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Fed: Economy Expanded Further; Staffing Activity Increased

Reports from the 12 Federal Reserve districts indicate that the economy continued to expand across most regions from early October through mid-November, according to the Federal Reserve Board’s latest report on regional economies (known as the “beige book”). Most districts reported slight to moderate growth, though some reported mixed or flat growth. Manufacturing employment reports were mixed. A majority of districts reported a tightening in labor market conditions, with modest employment growth. Wage growth was characterized generally as modest. Most districts saw increases in staffing activity. Outlooks were mainly positive, with half the districts expecting moderate growth.

Boston

Most district businesses reported ongoing moderate growth in sales or revenues. Manufacturing respondents reported increased sales from a year ago. Business activity in the staffing services industry was fairly strong, as year-to-year revenues increased between 10% and 25% for all but one responding firm. Labor demand continued to increase, and labor supply continued to tighten. Legal, marketing, and medical assistant positions were particularly hard to fill. Most respondents indicated they were raising wages modestly to recruit and retain workers. Staffing contacts were optimistic about how their companies will fare in the coming months; however, they recognize that the new administration introduces some uncertainty. Two contacts expressed optimism concerning the new political climate, predicting tax cuts.

New York

Economic activity in the district remained flat since the previous reporting period. Manufacturers noted a modest pickup in business activity, but service firms continued to report steady to softer activity. The labor market remained tight, and a number of business contacts maintained that they were having trouble both finding and retaining skilled workers. One New York City employment firm reported that hiring activity slowed somewhat, another indicated that hiring was fairly strong for this time of year; both reported modest growth in wages and salaries. An Upstate New York employment business reported steady demand for labor and rising wages for some categories of jobs. Manufacturing and service sector contacts generally indicated that they were fairly optimistic about the near-term outlook.

Philadelphia

Aggregate business activity in the district continued to grow slightly. Some manufacturers described a slight ongoing expansion of overall activity, although most reported no change. Contacts reported slight increases in hiring, with some exceptions: staffing firms indicated modest increases, but manufacturers reported declines. Generally, staffing firms reported that labor markets were tightening while overall growth in the number of hires remained modest. Staffing contacts noted that they are getting less pressure from their client firms to keep wages down; firms are accepting increases in order to attract talent. During the next year, most firms expect their compensation costs per employee (wages plus benefits) to rise. Overall, firms continued to expect moderate growth in the next six months.

Cleveland

Economic activity grew slightly across the district since the previous reporting period. Production at manufacturing plants was generally stable, though output from motor vehicle assembly plants continued to trend lower. Payrolls were little changed. Job gains in construction and banking were partially offset by losses in manufacturing. Wage pressures were most evident in the construction, retail, and banking sectors, both for low- and high-skilled jobs. Staffing firms reported that the number of job openings and placements declined, a situation they attributed to jitters about the presidential election. Contacts noted an increase in the number of temporary positions.

Richmond

Economic activity for the district was mixed. Manufacturing continued to decline, albeit more slowly. Labor demand increased moderately across the district, and there were more reports of wage increases. Employment rose slightly among manufacturing and nonretail services firms. There was a broadening of wage gains among manufacturers, but fewer services firms reported wage increases in recent weeks. One staffing contact reported the demand for temporary and contract labor picked up slightly in the previous several weeks, and another’s staffing firm entered the busy season in recent weeks and was tracking the previous year’s pace. Demand recently picked up for the permanent placement of skilled tradespeople, construction workers, engineers, scientists, elevator mechanics, accountants, and information technology professionals. Some staffing firms were seeing more wage increases, with one noting that higher turnover led businesses to raise wages.

Atlanta

Reports from district business contacts described economic conditions as modestly improving since the previous reporting period. Manufacturers indicated that levels of new orders, and production increased. Payroll levels for manufacturers increased moderately and contacts reported a notable increase in commodity prices. The district continued to experience a tightening labor market as firms continued to face difficulty finding workers, notably in construction and health care. Firms continued to engage in partnerships with community colleges and workforce development organizations to develop customized training programs and internship opportunities, or to invest in automation to replace difficult-to-fill jobs. The outlook remained optimistic, with the majority of contacts expecting growth at or slightly above current rates for the remainder of the year and the early part of 2017.

Chicago

Growth in economic activity slowed to a modest pace in October and early November in the district. Manufacturing production grew at a moderate rate. Employment growth remained moderate, and contacts expect little change in the rate of hiring in the next six to 12 months. Contacts indicated that the labor market was tight and that it was getting more and more difficult to fill positions at any skill level. There were also reports of delayed construction projects because of difficulties in finding workers. A staffing firm reiterated there has been no change in billable hours and ongoing difficulty filling orders at the wages employers were willing to pay. Contacts expect growth to return to a moderate pace during the next several months.

St. Louis

Economic conditions in the district modestly improved since the previous reporting period. Manufacturing activity increased modestly. The majority of contacts reported that production and capacity utilization increased in the fourth quarter, relative to one year ago, and that new orders were the same or higher. Nearly all contacts expected production, new orders, and capacity utilization to increase in the first quarter of 2017 relative to the first quarter of 2016. Contacts reported moderate growth in employment and wages, citing growth of sales and a need for skills not possessed by their current staff as the top factors behind their hiring plans. Contacts said the top factor restraining hiring plans was an inability to find workers with the required skills. The tight labor market led to moderate growth in wages, particularly in professional and in technical, production, and administrative positions.

Minneapolis

The district’s economy grew moderately, overall, since the previous reporting period. Manufacturing was mixed. Several contacts reported weaker sales, and manufacturing activity in southern Minnesota slowed. However, several manufacturing contacts reported positive demand. Employment was flat overall, and wage pressures were moderate. Three staffing firms covering portions of Wisconsin and Minnesota all reported strong October job orders, though each also reported significant difficulty finding necessary workers. Job demand was slower in some sectors and regions. October online job openings in North Dakota were almost 20% lower than a year ago. Wage pressure was moderate, and employers in western Wisconsin became “very favorable” toward increasing wages.

Kansas City

Economic activity in the district increased slightly, compared with the previous reporting period, with mixed conditions across sectors. Manufacturing activity expanded slightly; other business activity was varied. Manufacturers reported improved activity in both durable and nondurable goods production, particularly in aircraft, computer equipment, metals, and machinery. Manufacturers’ capital spending plans increased moderately, and they expect activity to improve further in the next few months. Contacts in most sectors continued to report slight wage growth, and expectations were for moderate increases moving forward. Respondents reported shortages of skilled technicians, commercial drivers, and service workers.

Dallas

Economic activity in the district expanded modestly during the six-week reporting period. The manufacturing sector expanded at a slower pace than in the previous reporting period. Employment increased, and reports of wage pressures were more widespread, in part due to rising benefits costs. Staffing services firms said demand was flat to up, with activity in North Texas remaining strong. Staffing contacts noted strength in demand from the health care, logistics, distribution, manufacturing, and construction sectors, but oil- and gas-related activity remained tepid. Outlooks were mostly positive but cautious.

San Francisco

Economic activity in the district continued to expand at a moderate pace during the reporting period of early October through mid-November. Manufacturing activity changed little compared with the previous reporting period. Wage pressures picked up from the previous reporting period but were uneven across industries and regions. Labor shortages in the financial services, health care, and technology sectors pushed up wages further for skilled IT professionals. In metropolitan areas, concerns about housing affordability and long commute times, coupled with strong demand for entry-level labor, increased compensation pressures in the hospitality industry.

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