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Beige Book turns white from snow

By Mark Hamrick · Bankrate.com
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Posted: 4 pm ET

"Weather, weather, weather." And then you can say it another 116 times.

The latest Beige Book from the Federal Reserve mentions weather 119 times. It is as much a weather report as a treatise on regional economic conditions. As economist John Canally with LPL Financial puts it, the number of weather references is "off the charts."

Think of it as the Fed's way of outlining all the impacts of flight cancellations, lost retail and car sales, government and school closings, power outages, and so on. By comparison, Canally says Superstorm Sandy was mentioned 48 times in the Beige Book after it slammed the northeast in October 2012.

The survey of the Fed's regional banks is prepared for the central bank's next policy-setting meeting at mid-month.

A poet once said …

It was Victorian-era poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning who penned the classic line, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…" Those of us who try to make some sense out of the ups and downs of the economy might twist (and degrade) that line to something like, "How doth nature dampen output?" The central bank has attempted to gauge that. We warned you.

The Beige Book says reports from the 12 Federal Reserve districts indicate that the economy expanded from January to early February. Among the 12, eight had "improved levels of activity," while the New York and Philadelphia districts saw a slight decline blamed on -- you guessed it -- weather. Growth slowed in Chicago (they get snow there, too), while Kansas City's activity was described as stable.

Release of the Beige Book comes less than a week after Fed Chair Janet Yellen told members of a Senate panel that the severe winter was a likely reason for some lackluster economic reports.

A sampling of specifics

Weather was cited for:

  • Slowing retail sales growth in most districts.
  • Increased energy demand and production. (The survey  blames "the unusually cold winter.")
  • Better business for ski resorts around Kansas City, Richmond and Minneapolis. (I grew up in Kansas, and I don't remember any ski resorts around.)
  • Benefits to Atlanta and Boston hotels, but woes for restaurants, museums and other attractions.
  • Negative effects on manufacturing and construction.

What about the job market?

The pace of hiring was said to have softened in the Boston, Richmond and Chicago districts, at least partly because of weather. Overall, employment growth was sluggish in the New York, Cleveland, Atlanta and St. Louis regions, while more upbeat readings were coming from the Philadelphia and Minneapolis districts.

There are continued reports of worker shortages in select areas. They involve "particular types of specialized, technical, skilled labor, such as health care professionals and information technology workers." Those are areas where it is good to be a job-seeker these days.

Keep hope alive

Economist Canally expects that up to 80 percent of the economic activity lost to weather will merely be delayed. He notes that last year at this time, we were talking about the negative impacts of the federal government -- or "political and fiscal drag" -- on the economy. He says weather has replaced that.

Like last year's political storm, we're hoping this unrelenting punishment from the heavens might also let up.

Have you cut back on purchases because of weather? Are you ready to shop as springtime arrives?

Follow me on Twitter: @Hamrickisms.

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