock, and crude oil were up substantially, and intermodal volumes were steadily rising as a result of trucking capacity constraints. Ocean shippers reported a shift in the modes of movement of commodities, which were historically shipped in bulk but are now shipped in containers, causing a shortage of containers for traditional use. Demand in the flatbed trucking market was very strong, with shipments of drywall and bulk cement increasing. Going into the holidays, logistics firms anticipate e-commerce volume to pick up substantially by mid-November.

Employment
Reports on current employment levels this year versus last year at this time were mixed. More than half anticipate just slightly higher staffing levels this time next year. Truck driver turnover for the overall industry is quite high. For new drivers, turnover within the first 90 days of employment is very high. Trucking firms reported that only a very small percentage of applicants are hired, as many do not meet driver requirements.

Costs, wages, and prices
Most reported moderate increases in nonlabor input costs. Wages were reported as modestly increasing across most transportation industries with the exception of trucking, where wages continued to increase at a clip of 6 percent to 7 percent annually. Reports on increases in health care premiums for 2015 varied, ranging from less than 1 percent up to 20 percent. Some companies reported anticipated changes to plan structures to mitigate expenses, and others plan to share rate increases with employees. Regarding pricing power, a few reported an ability to raise prices, but others reported significant pushback by clients. Trucking firms plan to continue raising rates amid rising demand, reduced capacity, and continued increases in driver pay.

International trade issues
According to council members, the net impact of the recent strengthening of the dollar had been minimal on international activity when this meeting was held. A slowing trend in world trade was cited by one council member as the biggest factor affecting both imports and exports.

Overall, the sentiment of this group has improved since the last meeting in April, and all council members reported a higher outlook for short- and medium-term growth, with greater confidence in their forecasts. Council members were asked to cite the single most challenging issue facing their industry today. Trucking firms indicated that the lack of truck drivers and increased industry regulations will continue to cause diminished capacity for the foreseeable future. In maritime trade, ongoing ocean carrier consolidations will impact all U.S. container ports and there will be both winners and losers as a result of the carriers’ decisions.

What impact will these challenges have on commerce? The council meets again in April 2015. We’ll watch as conditions play out, and we’ll relay the information here.

By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

October 27, 2014 in Economic Indicators, Shipping, Southeast, Trade, Transportation | Permalink

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08/22/2014


Southeast Commercial Construction Update: Activity Up from Last Year

At the national level, total nonresidential construction spending fell 2.78 percent between May and June but increased 4.6 percent from the year-earlier level. Because nonresidential construction projects tend to take place over longer time horizons, it’s useful to aggregate the data by quarter to smooth out their short-term volatility. Doing so reveals that nonresidential spending increased slightly (just shy of 2 percent) between the first and second quarters of 2014 and that it increased by 6.7 percent from the second quarter in 2013.

Does the Southeast commercial construction picture align with the national one? The Atlanta Fed polls southeastern business contacts engaged in commercial construction each quarter to track and better understand regional trends in construction activity. The latest poll results appear to echo the national story, suggesting that a pickup in commercial construction activity was sustained through the second quarter of 2014.

Most respondents indicated that the pace of nonresidential construction activity in the Southeast was either ahead of the year-earlier level or remained unchanged from the year-earlier level. All contacts reported that the pace of multifamily construction had increased from year-earlier levels (see the charts).

Pace of Nonresidential Construction Activity versus a Year Ago Pace of Multifamily Construction Activity (units) versus a Year Ago

Several comments from respondents help to illustrate these trends:

  • “More projects to go after in all markets, but competition is still very intense.”
  • “Multifamily supply continues to grow at a strong pace.”
  • “For the first time in six years we are beginning to see much larger projects in the healthcare, commercial and industrial markets.”
  • “Apartment construction remains at a high level and brings concerns that the market will become overbuilt. Each month it seems there are more announcements for new apartment projects.”

Half of all respondents reported that backlog was greater than the year-earlier level; the other half indicated that backlog was similar to the year-earlier level. Although this response represents a drop from the last two quarterly measures of 89 percent and 76 percent, it is still an indication that the pipeline of future activity remains fairly robust.

The number of respondents reporting that the amount of available credit met or exceeded demand continued to increase from earlier reports. Sixty-eight percent of contacts in the second quarter 2014 indicated that credit was sufficient, compared with 60 percent the previous quarter and 57 percent one year earlier (see the chart).

How available do you perceive commercial construction finance to be in your market?

The majority of contacts reported that they plan to increase hiring during the next quarter. Seventy-five percent of contacts in the second quarter 2014 reported that they were planning to do modest to significant hiring, slightly down from 79 percent the previous quarter but up from 57 percent one year earlier (see the chart).

Hiring Plans for Next Quarter versus This Quarter

Compared with a year earlier, more contacts (roughly one out of three) indicated that they were having a difficult time filling positions (see the chart).

Difficulty Filling Positions versus a Year Ago

All contacts reported some degree of upward pressure on labor costs. Sixty percent of contacts indicated that their labor costs had increased more than 3 percent from year-earlier levels. A growing share reported labor cost increases of 6 percent or more (see the chart).

Labor Costs versus a Year Ago

The next poll will open on October 6, 2014. If you are a commercial contractor and would like to participate in this poll, please let us know by sending a note to RealEstateCenter@atl.frb.org.

Note: Second quarter 2014 poll results were collected July 7–16, 2014 and are based on responses from 20 business contacts. Participants of this poll included general contractors, subcontractors, lenders, developers, and material fabricators with footprints of varying sizes across the Southeast.

Photo of Jessica DillBy Jessica Dill, senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department


August 22, 2014 in Construction, Economic conditions, Economic Indicators, Employment, Labor Markets, Real Estate, Southeast | Permalink

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08/15/2014


Taking Tennessee's Temperature

During the most recent cycle of the Federal Open Market Committee (which ran from June 19 to July 30), the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) team at the Nashville Branch met with business leaders, including branch directors, to discuss economic conditions.

General business conditions
Our REIN contacts in Middle and East Tennessee remain optimistic about the prospects for their businesses and the general economy. Most have a positive outlook and report solid growth in customer demand.

Our contacts also indicate that manufacturing is expanding robustly, with the sector running at nearly full capacity, especially the auto industry. A large building-materials manufacturer expects faster growth in the second half of 2014 as the construction industry recovers from the weather-related disruptions earlier in the year. In the Nashville area, both the commercial and residential real estate markets are doing well, benefiting from the low interest rate environment, strong net in-migration, and rising household incomes as the employment picture improves.

Employment and labor markets
Employment growth has accelerated in Tennessee during the past year, and growth momentum is strong across most major metropolitan areas in the state (see the chart).

Tnemployment_momentum

Middle Tennessee State University's Business and Economic Research Center produces a heat map of Tennessee's employment growth by industry (based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data) that nicely illustrates what we've been hearing from our business contacts: namely, employment in construction, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality has been outpacing growth in other industries.

As the labor market improves, businesses are increasingly sharing stories about the difficulties companies face in finding qualified workers across a broad skill spectrum. In addition, several companies have expressed concern that replacing skilled employees who are nearing retirement age will be challenging. Consequently, companies appear to be expanding internal training programs to deal with existing and potential skill shortages.

In addition to our meetings with business executives, we polled a number of mostly larger firms to find whether they experienced difficulty filling open positions. Out of 21 respondents, two-thirds said yes. Seventy percent of those respondents said that they have raised offer wages to attract new hires.

We also conducted a brief poll of 32 of our construction industry contacts. On the residential side, 75 percent indicated that it is now more or much more difficult to find skilled labor compared to the mid-2000s. Skilled labor availability is even tighter in commercial real estate—nearly 85 percent of respondents said finding skilled workers now is more difficult.

Costs/prices/wages
We have not heard of any pick-up in materials and other nonlabor input costs but, as mentioned above, the shortage of skilled applicants is putting upward pressure on offer wages. Several manufacturing contacts said that they increased their starting wages along with peer companies in their geographic area.

In the construction industry in particular, labor cost pressures on the residential side have increased compared to the mid-2000s for almost two-thirds of respondents to our poll. Moreover, labor cost pressures have intensified for more than three-fourths of the commercial builders we've polled.

Availability of credit and investments
In the same poll, two-thirds of the homebuilders and residential brokers said it is more or much more difficult to obtain financing for construction projects compared with the mid-2000s. And everyone on that panel said that it is more or much more difficult to obtain financing for land/lot development. Financing conditions are a bit easier for commercial builders (see the chart).

Tnconstruction_poll

One national commercial construction firm said that financing conditions are actually easier for them now than 10 years ago. Notably, equity financing is becoming more prominent in a number of sectors as investors are looking for higher returns than they can get at financial institutions, and banks' lending standards remain rigorous.

All this said, the positive sentiment among our business contacts in Middle and East Tennessee could possibly also signal continued improvement in the health of the national economy, given that the structure of Tennessee's economy for the most part resembles that of the United States' as a whole. Be sure to check back here as we'll periodically update the Middle and East Tennessee economy.


Photo of Galina Alexeenko By Galina Alexeenko, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch

August 15, 2014 in Economic conditions, Economic Indicators, Economy, Manufacturing, Southeast | Permalink

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06/25/2014


The Growing Gulf Coast: Good Signs despite Low Sales

The weather is not the only thing about to heat up along the Gulf Coast. The economy is warming up as well, according to the Regional Economic Information Network’s (REIN) contacts. The REIN team in the Atlanta Fed’s New Orleans Branch reaches out to leaders from large and small businesses from all sectors of the economy and to representatives from community groups along the Gulf Coast in order to gain a representative picture of regional economic conditions, which, by the way, appears to be markedly improving. Since mid-April, we’ve held 15 one-on-one interviews, one roundtable with a mix of business leaders, our branch board meeting, and we also attended several conferences.

According to our contacts, business sentiment has picked up. Most of them were optimistic about near-term (three to six months) and medium-term (two to three years) growth and were more confident in their outlook than in the recent past. Of contacts who indicated they were experiencing second quarter growth, approximately half believed the growth was a rebound from an unusually weak first quarter, with the other half attributing it to a modest increase in economic strength.

Burgeoning capital investment was a consistent recent theme. A lack of “visibility”—or a firm’s ability to confidently predict future business conditions—was not reported as a significant inhibitor of capital investment. Nearly every contact shared information about merger and acquisition (M&A) activity or capital expenditure projects under way or planned for 2014. Most projects involved expansion to meet growing demand, including constructing new facilities and upgrading existing ones, although several projects involved new product offerings. Consistent with the recent trend along the Gulf Coast, much of the increased investment stemmed from the energy sector. However, we noticed investment picked up in other industries, such as in education and medical services.

Business contacts also reported that spending on consulting services for leadership development and organizational culture training increased. The addition of new leaders, M&A activity that resulted in conflicting organizational cultures, and the recession-era deferral of discretionary spending generated a surge in demand for these services.

Residential real estate across the Gulf Coast picked up marginally since mid-April. The median residential home sale was around $200,000, though inventories were low. Homes in coastal Alabama’s high-end market (over $600,000) were slow to move, and a lack of high-end inventory in coastal Mississippi led to increased construction in that market. In past months, we heard reports of an increase in raw land deals along the Florida Panhandle, and similarly, a recent reemergence of raw land deals was reported in coastal Alabama, often 50 percent bank-financed with fully collateralized loans. Commercial construction also resurfaced in parts of the region.

Resting retail
Unfortunately, the general optimism was not shared by all sectors. Regional retail contacts shared dampened expectations for the second quarter. Some admitted to difficulty adjusting to a shopping landscape increasingly dominated by the internet, which forced big-box retail stores to rethink sales strategies and reevaluate store locations and sizes and in some cases led to resurgence in the redevelopment of shopping centers.

Bracing for the boom
The employment picture was heartening, with nearly all of our contacts implementing hiring plans. In fact, a few contacts who took steps to reduce employment to “lean and mean” levels during the recession and early recovery admitted they were not so sure the decision was advantageous, and recently they saw productivity increase significantly once they added workers. However, the continued shortage of skilled labor has many contacts worried that some project start dates may be pushed back as they struggle to find qualified people.

Most contacts continued to report isolated wage pressures for skilled labor, medical services, and professional jobs, though some expressed they are bracing themselves for significant wage pressure in the coming months as the economy picks up.

The chatter about plans to increase prices in recent months materialized into reports of price increases, yet contacts admitted the increases were challenging and required a great deal of negotiating.

Overall, the Gulf Coast economy appears to be rising out of the recessionary fog and shedding the winter frost. The picture across most industries was definitively positive, with reports of large investment projects, hiring plans, and price increases.

By Adrienne Slack, vice president and regional executive; Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist; and Harrison Grieb, economic intern, Regional Economic Information Network, all in the New Orleans Branch of the Atlanta Fed


June 25, 2014 in Construction, Economic conditions, Economic Indicators, Employment, Gulf Coast, Prices, Real Estate, Retail | Permalink

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05/15/2014


Southeast PMI Hits a Two-Year High

Last month, I suggested in a SouthPoint post that manufacturing activity in the Southeast could be a lion or a lamb, the outcome depending on a couple of different scenarios. Was the strong March PMI report a result of pent-up activity that was delayed by the unusually severe weather experienced during the winter, or was there strong underlying demand present that would propel manufacturing into the second quarter? Judging by April’s Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) report, there is a strong possibility it was the latter. April’s PMI report indicated that manufacturing activity was robust, and various indicators in the report suggest it could continue.

The Atlanta Fed’s research department uses the Southeast PMI to track manufacturing activity in the region. The survey is produced by the Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University. It analyzes current market conditions for the manufacturing sector in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The PMI is based on a survey of representatives from manufacturing companies in those states and analyzes trends concerning new orders, production, employment, supplier delivery times, and inventory levels. A reading above 50 indicates that manufacturing activity is expanding, and a reading below 50 indicates that activity is contracting.

The Southeastern PMI rose 1.7 points compared with March and reached a two-year high of 63.2. The new orders subindex and production subindex both reached their highest levels since early 2012. New orders increased 2.1 points, and production increased 2.7 points compared with March. The rise in new orders bodes well for future manufacturing activity. When new orders are high, generally future production will also be high. Factories also appear to be hiring. The employment subindex rose 5.2 points compared with the previous month, indicating that manufacturing payrolls increased during April. The more new orders and production rise, the more new workers will likely be needed. The finished inventories subindex fell 7.8 points during April, suggesting that inventory levels are falling, which could also lead to increased manufacturing activity going forward.

At the state level, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Tennessee all saw increases in their overall PMI during April and were in expansionary territory (see the chart). The only state not above the 50-point threshold was Mississippi, which just missed with a 49.1.

Southeast Purchasing Managers Index

Using the PMI report as an indicator, manufacturing in the Southeast has been on a nice roll the last couple of months. The Southeast PMI has outperformed the national PMI (it should be noted that the Southeastern PMI is not a subset of the national PMI). March and April reports suggest that activity is growing and solid. We will have to wait and see if the trend continues, but in the meantime, let’s hope for a three-year high in May.

By Troy Balthrop, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed’s Nashville Branch


May 15, 2014 in Economic Indicators, Manufacturing, Productivity, Southeast | Permalink

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05/09/2014


Is Florida Finally Beginning to Flourish Again?

In March, we shared the view of our contacts in the Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) in north and central Florida. Those contacts described modest but sustained growth in activity in the first quarter of the year. That sentiment continued as winter turned into spring, with reports of increasing activity and greater optimism for continued growth during the remainder of the year.

Since mid-March, the REIN team in the Atlanta Fed’s Jacksonville Branch held 13 one-on-one interviews, one roundtable with a mix of business leaders, a Trade and Transportation Advisory Council meeting (recently summarized), as well as our branch board meeting. Although meeting participants noted acquisitions as a primary growth engine for most firms, some firms are expanding capacity to meet improving demand. Community banks are reporting increased commercial activity as bigger banks trim lines on small businesses. Though loan demand is still relatively soft, our contacts characterized clients as somewhat more confident, which bodes well for future lending activity. One banker cited noteworthy increases in credit card usage and home equity loans.

Retail contacts continue to express concerns about low-income consumers but note that the slowly improving labor market is resulting in somewhat more spending. In central Florida, contacts noted strong spending by more affluent consumers, including foreign visitors who are seeking high-end retail and dining. Robust home sales and price appreciation, accompanied by declining lender-mediated sales, were widely reported. Commercial construction is on the rise, especially in sectors such as health care, manufacturing, apartments, and higher education.

A focus on cost-cutting along with productivity-enhancing efforts continues. As one chief executive officer put it, “People are the last thing we’ll invest in.” Another company has committed to keeping its general and administrative expenses flat, which will result in support staff cuts to offset the increased cost of technology investments and health care. Two other large contacts noted significant reductions of full-timers to avoid having to provide health care coverage and to “be more in line with the industry.” We increasingly hear more about firms restructuring employee health plans and benefits to reduce costs to the company, including shifting more cost burden to the employee, restricting eligibility for spouses who may have access to insurance elsewhere, and adding risk-based surcharges.

Education contacts noted that the ability to place graduates seeking work has improved. Stories abound regarding difficult-to-fill positions (truck drivers, IT, accounting, etc.), and reports of a willingness to increase starting salaries are mixed. Generally, there were few reports of wage pressures mounting (outside of the trucking industry). The news on input prices remains relatively quiet.

Our contacts noted that qualified mortgage rules—and regulations more generally—have the potential to affect the housing recovery. A mortgage and refinance company has cut the majority of its workforce as refinance volume diminishes but noted that current regulations are making first mortgages, especially to the self-employed, “nearly impossible” to issue. Two other small-banking contacts indicated they have discontinued providing residential mortgages. However, two residential real estate contacts did not indicate any major concern about clients’ abilities to obtain mortgage loans.

At the April meeting of the board of directors of the Jacksonville Branch, we asked board members whether the current and near-term environment reflects an economy that is growing at a 2 percent rate or one that is growing at 3 percent. The majority view activity now and in the coming year to be more closely aligned with a 3 percent growth rate. The board members feel that the biggest potential impediment to growth is related to the consumer, as many people continue to struggle and consumer confidence remains lower than before the recession (see the chart).

Florida Consumer Confidence

The old proverb goes, “No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.” One could apply this adage to the Great Recession and the long recovery and ask: Has an economic “spring” finally sprung? We’ll be keeping tabs as the year plays out.

By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch


May 9, 2014 in Banks and banking, Construction, Economic Growth and Development, Economic Indicators, Florida, Health Care, Housing, Jobs, Manufacturing, Real Estate, Retail | Permalink

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04/16/2014


Beige Book: Warming Economy Accompanies Spring’s Thaw

Eight times a year, each of the 12 Reserve Banks 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. Their findings are reported in the Summary of Economic Conditions, also known as the Beige Book. The report is published on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors' website about two weeks prior to each Federal Open Market Committee meeting.

The first sentences of the national summary and each Bank's report often receive much attention because the lead sentence tends to summarize economic conditions in that region.

Here is a compilation of the first sentence of the national summary and each Reserve Bank’s report:

  • National: Reports from the twelve Federal Reserve Districts suggest economic activity increased in most regions of the country since the previous report. (A previous SouthPoint post also mentioned the weather’s effect on overall economic conditions.)
  • Boston: The First District economy continues to expand moderately, according to business contacts, although growth rates vary across sectors and firms.
  • New York: Economic activity in the Second District rebounded since the last report, as the harsh winter weather abated.
  • Philadelphia: Aggregate business activity in the Third District grew at a moderate pace during this current Beige Book period.
  • Cleveland: On balance, economic activity in the Fourth District declined slightly in the past six weeks.
  • Richmond: The Fifth District economy expanded moderately since our last report.
  • Atlanta: On balance, the Sixth District economy expanded at a modest pace from mid-February through March.
  • Chicago: Growth in economic activity in the Seventh District picked up in March, and contacts generally maintained their optimistic outlook for 2014.
  • St. Louis: Business activity in the Eighth District has declined slightly since our previous report.
  • Minneapolis: The Ninth District economy continued to grow at a moderate pace since the last report.
  • Kansas City: The Tenth District economy grew moderately in March, and most contacts were optimistic about future activity.
  • Dallas: The Eleventh District economy grew at a moderate pace over the last six weeks.
  • San Francisco: Economic activity in the Twelfth District continued to improve moderately during the reporting period of mid-February through early April.

As you can see, almost all districts are experiencing the same level of economic activity.

Here are some notable highlights from the Atlanta Fed's contribution to the Beige Book:

Consumer spending and tourism

  • District merchants reported an uptick in activity from mid-February through March following sluggish sales in January, which were widely attributed to the severe winter weather. Light motor vehicle sales grew modestly during the time period.
  • Hospitality contacts in areas negatively affected by the adverse winter weather saw improvements in activity.

Real estate and construction

  • Brokers reported home sales were mixed. Inventory levels continued to fall on a year-over-year basis, and the majority of contacts reported that home prices remained ahead of the year-earlier level.
  • The majority of builders reported that construction activity and new home sales were ahead of the year-earlier level. The majority of contacts continued to report modest home price appreciation.
  • District brokers noted that demand for commercial real estate continued to improve. Construction activity continued to increase at a modest pace from last year.

Manufacturing

  • Manufacturers reported increased activity across the region from mid-February through March. Significant improvements were cited in production and new orders.

Banking and finance

  • Bankers noted an increase in loan demand.

Employment

  • District payroll growth remained constrained from mid-February through March.

Prices and wages

  • Nonlabor input costs increased very slowly, with a few noted exceptions, including rising costs for developed land, construction materials, and food. Profit margins remained tight across most industries as contacts continued to report very little pricing power.
  • Contacts continued to indicate little wage pressure outside of some high-skilled positions.

The next Beige Book will be published June 4.

Photo of Teri GaffordBy Shalini Patel, an economic policy analysis specialist in the Atlanta Fed's research department


April 16, 2014 in Construction, Economic conditions, Economic Indicators, Employment, Housing, Jobs, Labor Markets, Manufacturing, Prices, Purchasing, Real Estate, Unemployment, Weather | Permalink

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02/27/2014


Southeast Housing Update: Modest Improvement Continues

According to the latest results from our Southeast housing market poll, contacts continued to indicate that growth remained positive. More than half of our Southeast builder and broker contacts reported that sales increased modestly on a year-over-year basis (see the chart).

January 2014 Southeast Home Sales vs. a Year Earlier

Many builders indicated that buyer traffic had increased on a year-over year-basis. Reports from brokers were mixed (see the chart).

January 2014 Southeast Buyer Traffic vs. a Year Earlier

The majority of our Southeast builder panel indicated that inventory levels had remained unchanged from year-earlier levels, although most of our Southeast broker panel indicated that inventory levels had fallen from year-earlier levels (see the chart).

January 2014 Southeast Home Inventory vs. a Year Earlier

Most brokers and builders continued to report that home prices had increased slightly in January compared to year-ago levels (see the chart).

January 2014 Home Price vs. a Year-ago

Two-thirds of brokers reported that the amount of available credit either met or exceeded demand (see the chart).

Brokers: How available do you perceive mortgage finance to be in your market?

Similarly, two-thirds of builders indicated that the amount of available credit met or exceeded demand (see the chart).

Builders: How available do you perceive mortgage finance to be in your market?

It’s worth noting that while this picture hasn’t drastically improved over time, it hasn’t deteriorated much either despite the recent implementation of mortgage regulations (for example, thequalified mortgage rule, which went into effect on January 10). We plan to keep a close eye on this question as the year unfolds.

Residential construction update
Our builder contacts indicated that construction activity increased slightly on a year-over-year basis but remained unchanged month over month. Nearly three out of four builders reported that activity was in line with their plan for the period.

You may recall from previous SouthPoint posts that builders have faced challenges securing acquisition and development financing for lot development (here) and that builders identified lot availability as one of the biggest risks to their outlook (here). We posed a special question to our builder panel in an effort to gain more insight into the current lot inventory situation. Here are a few of the main takeaways:

  • Overwhelmingly and regardless of the market, builders reported that finished lots are extremely hard to come by in desirable locations. With few finished lots in the most desirable areas, many builders have moved to B and C locations for vertical construction. (B locations have become the new A locations, and C locations have become the new B locations.)
  • As a result of the increased demand for finished lots in good locations, contacts indicated that lot prices were appreciating rather quickly, and that this rate of price appreciation was problematic because the added cost on the front end does not align with the valuation that can be achieved on the back end.
  • A few builders reported that they were in the process of developing new lots in A locations, but many more contacts noted that it was cost-prohibitive to develop raw land in any location at this time. The latter group reported that private acquisition and development money was available to fill the void that banks have left but noted that it was more expensive and would significantly raise the cost of development to the point where it becomes no longer viable. No one on the builder panel seemed to think that it would be viable to develop raw land in B and C locations at this point.

Outlook on sales and construction activity
Over the next three months, most builders and brokers expect home sales to increase. Although expectations remain fairly positive, contacts were slightly less optimistic about sales growth relative to their year-earlier responses (see the charts).

Southeast Builder Home Sales Expectations Next 3 Months

Southeast Broker Home Sales Expectations Next 3 Months

Nearly two-thirds of builder contacts expect construction activity to increase over the next three months. With that said, builders’ outlooks appear to be slightly less optimistic relative to their year-earlier responses.

Southeast Builder Construction Expectations Next 3 Months

Note: January poll results are based on responses from 42 residential brokers and 23 homebuilders and were collected February 3–12, 2014. The housing poll's diffusion indexes are calculated as the percentage of total respondents reporting increases minus the percentage reporting declines. Positive values in the index indicate increased activity, and negative values indicate decreased activity.

If you are a real estate broker or homebuilder and would like to participate in this poll, please let us know by sending a note to RealEstateCenter@atl.frb.org.

Photo of Jessica DillBy Jessica Dill, senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department


February 27, 2014 in Construction, Economic conditions, Economic Indicators, Housing, Inventories, Prices, Real Estate, Southeast | Permalink

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