Fed’s April Beige Book Survey

Fed’s April Beige Book Report:

Reports from the Federal Reserve Banks indicate that overall economic activity contracted further or remained weak. However, five of the twelve Districts noted a moderation in the pace of decline, and several saw signs that activity in some sectors was stabilizing at a low level.

Real Estate and Construction

Housing markets remained depressed overall, but there were some signs that conditions may be stabilizing. Many Districts said factors such as homebuyer tax credits, low mortgage rates, and more affordable prices led to a rising number of potential buyers. The Richmond, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and San Francisco Districts noted a modest improvement in sales in some areas.

New home construction activity fell further, however, as inventories remained elevated. Nonetheless, several Districts, including Atlanta and Kansas City, said that inventories of unsold homes had turned down slightly.

Home prices continued to decline in most Districts, although a few reports noted that prices were unchanged or that the pace of decline had eased. Low mortgage rates were fueling refinancing activity. Outlooks for the housing sector were generally more optimistic than in earlier surveys, with respondents hopeful that increased buyer interest would lead to better sales.

Nonresidential real estate conditions continued to deteriorate over the past six weeks. Demand for office, industrial and retail space continued to fall, and there were reports of increases in sublease space. Rental concessions were rising. Property values moved lower as reality “set in.” Construction activity continues to slow, and several Districts noted increased postponement of both private and public projects. Nonresidential construction is expected to decline through year-end, although there were some hopeful reports that the stimulus package may lead to some improvement.

Commercial real estate investment activity weakened further. Contacts said a decline in credit availability and markdowns on commercial property were keeping buyers and sellers on the sidelines.

Banking and Finance

Most Districts reported weaker loan demand overall, but the reports were mixed across loan categories. In particular, the New York, Richmond, and Kansas City Districts noted an increase in residential real estate loans. Additionally, residential refinancing activity remained brisk, although the loan process was taking longer due to more stringent appraisals and underwriting standards. Demand for commercial and industrial loans was weak, and there were several reports that business borrowers were postponing capital expenditures. Commercial real estate lending continued to decline. Credit availability generally remained very tight across regions. A number of Districts reported deteriorating loan quality and rising delinquencies for all types of loan categories. In particular, several reports noted more stringent requirements for commercial real estate loans due to worries of worsening loan quality in the sector.

There are some faint notes of optimism (using the word ‘optimism’ in very cautious terms here) in today’s Fed’s BB survey release – suggesting that perhaps the nosediving in economic activity that began last fall is starting to level off. While the survey listed a number of problems in the manufacturing, home building, and travel and tourism sectors, noted some positive signals that the deterioration in activity was starting to moderate.

This month’s survey, though slightly, seems more positive in tone than last month’s report.

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