(Bloomberg News) The Federal Reserve said the economy maintained its expansion in all 12 of its regions as manufacturing, hiring and retail sales showed signs of strength in the face of higher fuel prices.
"The economy continued to expand at a modest to moderate pace from mid-February through late March," the Fed said today in its Beige Book business survey, published two weeks before the Federal Open Market Committee meets to set monetary policy. "Hiring was steady or showed a modest increase across many districts."
The Beige Book offers anecdotal evidence helping policy makers assess an economy that added 120,000 jobs in March, the fewest since October. Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke last month said that further "significant" improvements in the unemployment rate would probably require a more-rapid expansion.
A "recent decline" in unemployment may reflect "a reversal of the unusually large layoffs that occurred during late 2008 and over 2009," Bernanke said on March 26.
The Beige Book's depiction of hiring may "discredit" the weaker jobs report from March, said Michael Materasso, co- chairman of the fixed-income policy committee at Franklin Templeton Investments Corp., in an interview on Bloomberg Television's "Bottom Line."
"The outlook for jobs seemed to be much more of what we were seeing in the prior months," Materasso said.
Gasoline Price Increases
Higher gasoline prices may weigh on the economy, today's report said. "While the near-term outlook for household spending was encouraging, contacts in several districts expressed concerns that rising gas prices could limit discretionary spending in the months to come," the Fed said in the Beige Book.
Inflation was "modest," the report said, and "upward pressure on wages was constrained."
The U.S. economy, which grew at a 3 percent annual rate in the final three months of last year, will probably expand 2.2 percent in 2012 and 2.4 percent in 2013, according to a Bloomberg News survey of 72 economists.
Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart said today that while the March jobs report was disappointing, he is still "not convinced that another round" of asset purchases by the central bank "would achieve a great deal." Such policy should be held in reserve for a "fairly negative change of direction of the economy," he said.
Today's Beige Book reflects information collected on or before April 2 and summarized by the Cleveland Fed.
In the previous Beige Book released on Feb. 29, the Fed said "overall economic activity continued to increase at a modest to moderate pace in January and early February." It said the districts of Cleveland, Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas and San Francisco reported moderate growth in February.
In this month's survey, a "moderate pace" of growth was ascribed to Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco. Cleveland and St. Louis cited "modest growth." New York said growth "picked up somewhat," while Philadelphia and Richmond noted "improving business conditions."
The economy grew at a "solid pace" in the Minneapolis Fed district and Kansas City cited "a faster pace."
Manufacturers mentioned gains in automotive and high- technology industries, the report said. The firms "expressed optimism about near-term growth prospects, but they are somewhat concerned about rising petroleum prices."
"Overall price inflation was modest," the Fed said. "However, contacts in many districts commented on rising transportation costs due to higher fuel prices."
Retail spending reports were "positive," and professional business services "showed modest to strong growth," according to the report.
Service industries in the U.S. grew in March, capping the strongest quarter in a year and indicating the world's largest economy will keep generating jobs, according to the Institute for Supply Management's non-manufacturing index last week.
That index fell to 56 from a one-year high of 57.3 in February, the Tempe, Arizona-based group's data showed April 4. Since mid-2011, the industries that account for almost 90 percent of the economy have outpaced gains in manufacturing, which had been at the forefront of the two-year expansion.
"The economy is beginning to pick up a little steam," Mark Lemond, president and chief executive officer of Shoe Carnival Inc., said in a March 21 conference call. "When the customer has money in their pocket, they're definitely willing to spend it. This bodes well for the rest of 2012 and beyond."
U.S. stocks advanced today, snapping a five-day decline for the Standard & Poor's 500 Index, after Alcoa Inc. reported an unexpected first-quarter profit. The S&P 500 increased 0.9 percent to 1,371.11 at 2:21 p.m. in New York. The benchmark measure for American equities had fallen 4.3 percent over the past five days. The 10-year Treasury yield rose to 2.03 percent from 1.98 percent yesterday.
More insight into the Fed's response to the data may come this week when policy makers discuss the economic outlook. Vice Chairman Janet Yellen will speak tonight in New York, and William C. Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, is scheduled to speak tomorrow in Syracuse, New York.