Reports from the twelve Federal Reserve Districts suggest that national economic activity continued to expand during the reporting period of mid-November through late December, with most Districts reporting a "modest" or "moderate" pace of growth.
Notably in the report, though, is the growing concern that the massive drop in oil prices is having – both for good and ill – in both energy producing areas and other parts of the economy.
The outlook raises alarms about increasing uncertainty in districts like Dallas, which includes energy production through Texas and much of the Southwest, as well as concerns about jobs in the Dakotas.
Single-family residential real estate sales and construction were largely flat on balance across the districts, while commercial real estate activity expanded. Demand for business and consumer credit grew. Credit quality improved a bit further overall.
Single-family residential real estate sales and construction were largely flat on balance across the Districts. Sales declined somewhat on a year-over-year basis in the Boston, Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts. In the Philadelphia District, year-over-year existing home sales finished lower in November, but pending December sales in some areas were up notably over December 2013.
However, builders of new homes in the Philadelphia District reported weak traffic for prospective buyers and fewer contract signings. San Francisco reported that overall home sales picked up in December. Richmond reported a modest increase in housing market activity. Home prices increased modestly, on balance, in the Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas Districts.
The Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Kansas City Districts all reported slightly slower single-family residential construction activity. However, the pace of single-family home construction increased in some areas of the San Francisco District.
Here’s how the districts break down in terms of housing, residential construction and mortgage lending activity, according to the January 14 Beige Book.
First District: Boston
Closed sales of single family homes declined in November in at least four of the six states in the First District compared to November 2013. Vermont saw an increase in sold homes; contacts in New Hampshire were unavailable. Sales also dipped in the condominium (condo) market in all responding states. Median sales prices rose in November in both single family and condo markets region-wide, with the exceptions of Maine, where prices decreased for single family homes, and Connecticut, where condo prices declined. In Massachusetts, prices have risen year-over-year in 25 of the last 26 months for single family homes and 17 of the last 18 months in the condo market. Contacts in Massachusetts say the driving forces are a shortage of inventory and steady consumer demand. The level of inventory heading into December in Massachusetts is the lowest in a decade, with only a 4.6 month supply for single family homes and a 2.0 month supply in the condo market. November is the 33rd consecutive month of year-over-year inventory decline in the Massachusetts single-family home market and the 49th consecutive decline in the condo market. In at least three other states, inventory declined in both the single family and condo markets; months of supply increased in Rhode Island. Realtors say they are cautiously optimistic because they remain busy; they hope interest rates will remain low and say markets will show further significant improvements only when high paying jobs become more available and new listings provide more options for buyers.
Second District: New York
The District's housing markets have shown signs of picking up in the closing weeks of 2014. Real estate contacts in western New York State indicate that the housing market has gained some momentum in the final months of 2014, particularly for trade-ups to mid-priced homes. New York City's co-op and condo market showed continued strength in the final quarter of 2014: apartment sales volume was down from the exceptionally high levels of a year ago but still fairly brisk, while selling prices were up moderately.
New York City's residential rental market has been mixed: Rents in Manhattan and Brooklyn have picked up somewhat and are up roughly 5% from a year ago, while Queens rents have been fairly steady. Residential rents elsewhere around the New York City metro area are reported to be up 4-6% from a year ago, while rents across upstate New York are up about 2%. Rental vacancy rates have risen slightly across the District, though they remain fairly low, especially in New York City. Multifamily construction remained fairly robust throughout most of the District in the fourth quarter.
Third District: Philadelphia
Overall, Third District homebuilders continued to report weak traffic and declining numbers of contract signings. One builder reported more potential buyers and was more optimistic for December than he was in the prior two months. Builders reported ongoing price pressures from contractors for their labor costs and continued difficulty attracting first-time homebuyers out of the rental market. Builders expect that 2015 will be a better year than 2014, but they expressed a range of opinions on whether household formations will return to the pre-recession rate or settle into a new, lower normal trend. Brokers reported that existing home sales finished lower in November on a year-over-year basis; however, a broker compiling data on a 10-county Philadelphia region reported that pending sales were up in double digits through mid-December. Contacts continued to report slight overall increases in home prices. Brokers are generally more optimistic for a return to growth in 2015.
Fourth District: Cleveland
Year-to-date sales through November of new and existing single-family homes were slightly below levels seen in 2013, while the average sales price was moderately higher. New-home contracts were mainly in the move-up price-point categories. Since our last report, single-family construction starts were down slightly, while the number of single and multifamily building permits issued moved mildly higher. Homebuilders pointed to a scarcity of lots in strong markets and stringent mortgage standards as factors that are constraining sales activity. The outlook for the new year is best described as cautious; while most respondents are expecting some growth, none are projecting robust activity. A majority of builders announced price increases averaging 3%, which will go into effect at the start of 2015. These increases will mainly cover rising costs, including higher rates from subcontractors.
Fifth District: Richmond
Loan demand rose slightly since our most recent report. Residential mortgage demand was mostly unchanged in the District, although there was some increased demand in Virginia and North Carolina. A lender in Virginia said that the favorable rate environment had raised residential mortgage demand and generated some growth in refinance lending. Commercial and industrial lending was higher in the Carolinas, Virginia, and West Virginia. Lenders in North Carolina and Virginia said that pipelines are growing and that most activity is new and not taking away from other banks.
District housing market activity continued to increase at a modest pace since the previous report. However, Realtors in some locations reported slower buyer traffic and a slight decrease in housing inventories. Average sale prices and average days on the market varied. A Maryland contact reported gradual improvement in home sales state-wide, and higher average home prices. A broker in Richmond stated that cash buyers remained very active; he also reported some recent higher-end home sales aided by lower interest rates. Single-family housing construction increased slightly in the Carolinas and Virginia since the previous report. A South Carolina residential builder stated that the high-end market is bouncing back, and that new home prices increased slightly. Multifamily construction and leasing remained active throughout the District.
Sixth District: Atlanta
Most District brokers indicated that home sales fell short of their plan for the period. Many contacts noted that home sales were flat or down slightly compared with a month earlier. Brokers continued to report modest home price appreciation. The majority of brokers indicated that inventory levels remained flat from the prior month's level and that buyer traffic was flat to down over the same period. Brokers indicated that they expect home sales to remain flat or increase slightly over the next three months.
Incoming signals from District homebuilders were relatively unchanged since the last report. Contacts characterized construction activity as flat from the previous month and new home sales were flat to down slightly over the same period. Most builders indicated that the inventory of unsold homes was flat to slightly up compared with a month earlier. Modest home price appreciation continued to be reported. Builders' outlook for new home sales and construction activity over the next three months was fairly positive, with most indicating that they expect activity to be flat to slightly up.
Seventh District: Chicago
Construction and real estate activity increased modestly in December. Demand for residential construction was little changed in both the single- and multifamily markets. Although homebuilders were optimistic about the overall economy, many were concerned that the housing sector would continue to lag in 2015. Home prices and residential rents both increased, while the pace of home sales slowed. Real estate contacts forecast flat or modest growth in home sales in 2015. Nonresidential construction increased, driven in large part by demand for industrial and office buildings. Commercial real estate activity expanded broadly--vacancies ticked down, rents rose, and leasing of industrial buildings, office space, and retail space all increased.
Eight District: St. Louis
Home sales decreased in the Eighth District on a year-over-year basis. Compared with the same month in 2013, November 2014 monthly home sales were down 11% in Louisville, 1% in Little Rock, 9% in Memphis, and 2% in St. Louis. Residential construction declined in the majority of the District metro areas. November 2014 year-to-date single-family housing permits decreased in the majority of the District metro areas compared with the same period in 2013. Permits decreased 9% in Louisville, 16% in Little Rock, and 5% in St. Louis. Permits increased 2% in Memphis.
Ninth District: Minneapolis
Commercial construction activity was mixed. In Sioux Falls, S.D., the value of November commercial permits increased from a year ago. In Billings, Mont., commercial permits decreased in value in November from a year earlier. Residential construction activity in the District was down compared with a year ago. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the value of December residential permits decreased 9% compared with December 2013. In November 2014, residential permits dropped in the Bismarck, N.D., area from November 2013. November single-family residential building permits in Billings increased in value from the previous year, but multifamily permits decreased in value. The value of November residential permits in Sioux Falls increased from a year earlier.
Tenth District: Kansas City
District real estate activity continued to edge up as stronger commercial real estate activity offset seasonally sluggish residential real estate activity. Expectations for overall real estate activity were positive. Residential home sales decreased moderately compared to the previous survey period, partially due to typical seasonal sales patterns. Sales of low- and medium-priced homes continued to outpace sales of higher-priced homes; however, a few contacts reported an increasing volume of mid- to higher-priced homes sales. Home prices continued to increase modestly since the previous survey period as inventories fell further. Expectations for residential home sales and prices were positive as inventories were anticipated to continue to decline modestly. Residential construction activity decreased modestly, and traffic of potential buyers was flat. Housing starts fell modestly, and sales of construction supply materials were moderately below previous survey levels. Commercial real estate activity continued to increase at a moderate pace, and contacts reported lower vacancy rates and higher absorption rates, completions, sales, prices, and rents. The commercial real estate market was expected to continue to expand moderately over the coming months.
Eleventh District: Dallas
Home sales grew at a steady to slightly slower pace since the last report, and sales were generally even with last year's levels. Builders were slowly building up their inventory of speculative homes, but some contacts said that their appetite for land has declined. Home prices continued to edge upwards, and several respondents reported pushback from buyers on pricing. Outlooks were cautiously optimistic. Apartment demand remained strong. Occupancy rates, although still high, saw a slight seasonal dip. Rent growth stayed solid in Dallas and Houston, but was starting to cool off in Austin. Outlooks were generally positive, but some contacts said they had revised down their 2015 outlook for Houston.
Twelfth District: San Francisco
Real estate activity advanced during the reporting period. The pace of new single-family home construction increased modestly in some areas of the District, with relatively more activity in urban areas than in rural areas. However, some contacts cited increasing costs of materials and labor and a shortage of available lots in some areas in their projections that the pace of new construction will fall back in 2015. Indeed, these contacts reported that the pace of construction permit issuance has declined. A few contacts indicated that home sales picked up a bit in December, but some contacts reported that insufficient inventory is damping the pace of sales. Multifamily residential real estate construction activity was strong in many areas of the District during the reporting period. Retail, office, industrial, or infrastructure projects also were widespread. Most contacts viewed the pace of construction as healthy. However, one contact reported that some investors are concerned that, given planned construction, there soon will be an excess supply of multifamily units in their area.
Read the full report here.