From the Chief Economist—
Ken Simonson, Chief Economist
Associated General Contractors of America


Summary plus Real Estate and Construction-Related Excerpts from the Fed’s July 30  “Beige Book”

The Federal Reserve’s “Beige Book” is a summary of economic conditions reported by businesses in informal surveys conducted by the 12 Federal Reserve Banks around the country (which are referenced by number and name of the headquarters city). Following are the opening paragraphs from the national and regional summaries, plus any construction- or real estate-related comments. Click on the links shown for the full Beige Book or regional report. If you are not yet receiving regional construction excerpts and want to, send an email to listing the states for which you want regional excerpts. (Some states are split between two banks; both bank reports will be sent to those state lists. A map showing the territory of each bank is at

National summary  (full report:

Prepared at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond and based on information collected before July 21, 2003. This document summarizes comments received from business and other contacts outside the Federal Reserve and is not a commentary on the views of Federal Reserve officials.

Reports from the twelve Federal Reserve districts provided additional signs that the pace of economic activity increased a notch during June and the first half of July. Only the Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco districts characterized economic activity as sluggish while Atlanta described conditions as mixed. Reports from the remaining districts suggested somewhat stronger growth in the weeks since the last Beige Book. Consistent with the generally more positive assessments of current economic activity, several districts noted increased optimism about economic prospects in coming months.

In particular, manufacturing activity edged higher in most districts, and Philadelphia and Richmond cited an end to the recent declines in production. The districts' reports also suggested that activity in the services and energy sectors grew somewhat faster in recent weeks. In contrast, consumer spending remained lackluster-only New York reported a noticeable improvement in retail sales. Housing sales and starts remained strong across districts, spurred by low mortgage interest rates, but commercial real estate conditions remained sluggish. Prices were generally little changed, though higher health insurance costs continued to be passed on to employees according to some districts. In agriculture, excessive rainfall delayed harvesting and damaged crops in several districts but was credited with alleviating drought conditions in other districts.

[Manufacturing] Philadelphia said that manufacturers planned to increase investment, though some firms indicated they would likely delay expansion until next year. St. Louis reported that several plants in that district have recently announced plans to expand.

Construction and Real Estate
Residential real estate activity remained strong in most districts in June and early July. Atlanta, Kansas City, and St. Louis said housing sales continued to rise while Boston, Cleveland, and Richmond reported that sales remained strong. Chicago indicated that overall sales activity was mixed. In contrast, Dallas indicated that the housing market remained weak. In terms of price levels, lower-priced homes continued to be the best sellers in the Boston, Dallas, and Richmond districts and sales of upper-price range homes held up in the Boston and New York districts. Richmond reported that home prices soared in Maryland in recent months and San Francisco said prices rose rapidly in Hawaii and southern California. However, home price increases moderated in the Boston and Cleveland districts. Residential building permits increased in the Cleveland, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and St. Louis districts. Kansas City said strong starts of entry-level homes offset weak starts of upper-priced homes. Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco reported that low mortgage interest rates continued to drive sales in their districts.

Commercial real estate conditions remained weak in most districts during June and early July. Very little new construction activity was noted-an exception was in the St. Louis District where construction activity had begun to pick up before being delayed by inclement weather. Commercial leasing activity also remained generally stagnant, although renewals and renegotiations drove some activity in the Chicago District. In contrast to the overall sluggishness, Atlanta reported small increases in leasing and net absorption. Compared with the last Beige Book reports, vacancy rates edged higher in the Kansas City, New York, and San Francisco districts and were higher compared with a year ago in the St. Louis District. Chicago and New York reported that rents moved lower, and Richmond indicated that landlord concessions had reemerged in the office and retail sectors. However, several district reports noted pockets of improvement-leasing activity was up in the Atlanta and Minneapolis districts along with a substantial decline in vacancy rates in Lower Manhattan. Looking ahead, Cleveland, Dallas, Kansas City, Richmond, and St. Louis reported that their contacts expected the excess commercial space currently on the market to be absorbed slowly.

1st District (Boston)—full report:

Business contacts in the First District are somewhat more upbeat currently (mid-July) than in the last round of information-gathering (end of May). Retailers report demand growth for a range of housing-related products, while other merchandise and tourism remain soft. Manufacturers' results are also mixed, but they note improvements in some sectors. While slowing from record highs, residential real estate markets remain strong.

Residential Real Estate (no comments on nonresidential real estate or construction)
Although residential real estate markets in New England remain strong, there are a few signs of weakening. Following inventory shortages in almost every part of the region, the number of listings is beginning to build up in some areas. Most contacts still report that appropriately priced homes sell quickly, but buyers have more to select from. Bidding wars and multiple offers are now rare. Lower-priced homes continue to sell fast and contacts report lack of inventory of entry-level homes. The upper end of the market is also strong, but the middle market segment is slowing down. In Massachusetts, the number of sales in April and May was lower than a year ago, although both months were strong by historical standards. Price appreciation has been more moderate than in the past, with average sale prices remaining flat in Connecticut, Maine, and Rhode Island, and rising somewhat in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Low interest rates continue to help spur demand throughout and contacts expect the market to remain robust as long as interest rates stay low.

2nd District (New York)—full report:

The Second District's economy has seen further broad-based improvement since the last report. The labor market has continued to pick up. Retail sales improved noticeably in late June and early July, and were generally ahead of plan, with contacts attributing only part of the improvement to warmer weather. Surveys of consumer confidence showed little change in June. Manufacturing activity was mixed but generally stronger in June, and the financial sector has strengthened substantially.

Housing markets have shown further signs of strengthening in recent weeks. Office markets showed noticeable improvement in Lower Manhattan and Westchester but remained generally soft across most of the rest of the New York City metro area. Finally, bankers in the district report increased demand for home-mortgage loans, but weaker demand for consumer and commercial loans, as well as tighter credit standards and a modest increase in delinquency rates on commercial loans and mortgages.

Construction and Real Estate
The housing market has shown signs of strengthening since the last report. A contact in New Jersey's homebuilding industry reports that housing demand continues to outstrip supply. New Jersey's resale market is also reported to be picking up. One contact reports that the market has rebounded in June and early July, after a sluggish Spring, while another contact describes the market as persistently tight. A contact in the Rochester area reports brisk activity and a large volume of pending sales in the pipeline.

Manhattan's co-op and condo market has shown further signs of gaining momentum since the last report. A major realtor reports that sales have been brisk across the board in recent weeks, and that the high end of the market appears to be picking up. In contrast, the rental market remains relatively soft, in Manhattan and, especially, across the river along New Jersey's Hudson waterfront. In both areas, vacancy rates have continued to climb as a good deal of new supply has come on the market over the past year.

Office markets across metropolitan New York City, though still fairly slack, showed scattered signs of improvement in the second quarter. Office vacancy rates declined moderately in Westchester and substantially in Lower Manhattan. However, Long Island's vacancy rate edged up to a cyclical high of 15 percent, and rates in Fairfield County, Connecticut and central New Jersey continued to hover above 20 percent. One industry contact reports brisk leasing activity, but also a good deal of "shadow space"-unleased space that is either under construction or not yet listed. Effective rents are estimated to be down 25 percent from their pre-recession peaks, but are said to be leveling off.

3rd District (Philadelphia)—full report:

Business activity in the Third District rose slightly in July. Manufacturers reported small increases in orders and shipments for the month after decreases in the previous three months. Retail sales of general merchandise picked up from June to July, although the year-over-year gain was marginal. Auto and light truck sales have been steady. Bank lending has been rising, with a slow advance in business lending and relatively stronger growth in consumer lending. Residential mortgage loan growth continued, but mortgage applications have begun to ease. Business at service firms has been mainly steady, although some companies have seen moderate improvement recently.

The outlook among contacts in the Third District business community is for steady or slowly improving conditions. Manufacturers forecast increases in shipments and orders during the next six months. Most of the retailers surveyed in July expect flat to just slightly higher sales in the second half of this year compared with the second half of last year. Auto dealers anticipate steady sales. Bankers expect continued slow growth in lending, but they are concerned that current levels of indebtedness will become troublesome for both businesses and households if economic conditions were to deteriorate. Service companies generally expect very slow growth during the rest of the year.

Services [no comments directly about real estate or construction]: Most of the service firms surveyed expect very slow growth during the rest of the year. Nevertheless, nearly all of those queried indicated they were maintaining their planned capital spending programs for the year, and a few said they have scheduled slightly higher outlays for plant and equipment in the second half than initially planned.

4th District (Cleveland)—full report:

Contacts in the Fourth District reported steady or improving conditions during June and the first few weeks of July. For the second consecutive report, manufacturers reported steady or improving production and sales. Residential homebuilders reported increased activity in July over May and up to 7 percent sales increases year-over-year. Aside from a typical seasonal slowdown in July, trucking and shipping experienced increased activity. Some contacts reported hiring activity, with very few reporting any layoffs.

However, some areas of the economy experienced continued weakness. Retailers and auto dealers are experiencing continued slow sales, with auto dealers in particular experiencing activity much below the strong sales levels of 2003. Commercial builders experienced little new activity and expect current trends to continue into the next few months. Demand for commercial loans fell since the last report.

Most contacts in manufacturing, including steel, residential construction, and trucking and shipping, expect conditions to continue improving throughout the rest of the year, while contacts in commercial construction, retail, and banking were pessimistic about anticipated activity in the coming months. Overall, prices remained relatively stable in this reporting period.

Contacts in the Fourth District reported steady or improving conditions during June and the first few weeks of July. For the second consecutive report, manufacturers reported steady or improving production and sales. Residential homebuilders reported increased activity in July over May and up to 7 percent sales increases year-over-year. Aside from a typical seasonal slowdown in July, trucking and shipping experienced increased activity. Some contacts reported hiring activity, with very few reporting any layoffs.

However, some areas of the economy experienced continued weakness. Retailers and auto dealers are experiencing continued slow sales, with auto dealers in particular experiencing activity much below the strong sales levels of 2003. Commercial builders experienced little new activity and expect current trends to continue into the next few months. Demand for commercial loans fell since the last report.

Most contacts in manufacturing, including steel, residential construction, and trucking and shipping, expect conditions to continue improving throughout the rest of the year, while contacts in commercial construction, retail, and banking were pessimistic about anticipated activity in the coming months. Overall, prices remained relatively stable in this reporting period.

5th District (Richmond)—full report:

Fifth District economic activity posted modest gains since our last report, as services and housing activity expanded further and manufacturing showed less weakness. Retailers reported that sales were mixed and they noted particular weakness in areas affected by manufacturing layoffs. Manufacturing showed signs of stabilizing after several months of broad-based decline, although textiles and furniture manufacturers continued to lose market share to foreign competitors. Revenues and employment in the services industry rose at a modest pace, partly because low mortgage interest rates continued to boost mortgage lending and residential real estate sales. However, low interest rates did little to boost commercial lending which continued to be lackluster. District labor markets remained generally weak, despite some reports of additional hiring in the services sector. On the price front, contacts noted that prices rose only slightly and they looked for only small increases in the months ahead. In agriculture, heavy rainfall wreaked havoc in some areas, delaying plantings and destroying crops.

[Services] In addition, continued brisk building activity led District construction firms to add to their payrolls.

Real Estate
Residential realtors reported continued growth in home sales since our last report. An agent in Greenville, S.C., said sales in that area were "exceedingly" good, while a realtor in Richmond, Va., reported that June sales broke records at his office. A contact in Odenton, Md., reinforced the strong tone, saying that home sellers continued to receive multiple offers and that home prices had soared in recent months. In contrast, a realtor in Asheville, N.C., reported that while sales in his area were "doing well," home listings had slowed in the last few weeks. Across the District, homes in the low- to middle-price range continued to be the most active market segment.

Commercial realtors reported that leasing activity languished in June and early July. Demand for commercial space was flat across all sectors and vacancy rates were little changed. Rents were generally flat as well, although landlord concessions reemerged in the office and retail sectors. Several commercial realtors noted increased concerns about office space located near state capitols as state governments consolidated operations in response to budget shortfalls. "The health of this market depends greatly on the degree of pull-back of the state," remarked a contact in Columbia, S.C. Despite the general sluggishness, there were bright spots in some commercial real estate markets in Virginia-leasing activity picked up in northern Virginia's Prince William County and the warehouse sector was reported to be strong in Roanoke.

6th District (Atlanta)—full report:

Reports from contacts indicated that overall economic activity in the Sixth District was mixed in June and early July. There was a modest improvement in retail sales and continued strength in most single-family housing markets. A small improvement in commercial real estate was noted by some contacts. Reports from the financial sector remained generally positive. However, manufacturing activity continued to be lackluster and only a few contacts reported that they planned to increase capital spending. Early summer travel in the region fell below industry expectations in most areas. Labor markets continued to be sluggish overall. The service sector reported some employment increases, but layoffs persisted in the manufacturing sector. Contacts noted ongoing increases in the price of insurance, pharmaceuticals, and natural gas.

Real Estate
Single-family markets continued to perform strongly overall in June and early July. Single-family home sales continued to be driven by low interest rates according to contacts. Available reports on second-quarter commercial real estate activity noted some small improvements, principally with regard to leasing activity and net absorption. There were a few scattered reports of interest in new commercial developments in parts of the District.

7th District (Chicago)—full report:

Economic activity in the Seventh District remained sluggish in June and the first half of July. Contacts generally were still optimistic that the economy would pick up in coming months, though more voiced concerns that weak labor markets may constrain growth. Consumer spending was again relatively subdued, and business spending and hiring remained weak. Residential real estate activity held strong while nonresidential markets were still soft. Conditions in manufacturing improved slightly, in part due to a weaker dollar. Banks continued to report robust residential mortgage lending, but business loan volumes were again flat. Relatively soft demand and fierce competition limited upward pressure on prices, while labor costs were being pushed higher by insurance and tax increases more than by rising wages. Corn and soybean crops generally were in good-to-excellent condition.

Construction and Real Estate
Real estate markets remained mixed. Sales of both new and existing homes were very robust in June and early July, according to Realtors and builders. Most contacts attributed this strength to very low mortgage interest rates. Commercial real estate and construction activity was still soft. Reports from the office sector were mixed. One contact noted that property showings tailed off recently, after picking up in April and May. A large property holder in the Chicago area said that a survey completed in mid-July showed that tenants were still more likely to downsize than to expand. While there were a few isolated reports of new demand, on balance, the bulk of office leasing activity was still driven by renewals and renegotiations. Office rents remained under downward pressure. The industrial real estate market was reportedly "holding its own," even though manufacturing vacancies were increasing in some areas due to firms closing and/or relocating. Big box retail development was said to be slowing, with fewer projects in the pipeline. However, development of some types of freestanding retail space (banks, pharmacies, etc.) remained strong.

8th District (St. Louis)—full report:

Economic conditions in the Eighth District showed little improvement since our last report. Manufacturing activity remains weak, and plant closings, cutbacks, and layoffs remain commonplace. Retail and auto sales were flat to down in June from last year. In the services sector, airlines continue cost-cutting efforts. Residential real estate markets are still doing well, while commercial real estate markets remain soft. Total loan demand at a sample of small and mid-sized District banks increased 2.5 percent between mid-March and early July. Crops in the District are generally in good condition.

Real Estate and Construction
Home sales continue to do well in most of the District. The year-to-date increase in home sales in May was 12.5 percent in Memphis, 3.2 percent in Little Rock, and 11.0 percent in the northern Kentucky area. Residential sales are also very active in Evansville, but contacts in northwest Mississippi report that few houses are selling. May year-to-date single-family housing permits were up in most of the District's metropolitan areas compared with the same period last year. Permit levels increased 3.1 percent in Evansville, 7.3 percent in Memphis, and 3.5 percent in St. Louis.

Commercial real estate markets are still sluggish in most of the District. The second-quarter industrial vacancy rate in Louisville was 21 percent. In the Memphis area, the office vacancy rate was 15 percent and the industrial vacancy rate was 20 percent for the first quarter of 2003, both higher than the same period in 2002. Contacts do not expect any significant improvement until 2004. Commercial construction has started to pick up in most of the District, but activity has slowed down in some areas because of severe storms. Danville, Kentucky, continues to be a bright spot, where construction in colleges, hospitals, and churches is doing very well. Contacts expect a small increase in activity in Evansville, Memphis, and northeast Arkansas.

9th District (Minneapolis)—full report:

Ninth District economic activity was up slightly in June and early July. The residential real estate, consumer spending, manufacturing, energy and agriculture sectors grew, and tourism was flat. Meanwhile, commercial building and mining were down slightly, and labor markets were mixed. Overall wage and price increases were modest; however, significant price increases were noted in health care insurance, natural gas and fertilizer.

Construction and Real Estate
Overall commercial building was down, but commercial real estate activity has recently shown some signs of improvement. No major office building projects are under way in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area; however, commercial property sales have been more active recently, according to a commercial real estate firm. Leasing activity has also picked up for office, industrial and retail space during the past couple of months.

Increased commercial building activity was noted outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Construction of the first new office building in about 10 years is under way in downtown Billings, Mont.; renovations and new loft apartment projects are also strong, according to a bank director. The value of permits for commercial construction projects for the first half of 2003 reached $41.2 million in Sioux Falls, S.D., up from $17.5 million during the same period a year ago, according to a city official. A bank director noted a recent increase in health care facility construction in southwestern Wisconsin.

Home building and residential real estate activity were strong. The number of permits for residential buildings was up 9 percent in June compared with a year ago in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The total value and the number of home sales both set records in June in Minneapolis-St. Paul; a realty association representative expects home sales to be up almost 5 percent in 2003 compared with a year earlier. The median home sale price for the Minneapolis-St. Paul area was up 6.7 percent in June compared with last year. Housing units authorized were up 12 percent compared with a year ago in Sioux Falls, S.D.

[Manufacturing] A June survey of purchasing managers by Creighton University (Omaha, Neb.) indicated overall significantly increased manufacturing activity in the Dakotas and slight decreases in Minnesota. However, the survey noted increases in Minnesota new orders and production. As evidence, a Minnesota recycled plastics processor plans to open a second production line, and a lumber processing factory recently opened. A plastics plant in the Upper Peninsula plans to open a new facility next year. However, two electronic component plants in Minnesota recently shut down.

[Energy and Mining] …several wind energy farms are in development or design in the Dakotas.

[Employment, Wages, and Prices] In the Upper Peninsula, more construction firms (62 percent vs. 38 percent) and manufacturing firms (74 percent vs. 26 percent) expect to increase employment rather than decrease employment, according to a recent survey by Northern Michigan University.

10th District (Kansas City)—full report:

The Tenth District economy improved somewhat in June and early July. Retail sales rose slightly, manufacturing activity increased, and the pace of layoff announcements continued to ease. In addition, housing and energy activity remained strong. Commercial real estate markets, on the other hand, were still weak. In the farm economy, abundant spring rains eased drought conditions in much of the district. Most prices held steady, and wage increases remained minimal.

Real Estate and Construction
Residential real estate activity remained strong in most of the district in June and early July, while commercial real estate activity was still sluggish. Single-family housing starts continued at high levels in most district cities, with strong starts of entry-level homes making up for weak construction of upper-end homes in some markets. Builders expect the overall pace of new home construction to hold steady in coming months. Home sales continued to increase in much of the district in June and early July, although inventories of unsold homes remained higher than a year ago in many cities. Most realtors expect home sales to remain solid in coming months. Mortgage demand increased slightly and was considerably higher than a year ago throughout the district. As in past surveys, most of the demand was for refinancings. Lenders generally expect mortgage activity to remain strong in the near future. Most commercial real estate markets showed little change from the previous survey, when realtors reported some signs of stabilization. In Denver, however, realtors reported that sales and absorption of office space continued to edge down and vacancy rates rose slightly. Most realtors expect commercial real estate activity to be sluggish throughout the remainder of the year and do not expect excess office space to be fully absorbed for at least another year and a half.

[Banking] Bankers report that loans held steady and deposits rose since the last survey, reducing loan-deposit ratios somewhat. Demand for home mortgage loans continued to increase, offsetting small declines in demand for consumer loans, business loans, and commercial real estate loans.

[Wages and Prices] Builders reported a slight rise in prices for some construction materials, including lumber, but no further increases are expected.

11th District (Dallas)—full report:

Eleventh District economic activity continued to show signs of improving in June and the first half of July, but growth remained slow. Contacts are becoming increasingly confident that the economy is expanding, but the speed of the recovery remains in doubt. Manufacturing activity was mixed, but demand for business services was expanding, albeit sluggishly. Retailers reported some pick up in demand in July, but say sales are only increasing marginally. There was little change in demand financial services or construction and real estate activity. Drilling for oil and natural gas moved to new highs in recent weeks, but the rate of increase has slowed substantially. Weather has hampered agricultural production.

[Prices] …brick producers said prices were a bit softer.

[Manufacturing] There have been some slight increases in demand for construction-related products, but sales remain below the levels of a year ago. Demand for stone, tile, brick and glass was flat to higher over the past six weeks but below the levels of a year ago. Demand for products used in new homes was mostly unchanged, but contacts said demand has been inconsistent making it difficult to predict a trend. Demand was higher for aluminum cans and construction-related metal products, particularly due to a rise in retail and industrial construction. Lumber producers also reported an increase in demand over the last couple of months, but sales are below the level of a year ago and some contracts that are already on the books are being cut down in volume.

Construction and Real Estate
Overall construction and real estate activity was unchanged since the last Beige Book. Single family home building is still at moderate levels, although builders say they have little pricing power. Home sales continued to be strong for lower priced homes; one discount builder said June was his best month so far in 2003. Contacts expressed some concern about the recent upward movement in mortgage rates. Commercial real estate continued to "bump around the bottom," but contacts also noted a slight up tick in leasing activity. The increase was attributed to improved business sentiment, reduced reluctance to make decisions and the "great deals out there." Despite the bump up in leasing, contacts say they are a long way from working out excess inventory.

12th District (San Francisco)—full report:

Reports from Twelfth District contacts suggest that overall economic growth in the District continued to be sluggish in June through mid-July, though there were signs of slight improvement in manufacturing. Contacts indicated little upward pressure on the prices of most final goods and services, with the notable exceptions of health care services, housing, and natural gas. Employers also noted increases in energy costs and non-wage labor costs such as health insurance benefits. Contacts noted that these rising non-wage labor costs, along with productivity gains, are expected to restrain new hiring going forward. Retailers generally characterized sales as flat compared to the previous survey period, noting heavy price discounting in a highly competitive environment. According to District manufacturers, conditions improved slightly with a strengthening of orders in information technology, basic metals (except aluminum), and machine tool manufacturing, among other sectors. Contacts reported that District housing markets remained robust, while commercial vacancy rates remained high. Low interest rates continued to stimulate the demand for mortgage credit, while demand for short-term business loans at commercial banks appears to have stabilized at low levels.

Real Estate and Construction
Respondents reported that residential real estate remained one of the strongest sectors of the economy throughout the District, while commercial real estate markets generally remained weak. Home sales, home prices, and new home construction all continued at a rapid pace in most areas, particularly in Hawaii and parts of Southern California. In a few areas such as the San Francisco Bay Area, home price appreciation and apartment rental rates have softened. In commercial real estate, elevated vacancy rates for commercial and industrial properties characterized most markets, notably the San Francisco Bay Area. Furthermore, there was very little commercial construction activity, except in Hawaii and Southern California.

[Financial Institutions] Throughout the District, low interest rates sustained strong demand for residential real estate mortgage loans in June through mid-July. The low rates also stimulated reliance of businesses on commercial real estate credit. 

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