Fed says U.S. economy posted modest growth in Jan-Feb

WASHINGTON Thu Mar 7, 2013 3:25am IST

A customer pays her lunch bill at the Other Side Cafe in Boston, Massachusetts in this file photo taken on October 1, 2009. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi/Files

A customer pays her lunch bill at the Other Side Cafe in Boston, Massachusetts in this file photo taken on October 1, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi/Files

Related Topics

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. economic growth continued to improve gradually in January and early February as consumer spending picked up and the country's battered housing market maintained a broad-based recovery, the Federal Reserve said on Wednesday.

In a cautiously optimistic report from its 12 regional branches that delivered largely positive feedback from business contacts, the U.S. central bank also highlighted downside risks caused by ongoing budget battles in Washington.

"Reports from the twelve Federal Reserve districts indicated that economic activity generally expanded at a modest to moderate pace since the previous Beige Book," the Fed said.

The report was close in tone to the previous Beige Book, released on January 16, and did not alter the outlook for continued aggressive Fed action to support a tepid recovery which faces headwinds and uncertainty, notably from U.S. fiscal policy.

"For the Fed, it's slow progress, but not enough to alter its rate of asset purchases," said economist Yelena Shulyatyeva at BNP Paribas in New York.

U.S. growth slumped to a mere 0.1 percent annual pace in the final three months of last year. But the Fed expects the economy to maintain a gradual recovery, helped by near-zero interest rates and its own massive bond buying program to spur borrowing. It is currently buying bonds at a $85 billion monthly pace.

The Beige Book, which draws on the extensive contacts maintained by regional Fed banks with their local business communities, was prepared in this instance by the Kansas City Federal Reserve, based on data collected on or before February 22.

"Five districts reported that economic growth was moderate in January and early February, and five districts reported that activity expanded at a modest pace," it said. Boston's region expanded slowly and Chicago reported a slow pace of growth.

"This was perhaps a small step down from the previous Beige Book in which all districts reported either modest or moderate growth," said JP Morgan economist Daniel Silver in a note.

FISCAL RESTRAINT

Although consumer spending picked up, retail sales slowed in several districts. Many of the 12 regional Feds pinned the blame on the expiration of a payroll tax holiday in January, higher gasoline prices and the impact of new healthcare laws.

"Many Districts noted rising gasoline prices and fiscal policy as having a negative effect on consumer sales," it said.

Washington is fighting a bitter partisan battle over automatic spending cuts that began to bite on March 1 and could restrain growth by 1.5 percentage points this year. With political gridlock hampering fiscal policy, the central bank has kept the printing presses pumping at full speed.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke argued in congressional testimony last week that its aggressive policy actions have had a visible impact on housing and demand for autos, and the Beige Book confirmed that these sectors were perking up.

"Residential real estate markets strengthened in nearly all Districts and home prices rose amid falling inventories across much of the country," it said, while noting that "automobile sales were strong or solid (in) most districts."

The Fed has held interest rates near zero since late 2008 and has tripled the size of its balance sheet to around $3 trillion since then through a controversial bond buying program.

These asset purchases are designed to lower longer-term borrowing costs and the Fed pledges to keep them up until it sees a substantial improvement in the outlook for the U.S. labor market. U.S. unemployment was a lofty 7.9 percent in January.

Critics say bond buying, also called quantitative easing, risks future inflation, but the central bank said there was no sign of higher input prices being passed along to consumers.

"Price pressures remained modest, with the exception of increases in prices for certain raw materials and slightly higher retail prices in several districts," the Fed said. "Even with some input costs rising, most district contacts did not plan to increase selling prices."

On the other hand, while most districts saw a 'modest' improvement in labor market conditions, wage pressures remained limited, although there were some signs of shortages for certain skilled workers, the Fed said.

(Additional reporting by Richard Leong in New York; Editing by Neil Stempleman, Andrew Hay and Nick Zieminski)

FILED UNDER:

Politics

REUTERS SHOWCASE

Fund Raising

Fund Raising

Flipkart raises $700 million in fresh funding.   Full Article 

Reforms Push

Reforms Push

Modi may order insurance, coal reforms if vote delayed - officials.  Full Article 

Reuters Exclusive

Reuters Exclusive

India looks to sway Americans with nuclear power insurance plan  Full Article 

To Boost Growth

To Boost Growth

Crank up public spending to revive growth - chief economic adviser.   Full Article 

Bold Steps

Bold Steps

SpiceJet rescue plan marks bold bet on Indian aviation recovery.   Full Article 

New Airline

New Airline

Tata, Singapore Air venture Vistara to take off on Jan 9.  Full Article 

Online Sales

Online Sales

Knock knock. Who's there? Amazon's best-selling holiday author.  Full Article 

Chinese Economy

Chinese Economy

China revises up size of 2013 economy, sees no effect on 2014 growth.  Full Article 

Reuters Poll

Reuters Poll

BSE Sensex to hit 32,980 by December 2015  Full Article 

Reuters India Mobile

Reuters India Mobile

Get the latest news on the go. Visit Reuters India on your mobile device  Full Coverage