Fed survey finds businesses worried by political uncertainty


WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve said Wednesday business contacts in many regions of the country are expressing less optimism amid a host of adverse developments, from plunging stock prices to uncertainty about a widening trade war.

In its latest report on economic conditions around the country, the Fed said that eight of its 12 regions reported the economy was expanding at a moderate pace as the new year began.

While the outlook remained generally positive, the report said that business executives had grown more worried about “increased financial market volatility, rising short-term interest rates, falling energy prices and elevated trade and political uncertainty.”

The report, known as the beige book, says a few districts experienced a slowdown in economic activity.

Information from the beige book will be used when Fed officials meet next on Jan. 29-30.

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Analysts said the beige book was one more piece of evidence that the central bank is likely to leave rates unchanged at this month’s meeting.

“The beige book confirms some retreat in business optimism which will only reinforce the Fed’s patience on the policy trigger,” said Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.

The Fed boosted its policy rate four times last year, with the last quarter-point increase coming in December. At the time, officials signaled that it would increase rates twice more this year.

Those rate hikes have been attacked by President Donald Trump, who has charged that the central bank represented his “biggest threat” because they ran the risk of crashing the stock market and sparking a recession.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and other Fed officials have stressed recently that low inflation levels will allow them to be “patient” in deciding how much more to raise interest rates.

This week Esther George, president of the Fed’s Kansas City regional bank and one of the Fed’s leading supporters of higher rates, said she believed the Fed could delay further rate hikes for a time.

“A pause in the normalization process would give us time to assess if the economy is responding as expected with a slowing of growth to a pace that is sustainable over the longer run,” George said in a speech Tuesday in Kansas City.

The beige book found that labor shortages were among the biggest issues facing employers, reflecting unemployment that has fallen close to a 50-year low. While wages are up, the report said the gains have remained “moderate” with overall inflation also remaining moderate.

Among the details in the report:

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— In the St. Louis district, the labor market was “particularly tight for technical jobs, with some firms lowering education requirements to attract more candidates.”

— In the Minneapolis district, staffing firms noted “continued reluctance among some clients to raise wages enough to change hiring difficulties.”

—The Fed’s Richmond regional bank reported that many manufacturing companies in its region saw a decline in shipments and new orders, and were being plagued by higher costs due to the penalty tariffs the Trump administration has imposed on certain imports.

—Passenger traffic at Boston’s Logan Airport set a new record in 2018 with departing flights in December up 7.4 percent year-over-year, helped by strong tourist activity on Cape Cod.

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