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I’m paid to read the Beige Book

By Holden Lewis · Bankrate.com
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Posted: 5 pm ET

I've been wondering: What's going on with the economy? I'll call the Fed and ask. Oh, wait, hold the phone: The dudes and dudettes at the 12 regional Federal Reserve banks have written a book about it -- and they published it today!

It's called the Beige Book, and the tome reflects the regional economic outlooks in their multihued glory. Eight of the bank presidents characterize their region's economic growth as "moderate" in July and August, while three others edgily call growth "modest." Some nonconformist in Chicago says the economy has "improved." Yeah, but I'll bet the Bears haven't! (Cowboys fan here.)

Modesty is the best policy?

"For most occupations and industries, hiring held steady or increased modestly," the Beige Book says, adding that inflation is low. "Wage pressures continued to be modest overall," the report says. I guess that's good if you're paying wages, but not so good if you're collecting them.

It's odd to read an anthropological description of your everyday behavior. For example, economists at the Philadelphia Fed "observed that consumers engaged in 'price-shopping,' as 'sales of children's apparel were stronger at outlets than at traditional malls.'"

Reading this, I get the feeling that the well-compensated Fedsters view regular Americans' shopping habits with clinical wonder.

What's up

Car dealerships are fairly content nowadays, according to the report. Tourism is up; the Richmond district reported that camping permits at state and national parks were way up. Yeah, and even more people would have been camping if the park service hadn't shut down some awesome campgrounds because of the sequester (I'm thinking specifically about Balsam Mountain).

The Beige Book says home sales "increased moderately" across the country, and that rising home prices and upward-bound interest rates have spurred people to jump off the fence and buy houses. Bidding wars are on the increase for homes in the Buffalo, N.Y., area. (Cue the mystery music.)

The view from the Fed's 12 districts

  • Temporary staffing services in New England can't find enough skilled technical workers "to fill high-end IT and engineering jobs."
  • A mall in upstate New York says sales are down because fewer Canadians are coming across the border to shop.
  • In the Philadelphia district, companies can't get enough builidng materials and skilled tradesmen for Superstorm Sandy repairs. On a related note, sales of pickup trucks are up along the Jersey Shore.
  • The Cleveland district needs auto-part makers to increase capacity because car sales are strong.
  • On North Carolina's Outer Banks, "budget-conscious tourists were primarily frequenting 'tapas and deck parties' instead of fine dining establishments."
  • Farmers say it's been too rainy in the Atlanta district.
  • Farmers in Iowa say there's a drought.
  • Manufacturers in the St. Louis district want, on balance, to hire more workers.
  • Visits to Glacier National Park were up 5 percent over last year.
  • Folks in the Kansas City district are buying mid-priced appliances, while demand for high-end appliances is falling. Jewelry sales are down, too.
  • "According to two national retailers, Texas sales continued to outperform the national average." Texans love sentences like that.
  • In the San Francisco district, a shortage of construction workers is holding back the pace of new home construction.

A containment doctrine for wages

It's so interesting to see the way the Fed phrases anything having to do with workers and wages. In various places, there are shortages of truck drivers, construction workers, IT professionals and tourism workers. Now, you'd think that the way to solve these shortages would be to pay people more. But, in the words of the Beige Book: "Wage pressures remained modest overall."

The Fed loves to refer to pay raises as "wage pressures." In some districts, the Beige Book says, wage pressures have been "contained." That's the same wording we used to refer to our policy for the Soviet Union: containment.

Next time you're wondering why you and your neighbors haven't gotten a decent raise in a long time, consider how federal policymakers think your income should be "contained" as if you're a member of the Soviet Politburo.

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