Federal Reserve sees growth pickup at end of last year

AP News
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Posted: Jan 18, 2017 2:14 PM
Federal Reserve sees growth pickup at end of last year

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. economy grew a bit faster at the end of last year, spurred by healthier sales for manufacturers and steady hiring that is slowly pushing up wages.

The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that its survey of economic conditions around the country found that growth was modest or moderate in 10 of its 12 districts. That is an improvement from seven in the previous report. Growth was slight in the Cleveland district and largely unchanged in New York.

Fed officials will study the survey, known as the "Beige Book," in preparation for their next meeting Jan. 31- Feb. 1. They will consider whether to raise short-term interest rates at that meeting, though few economists expect them to move so soon after their increase last month, which was the first in a year.

Manufacturers reported better sales or more orders in 10 of 12 districts, a solid turnaround from earlier this year. Cutbacks by oil and gas drillers had reduced demand for steel pipe and other factory goods, and weakness overseas cut into exports.

Consumers stepped up their shopping in most districts, the report found, though holiday sales disappointed in the Cleveland and Minneapolis regions. Businesses in some districts blamed online sales for reducing revenue for traditional brick-and-mortar retailers.

In an early sign of the impact of President-elect Donald Trump's threats to impose tariffs on goods from Mexico, sales in parts of the Dallas district that are "peso-sensitive" fell, the survey found. That suggests areas close to the U.S. border with Mexico have seen a decline in business as the value of Mexico's currency, the peso, has fallen sharply against the dollar.

The peso has declined in response to Trump's comments, reflecting an expectation among investors that fewer companies will invest in Mexico.

Separately, some health care companies in the San Francisco district said they had seen lower demand due to uncertainty over the future of the Obama administration's health care reforms and future government spending policies.

With the unemployment rate low nationwide, businesses in most of the Fed's districts said they were facing pressure to raise wages to keep and attract employees. Companies also said they are having trouble finding skilled workers, while in several districts businesses were struggling to fill less-skilled jobs.

Higher minimum wages lifted pay in many districts. One company in the San Francisco region said businesses were postponing hiring to offset the costs of higher minimums.

Companies also reported paying higher costs for raw materials, which could push up overall prices and lead to higher inflation. That could spur the Fed to raise short-term rates more quickly.

The Fed boosted the short-term rate it controls to a range of 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent at its December meeting. It had pinned the rate near zero for seven years in an effort to encourage more borrowing and spending. Fed officials projected last month that they would raise rates three times this year. Most analysts expect the first hike will occur in March, if it happens at all.