Thursday, April 17, 2008

Economic Reports Profile Sputtering Economy

by Amy Lillard

Reports released today confirm much of the bad news we've been hearing about the economy.

According to the "beige book," a combination of anecdotal reports prepared by the Federal Reserve that chronicle business conditions from around the U.S., the economy is slowing, the homebuilding sector is tanking, and prices are rising to painful levels.

The residential real estate and construction industry are "anemic," according to the book. The Commerce Department provided more specifics this week on this sector of the economy, nothing that builders started 11.9 percent fewer units of housing in March than in February, a huge decline. Permits for single-family homes are down 63 percent from the 2006 peak. Both numbers together indicate a picture of significantly reduced building activity. But this could actually be a good thing. The backlog of houses available for sale, an astounding surplus nationwide, combined with less construction, could actually help reset the balance of supply and demand, and prod the economy back in shape.

Consumer spending is softening, said the beige book. Plus, prices are rising. Consumer prices were up 0.3 percent in March, according to the Labor Department. Rising prices are due to increases across the board, but are driven particularly by natural gas and heating oil. Food prices are also increasing. In March, food prices rose 1.2 percent from big price jumps in vegetables and beef and the biggest increase in rice prices in more than five years.

Producer prices are also spiking, but so far businesses have kept the majority of price increases away from the consumers. The producer price index rose 1.1 percent last month, the largest increase since November (which experienced the highest one-month increase in 33 years) Over the last year, producer prices for finished goods are up 6.9 percent, the biggest year-over-year increase in nearly two years.

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Since increased producer prices are not affecting the majority of consumer products yet, core inflation (price increases of goods other than food and energy) is still at manageable levels for the Federal Reserve. But the forecast for the immediate future is uncertain.

Washington Post Article:

Fed: Economy Worse Off Than Believed

Producer Prices Rise 1.1% in March; Food Up More Than Expected

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