Wednesday, March 6, 2013

FRB: Beige Book - Boston District: March 6, 2013


First District--Boston

Economic activity continues to expand in the First District, albeit slowly, according to business contacts. Most contacted retailers but only one-half of responding manufacturers report higher sales in the latest period than a year earlier; nonetheless, most manufacturers are upbeat about 2013. Contacted staffing services firms cite a pick-up in business, while several software and IT services firms say their results are below expectations although they maintain a positive outlook. Commercial real estate fundamentals are largely unchanged, with office leasing activity mixed. Most residential real estate markets across the region continue to show robust sales growth and modest price increases. Across sectors, vendor prices and selling prices are reported to be generally stable and headcount changes fairly modest, either up or down.  

Retail and Tourism

Retailers contacted in this round report overall fiscal year 2012 sales increases mostly ranging from 1 percent to 3 percent from 2011, with one source reporting a 7 percent year-over-year rise; these firms completed their 2012 fiscal years either at the end of December or in February. For January 2013, comparable-store sales ranged from a 1 percent decrease to a 6 percent increase from January 2012. Demand continues to be strong for clothing, home furnishings, and furniture, although a few contacts cite some softening in February which they attribute to consumer uncertainty regarding job creation, budget deficits, and the possible sequestration, as well as weather-related issues that depressed store traffic in certain areas. One contact notes that their customers often use tax refunds to finance durable good purchases, and the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 enacted on January 2, 2013 has caused some people to delay filing their returns. Respondents suggest it will be easier to discern underlying sales trends in another month or two. However, they continue to predict a low-growth economy and a somewhat wary consumer in 2013. Wholesale prices are reportedly holding steady.

As noted in the previous report, the tourism industry posted record highs in 2012 for hotel occupancy rates and revenues. Expectations for 2013 are that hotel occupancy will be flat or down about 1 percent compared to 2012, but that room revenues will be up about 6 percent. International travel is expected to increase by about 9 percent over 2012, fueled by continuing strong traffic from Europe and increased travel from Australia and South America, particularly from Argentina and Brazil. Increases in gas prices do not yet seem to be affecting regional travelers. Restaurants continue to have less robust results than hotels, with the average table check down compared to levels in 2009 to 2011.

Manufacturing and Related Services
Manufacturing firms in the First District continue to paint a picture of a slow recovery. Of the 12 firms responding this round, six report higher sales in the fourth quarter versus the same period a year earlier, two report flat sales and four report lower sales. In contrast to the mixed sales picture, 10 of the 12 firms say that their outlook for 2013 is positive. Part of the disconnect reflects the highly cyclical semiconductor industry, which accounts for two of the firms reporting both negative growth in the fourth quarter and positive expected growth in 2013. One firm in particular reports that sales were down by more than one-third in the fourth quarter but that orders are up almost 20 percent. Even some of our own contacts appear to be puzzled at the combination of poor sales results and optimism about growth for 2013; for example, one says his firm--at which January sales were down 6 percent year-on-year--wrote in planned sales growth of 4 percent to 8 percent in the second half "without any specific reason" except that "everyone expects sales to strengthen." A contact in the home improvement goods industry notes that sales were strong in the fourth quarter but cautions that tool sales lag increases in housing starts by 6 to 9 months so it is too soon to tell if the increase is seasonal or cyclical. A contact that supplies material for filtration says the global picture is difficult to pin down because Chinese New Year and the seasonal Christmas shutdowns in Europe made year-on-year comparison particularly difficult in recent months. Finally, several respondents expressed uncertainty regarding China, with one saying that some of his Chinese customers reported dramatic reductions in sales, inconsistent with government statistics.

Employment growth seems to be following sales and not the outlook. Only four of our contacts report increased hiring in the fourth quarter or planned increases in hiring in 2013 and four report the opposite. A contact in the industrial distribution business says that sales growth was negative for much of the second half of last year but they held off staff reductions until now. Three contacts cite difficulty finding the right workers in everything from welding to life sciences.

Investment appeared similar to employment, with four firms reporting higher investment or higher planned investment. A manufacturer of fitness equipment says they are curtailing their investment plans because of slower expected growth in sales.

Software and Information Technology Services
New England software and information technology services contacts generally report lackluster activity through February. Several contacts cite weaker-than-expected demand and delays in executing large license agreements, driven in part by economic uncertainty, particularly in Europe and Japan. By contrast, two contacts--whose firms have experienced robust growth since 2010--expanded accounts with a number of global insurance companies, bringing revenues in the fourth quarter to record highs. Many contacts continue to slow the pace at which they are hiring. Indeed, one contact shed approximately 150 jobs in the fourth quarter and has since instituted a "soft hiring freeze"; two other contacts now plan to maintain their current headcount through the end of 2013, following increases of over 5 percent in 2012. Selling prices and capital and technology spending have gone largely unchanged. The outlook among New England software and IT contacts is generally consistent with that of three months ago, with most expecting more robust growth in the second half of 2013.

Staffing Services
First District staffing contacts report that business continues to strengthen. Labor market activity since January is characterized as "improved" or "encouraging", with all but one contact registering a year- over-year increase in billable hours. The continued growth reportedly reflects increases in labor demand in the IT, industrial, and business services sectors partially offset by a softening of demand for office and clerical assistants and manufacturing personnel. The number of permanent and temporary-to-permanent placements continues to grow, with one contact reporting that permanent placements in their professional business, which includes IT and engineering, are up nearly 30 percent relative to a year ago. Labor supply has gone largely unchanged since May 2012. Contacts continue to have difficulty finding candidates with high-end skill sets such as mechanical and electrical engineers, software developers, and IT personnel; one respondent says this shortage of qualified labor is putting upward pressure on pay rates. Looking forward, staffing contacts are generally more upbeat than they were three months ago, with most expecting steady or accelerated growth in the second quarter.

Commercial Real Estate
Contacts across the First District offer somewhat mixed reports concerning recent activity and the outlook, but note that fundamentals are largely unchanged since the last report. Leasing interest picked up slightly in Hartford in recent weeks but has not resulted in an increase in completed lease deals nor in significant absorption. In Boston, leasing inquiries remain steady. One Boston contact notes that tenants express little urgency to sign deals while another says that absorption increased slightly in recent weeks. In Providence, leasing activity picked up from last time and Class A downtown office vacancies fell to just under 9 percent from roughly 15 percent a year earlier. A Portland contact reports that leasing activity is stable and office rents unchanged since the last report, notwithstanding some newly announced plant closings in the region that will result in layoffs.

Investment sales reportedly picked up in both Hartford and Providence as some investors were priced out of primary markets such as Boston. Across the region, multifamily structures remain the favored investment class, but high quality office and industrial structures are also seeing healthy demand. More properties are coming up for sale in response to rising prices. Some contacts are concerned that the high sales prices for premier properties in Boston are increasingly out of line with fundamentals. A regional lender notes a significant decline in loan demand for commercial properties since December and cites as possible reasons a temporary decline in the bank's marketing efforts together with a general climate of economic uncertainty. Respondents raise concerns about overbuilding in Boston's apartment market and possibly also in its office sector. While current office construction in Boston is pre-leased rather than speculative, one contact notes that the intended tenants will nonetheless generate significant vacancies at their current locations in other parts of the city.

The outlook is largely unchanged in Portland and Boston, calling for a continuation of slow growth. Upside risks to absorption are cited for both Hartford and Providence, while contacts in both Boston and Hartford note downside macroeconomic risks as a threat to commercial real estate markets.

Residential Real Estate
Across New England, strong year-over-year sales growth continued in December in both single- family home and condominium markets. Initial sales figures for January suggest similarly robust year- over-year growth. According to contacts, low interest rates, affordable prices and improving economic conditions are all helping to spur buyer activity. Some contacts note, however, that a small increase in interest rates might actually spur potential homebuyers to purchase more quickly. Overall, realtors say they are confident in the strength of buyer demand, but worry that declining inventory could damp sales growth. In Greater Boston, realtors report that multiple bids on properties have become increasingly common as inventory falls. Declining inventory levels are putting upward pressure on prices in much of the region although the median sale price in New Hampshire slipped notwithstanding fewer listings.

In the next several months, contacts anticipate continued year-over-year growth in sales and most express confidence that home values will continue to appreciate. Some contacts, however, say the strength of the improvements could be easily undermined if the economic recovery slows. Inventory levels are expected to rise in a few months with the onset of warmer weather, although several contacts worry about whether the supply will adequately sustain buyer interest.

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