The Federal Reserve said all 12 of its regional bank districts reported “elevated or increasing” price pressures during June and July amid slower economic growth.
Five of the districts indicated “a weakening or softening” in their economies and consumer spending was “sluggish or slowing” in every region, the central bank said yesterday in its economic survey, known as the Beige Book for the color of its cover.
The survey reinforced testimony by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to lawmakers this month indicating that risks to both growth and inflation are increasing. Central bank policymakers differ over whether to increase the benchmark interest rate or leave it unchanged.
“The most changes have come about in prices being paid by consumers and by businesses,” Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. While most policymakers believe inflation expectations are constrained, it’s important “we act before those expectations become unhinged,” he said.
The Beige Book continues the theme of anemic growth from the June report, which noted the economy was “generally weak” in April and May. Household spending “was reported as mixed, weak or slowing in nearly all districts,” the Fed said in the current report.
High gas prices
“Everything is working against the consumer,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist and co-founder of Moody’s Economy.com. Federal tax rebate checks “were the only source of cash and now we have to worry about a weakening job market, falling housing values” and high gas and food prices.
The economy expanded at an annual rate of 1 percent in the first quarter, capping the weakest six months of growth in five years. The revised gain in gross domestic product was up from a preliminary estimate of 0.9 percent.
U.S. manufacturing “declined or remained weak in most districts,” while “demand for exports remained generally high,” the Beige Book said. Bank lending “was generally reported to be restrained.”
The anecdotal reports are included in a package of analysis and data that Fed policymakers consider when determining whether to alter the benchmark interest rate.
The Boston Fed described commercial real estate in its district as “decidedly morose,” while the Richmond bank called the Washington-area office market “bleak.” The Dallas, Cleveland and Minneapolis regions reported more vibrant growth than most other areas.
‘Not enough to act on it’
U.S. consumer prices surged 5 percent in the past year, the biggest jump since 1991, as households struggled with falling home values and the credit crunch. Spiraling expenses for food and fuel spurred the increase in June, the Labor Department said last week.
“Input prices continued to rise, particularly for fuel, other petroleum-based materials, metals, food and chemicals,” the Beige Book said. “Wage pressures were generally limited in most districts, as labor market demand was soft except for highly skilled workers and in the energy sector.”
The Fed has raised “a yellow flag out there that shows the market they’re concerned about inflation, but there’s not enough to act on it,” said Gary Schlossberg, senior economist at Wells Capital Management Inc. in San Francisco. “Markets are still emerging from the latest signs of stress and the economy is still struggling.”
— Bloomberg News