Regional economy shows indecisiveness Fed report describes slow, uneven growth

August 08, 1991|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,New York Bureau of The Sun

NEW YORK -- "Mixed," "uneven" -- such were the gray words sprinkled throughout the so-called "beige book" compilation of regional economic conditions released yesterday by 12 Federal Reserve District Banks.

Most sectors of the economy and most regions described in the report, which receives its name from its tan cover, showed at least some growth. But the signs of expansion were tepid, and several economists suggested that the most positive news was the absence of inflationary signals.

"Lower input prices, the likelihood that the trend in inflation is improving, that was what was new in the report," said Mickey Levy, an economist at CRT Government Securities. "We all already knew the economy was weak."

The actual words in the report were slightly positive. "Conditions continue to improve, but at a slow, uneven pace," it summarized. But the sector-by-sector discussions were less encouraging, and many on Wall Street suggested that the real conclusions weren't on the page but rather in the action taken Tuesday to lower interest rates by the Federal Reserve Board, which presumably already had the report.

"There is nothing that is moving forward," said Robert Brusca, chief economist with Nikko Securities. "Manufacturing is merely stabilizing, there are increased layoffs in the service sector of the economy, particularly state and local governments, and momentum in the housing market is slowing. To cut to the core, the evidence [in the report] is the economy needs more help."

In the 5th Federal Reserve District, based in Richmond, Va., and covering the East Coast from Maryland to South Carolina, manufacturing had improved and conditions were favorable for agriculture, but retailing and real estate were weak and tourism was flat. Inventories of unsold homes fell and prices heldsteady.

The area's three major ports, including Baltimore's, reported a decline in imports, but it was largely offset by an increase in exports.

Banks said demands for loans had weakened. "Few new businesses reportedly sought financing," the report said.

Those conditions roughly equated with future expectations. For instance, only a quarter of the manufacturers believed the downturn was continuing, while half the retailers believed that was the case.

"There is not a lot of strength in anything," said Alfred Broaddus, director of research for the bank.

The 5th District's conclusions were drawn from a mailed survey in July of more than 100 major manufacturers and 50 retailers and from discussions with officials at ports, hotels and banks. Additional data suggested that even though no area within the region was particularly robust, business conditions within the Maryland-to-Virginia crescent were particularly weak, said Dan Bechter, a vice president at the bank.

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