Federal Reserve Sees Growth in All 12 Regions

March 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The U.S. economy expanded in January and early February in all parts of the country, but businesses reported they are under pressure to raise their prices, the Associated Press reported.

A Federal Reserve survey released Wednesday (March 2) showed that all 12 of the Fed’s regions reported growth at a “modest to moderate pace” and it pointed to a pickup in job creation in each.

Retail sales picked up in 10 of the 12 regions, while falling in the Richmond and Atlanta areas. Factory activity rose in all districts except St. Louis.

The survey hinted at some inflationary concerns. Costs are rising for manufacturers and retailers in most areas. Manufacturers in many districts said they are increasingly able to pass on those costs to customers. Retailers in some districts said they have or soon will raise prices.

“There are beginning to be some troubling signs on inflation,” said Steven Wood, chief economist at Insight Economics.

But other economists noted that the survey found little evidence that wages are increasing. Accelerating wages are “a necessary condition for a sustained, destabilizing high-inflation episode,” said Dana Saporta, an economist at Credit Suisse Securities.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke endured tough questioning from members of Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday about the threat of rising inflation. Lawmakers raised concerns that the Fed’s $600 billion bond-purchase program is laying the groundwork for higher prices.

Those concerns have been heightened by recent run-ups in the price of oil, corn, wheat and other commodities.

Bernanke told members of Congress that higher oil prices, which have risen due to turmoil in the Middle East, would likely cause only a temporary and mild increase in inflation.

The U.S. economy has been growing for 18 months. But that expansion hasn’t been enough to significantly lower the nation’s unemployment rate, which was 9% in January. The federal government will release the February jobs report on Friday.

The Fed survey did note that the job market is picking up in all districts. Many districts reported improved hiring in the manufacturing and health care industries.

Seven districts said that staffing agencies are more optimistic, with more employers converting temporary jobs to permanent status. Permanent hiring is also picking up, the agencies said.

The survey also noted that wages remain steady in five districts and are rising only modestly in several others. Sluggish wage growth should act to restrain future price increases.

Harsh snowstorms in many different parts of the country reduced store sales and factory activity. Bad weather disrupted manufacturing in the Cleveland, Atlanta and Minneapolis regions, and pushed down retail sales in six districts.

Housing remains the economy’s main weak spot, the report showed.

“Overall sales and construction remained at low levels across all districts,” the survey said. The St. Louis region said sales are still declining.

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Bernanke: U.S. Economic Outlook ‘Uncertain’

July 21, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress today (July 21) the economic outlook remains “unusually uncertain,” and the central bank is ready to take new steps to keep the recovery alive if the economy worsens.

Testifying before the Senate Banking Committee, Bernanke also said record low interest rates are still needed to bolster the economy. He repeated a pledge to keep them there for an “extended period,” the Associated Press reported.

Bernanke downplayed the odds that the economy will slide back into a “double-dip” recession. But he acknowledged the economy is fragile.

Given that, the Fed is “prepared to take further policy actions as needed” to keep the recovery on track, he said. He didn’t mention specific action being explored by the Fed policymakers. But they still have options beyond holding rates at record lows — including reviving some crisis-era programs.

Bernanke is trying to send Congress, Wall Street and Main Street a positive message that the recovery will last in the face of growing threats. At the same time, he wants to assure Americans that the Fed will take new stimulative actions if necessary.

Wall Street wasn’t convinced. Shortly before Bernanke spoke, the Dow Jones industrial average was up about 20 points. Within minutes, stocks began falling and the Dow was down more than 100 points.

The recovery, which had been flashing signs of strengthening earlier this year, is losing momentum. And fears are growing that it could stall.

Consumers have cut spending. Businesses, uncertain about the strength of their own sales or the economic recovery, are sitting on cash, reluctant to beef up hiring and expand operations. A stalled housing market, near double-digit unemployment and an edgy Wall Street shaken by Europe’s debt crisis are other factors playing into the economic slowdown.

“In short, it look likes our economy is in need of additional help,” said the committee’s chairman, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. And, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the highest-ranking Republican on the panel, said the economic outlook has become a “bit more clouded.”

With little appetite in Congress to provide a major new stimulus package, more pressure falls on Bernanke to keep the recovery going.

Bernanke and his Fed colleagues have cut their forecasts for growth this year.

If the recovery were to flash serious signs of backsliding, the Fed could revive programs to buy mortgage securities or government debt. It could lower the interest rate paid to banks on money left at the Fed or cut the rate banks pay for emergency Fed loans. The Fed also could create a new program to spark more lending to businesses and consumers in a bid to lure them to ratchet up spending and grow the economy.

Bernanke said the debt crisis in Europe, which has rattled Wall Street, played a role in the Fed’s “somewhat weaker outlook.” Although financial markets have improved considerably since the depth of the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, conditions have become “less supportive of economic growth in recent months,” he explained.

As a result, Bernanke said progress in reducing the nation’s unemployment rate, now at 9.5%, is now expected to be “somewhat slower” than thought. Unemployment is expect to stay high, in the 9% range, through the end of this year, under the Fed’s forecast.

High unemployment is a drag on household spending, Bernanke said, although he believed both consumers and businesses would spend enough to keep the recovery intact.

Bernanke also said it would take a “significant amount of time” to restore the nearly 8.5 million jobs wiped out over 2008 and 2009.

And, Bernanke said the housing market remains “weak” and noted that the overhang of vacant or foreclosed houses are weighing on home prices and home construction.

Given the weak recovery, inflation is not a problem, Bernanke said. However, Bernanke didn’t talk about deflation, a prolonged and destabilizing drop in prices for goods, the values of stocks and homes and in wages. Although most economists think the prospects of deflation are remote, some Fed officials have expressed concern about it.

To strengthen the economy, many economists predict the Fed will hold a key bank lending rate at a record low near zero well into 2011, or possibly into 2012. Doing so, would help nip any deflationary forces.

And keeping that bank rate at super low levels also would mean rates on certain credit cards, home equity loans, some adjustable-rate mortgages and other consumer loans would stay at their lowest point in decades.

Ultra-low lending rates, however, haven’t done much lately to rev up the economy. Consumers and businesses are cautious and aren’t showing an appetite to spend as lavishly as they usually do in the early stages of economic recoveries.

Bernanke, meanwhile, welcomed Congress’ new revamp of financial regulations signed into law by President Barack Obama on Wednesday. The new law, he said, “will place our financial system on a sounder foundation and minimize the risk of a repetition of the devastating events of the past three years.”

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Fed’s Bernanke: Recession is ‘Very Likely Over’

September 15, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said today (Sept. 15)  that the worst U.S. recession since the Great Depression is probably over, but the recovery will be slow and will take time to create new jobs.

“Even though from a technical perspective the recession is very likely over at this point, it’s still going to feel like a very weak economy for some time,” Bernanke said after giving a speech at a Brookings Institution conference, according to Reuters.

In declaring the recession over, Bernanke went slightly beyond the Fed’s most recent assessment that the economy was leveling off and that indications on growth had improved.

However, he cautioned that growth next year would probably be not much faster than the economy’s so-called long-run potential rate, which meant it would be slow to absorb excess capacity and pare the unemployment rate.

“The general view of most forecasters is that that pace of growth in 2010 will be moderate, less than you might expect given the depth of the recession because of ongoing headwinds,” Bernanke said.

He spoke on the one-year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which sparked a global panic that forced the Fed to cut interest rates to almost 0 percent.

Economists generally estimate U.S. trend potential growth to be in a range around 2.5%.

Bernanke acknowledged that a recovery could turn out to be either stronger or weaker than forecasters expect, but warned of ongoing pain in the labor market under the expected growth rate.

“Of course there are risks on both sides of that forecast — we could have a stronger recovery, we could have a weaker recovery,” he said.

“But if we do in fact see moderate growth, but not growth much more than the underlying potential growth rate, then unfortunately, unemployment will be slow to come down.”

U.S. unemployment has soared to 9.7% since the recession began in December 2007, and is forecast to hit 10% in the months ahead.

Bernanke’s comment implicitly acknowledges the possibility of a stronger-than-expected “V-shaped” U.S. recovery. The latest Blue Chip survey of economists predicts that growth will expand by a brisk 3% annual rate in the third quarter.

Fed policy-makers meet next week and are expected to keep rates pegged between 0 and 0.25% when they conclude their two-day meeting on Wednesday, while maintaining purchases of longer dated U.S. government and mortgage-related debt.

Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond President Jeffrey Lacker said on Monday that policy-makers must consider if they want to continue adding stimulus to the economy now that the recovery seems on track.

With the benchmark lending rate virtually at 0, the Fed has focused on driving down other borrowing costs by buying mortgage-related debt and U.S. government bonds.

But other Fed officials have not signaled that they favor stopping short of the $1.45 trillion mortgage debt purchase program, which is currently scheduled to end in December. The Fed has already announced plans to taper down a $300 billion longer-dated Treasury buying program by the end of next month.

Asked about the Obama administration’s plan for a sweeping overhaul of U.S. financial regulation, Bernanke said he was optimistic it would be concluded, but acknowledged that U.S. lawmakers have so far been more focused on health-care reform.

“I feel quite confident that a comprehensive reform will be forthcoming. This has just been too big a calamity and too serious a problem, and clearly regulatory problems were part of it,” he said.

Obama’s plan would give the Fed more power to oversee big financial firms deemed important to the health of the system, beef up laws to make it easier to wind down any big firm that gets into trouble, while creating a watchdog to protect consumers from complex financial products that lay at the heart of the subprime mortgage crisis that laid Lehman low.

“The Federal Reserve’s perspective is that we don’t want to be in the position that we were in last October and September, and so we’re very interested in trying to support a reform that will be effective, that will go a long way to preventing this type of crisis from recurring in the future,” Bernanke said.

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RV Stocks Rise on Good News from the Fed

August 12, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Several RV stocks rode the shirttails of encouraging news from the Federal Reserve Board to close higher on Wall Street today (Aug. 12).

Six of the 10 publicly held stocks tracked daily by closed higher on Wall Street, led by Spartan Motors which rose 6.64% to close at $5.62. Drew Industries Inc., Equity LifeStyle Properties Inc., Flexsteel Industries Inc., Thor Industries Inc. Winnebago Industries Inc. and Navistar Internal Corp. also closed higher.

A more upbeat Federal Reserve is reassuring investors that they’ve been making the right bets, according to an analysis by Associated Press. Stocks bounded higher today after the central bank said the economy appears to be “leveling out” rather than simply shrinking at a slower rate.

The Fed’s more positive take on the economy compared with its assessment in June wasn’t surprising but it still bolstered hopes that the economy is in fact rebounding.

Today’s advance restarted the market’s summer rally after a pause on Monday and Tuesday. Major market indexes jumped more than 1%, including the Dow Jones industrial average, which jumped 120 points.

Investors drew reassurance from Fed policymakers’ comments. The central bank left interest rates unchanged, as expected, following a two-day policy meeting.

“They did really endorse the fact that we’re moving into recovery, not searching for the bottom,” said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist at Key Private Bank in Cleveland.

Stocks have been rallying much of the past four weeks on expectations that the economy is strengthening.

The Fed also said it would slow the pace of its program to buy $300 billion worth of Treasury securities so that it will close at the end of October, rather than September as originally intended. The central bank has bought $253 billion of the securities so far. The program is designed to reduce rates on mortgages and other consumer debt.

“The fact that they are going to wind down the Treasury purchases I think leaves the clear impression that they are quite satisfied with the progress we are making in the recovery,” McCain said.

But some analysts are skeptical that the market can maintain its climb even with the Fed’s more optimistic words. The S&P 500 index is up 14% in little more than a month and 48.7% since it fell to a 12-year low in early March.

“I looks like a pretty sharp rise to me to have a lot of sustainability,” said Dan Cook, senior market analyst at IG Markets in Chicago.

According to preliminary calculations, the Dow rose 120.16, or 1.3%, to 9,361.61. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 11.46, or 1.2%, to 1,005.81, while the Nasdaq composite index gained 28.99, or 1.5%, to 1,998.72.

Rising stocks outpaced those that fell 5-to-2 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to a light 1.2 billion shares, flat with Tuesday. Light volume can skew price moves but is typical of late summer when many traders take vacations.

The gains came a day after the market posted its biggest loss in five weeks. The Dow fell 97 points as investors worried about the health of banks.

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Lender’s Role for Fed Makes Some Observers Uneasy

June 15, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

For most of its history, the Federal Reserve has been a high temple of monetary matters, guiding the economy by setting interest rates but remaining aloof from the messy details of day-to-day business.

But the financial crisis has drastically changed the role of the Fed, forcing officials to get their fingernails a bit dirty, according to the New York Times.

Since March, when the Fed stepped in to fill the lending vacuum left by banks and Wall Street firms, officials have been dragged into murky battles over the creditworthiness of narrow-bore industries like recreational vehicles, rental cars, snowmobiles, recreational boats and farm equipment – far removed from the central bank’s expertise.

A growing number of economists worry that the Fed’s new role poses risks to taxpayers and to the Fed itself. If the Fed cannot extract itself quickly, they warn, the crucial task of allocating credit will become more political and less subject to rigorous economic analysis.

That could also undermine the Fed’s political independence and credibility as an institution that operates above the fray – concerns Fed officials acknowledge.

Executives and lobbyists now flock to the Fed, providing elaborate presentations on why their niche industry should be eligible for Fed financing or easier lending terms.

Hertz, the rental car company, enlisted Stuart E. Eizenstat, a top economic policy official under Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, to plead with both Fed and Treasury officials to relax the terms on refinancing rental car fleets.

Lawmakers from Indiana, home to dozens of RV manufacturers, have been pushing for similar help for the makers of campers, trailers and mobile homes.

And when recreational boat dealers and vacation time-share promoters complained that they had been shut out of the credit markets, Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican from Florida, weighed in on their behalf with the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, who promised he would take up the matter with the Fed.

“This is the most straightforward indicator of why we don’t want the government doing this, except in an emergency,” said Douglas J. Elliott, an economist at the Brookings Institution who supports the new lending program but worries about its long-term implications. “There is no clear line about who should be included and who shouldn’t be included. It’s an inherently political decision,” he added.

Big money is at stake. At issue is a joint venture of the Fed and the Treasury aimed at making more credit available. The program, known as the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, or TALF, has bought about $27 billion in securities backed by credit card debt, car loans and student loans. In buying the securities, the Fed is providing the money that ultimately reaches businesses or consumers trying to borrow.

Despite a slow start, the program could soon expand broadly. This week, the Fed will add commercial real estate mortgages – a vast market – to the list of loans it will buy. Eventually, officials say, the TALF program could provide as much as $1 trillion in financing.

Fed officials say they, too, are uncomfortable with their new role and hope to end it as soon as credit markets return to normal. When R.V. manufacturers recently sought a meeting, senior Fed staff members refused to see them in person and instead heard their pleas in a conference call.

The central bank is increasingly having to make politically sensitive choices. For example, it is weighing whether loans to people who buy speedboats and snowmobiles are as worthy of help as those to people who buy cars. And it is being besieged by arguments from RV manufacturers and strip-mall developers that they play a crucial role in the economy and also deserve help.

Many of the decisions could have political repercussions. On Feb. 9, President Obama traveled to Elkhart, Ind., a Republican stronghold that Democrats hope to convert to their column. Elkhart is also home to much of the RV industry, which has been battered by the recession.

“When we talk about layoffs at companies like Monaco Coach and Keystone RV and Pilgrim International, we’re not just talking numbers,” Obama said, referring to three prominent RV companies. “We’re talking about people who’ve lost their livelihood and don’t know what will take its place.”

At the time, Fed and Treasury officials suggested that they would finance only car loans, credit card loans, student loans and Small Business Administration-guaranteed loans.

But the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) and Indiana lawmakers – among them, Rep. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat, and Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican – were already lobbying the Fed to include loans for recreational vehicles on its list of eligible collateral that the Fed would accept.

They were not alone. Rental car companies were pushing the Fed to finance their fleets. Hertz, which is owned by two private equity firms – the Carlyle Group and Clayton, Dubilier & Rice – hired Eizenstat to make its case.

In trying to persuade the Fed to relax its loan terms, Eizenstat led delegations of Hertz officials to both the Treasury and the Fed. They reached out to Ron Bloom, the co-chairman of the Treasury Department’s auto task force, as well as to top aides to Mr. Geithner. They also made detailed financial presentations to Fed officials in Washington and New York.

While the Fed so far has denied Hertz’s requests to relax loan terms, some of the lobbying appears to have worked. In March, the Fed announced that it would purchase loans used to buy light trucks and recreational vehicles. It also said that it would finance equipment leasing deals, rental car fleets and “floor plan” loans, which car and RV dealers use to finance showroom vehicles.

On May 17, the Fed refined its rules even more, saying that “recreational vehicles” included not just RVs but also boats, motorcycles and snowmobiles.

Fed officials said they had always intended to include those vehicles because they had long been financed through asset-backed securities of the type the loan facility was created to preserve. And the series of expansions, they said, did not reflect a capitulation to industry pleas. Rather, they simply announced additional details as policy decisions were reached.

Almost inevitably, industry groups are grumbling that the Fed’s terms favor some, like consumer car loans and credit card debt.

Mathew Dunn, a lobbyist for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, said collateral requirements for loans to recreational boat dealers are higher than those for securities backed by car loans.

That may soon change. In late May, the Small Business Administration said that it would open one of its main lending programs to RV dealers. Because the Fed has already agreed to finance SBA loans, it may not be long before it is financing boats, snowmobiles, motorcycles and campers.

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