WASHINGTON — A Federal Reserve survey released Wednesday was slightly more optimistic than last month, showing that the pace of economic decline may be starting to moderate in some parts of the country.
Reports from the 12 regional Fed banks show that, in general, the recession deepened further through early April.
However, five of the 12 districts reported some hopeful signs that activity in some sectors was starting to stabilize, said the economic report widely known as the Beige Book.
Manufacturing, for instance, weakened across a broad range of industries, with the Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, Atlanta, St. Louis, Minneapolis and San Francisco districts reporting decreases in production.
But reports from the Cleveland, New York, and Dallas districts either showed the pace of decline had slowed or that factory activity had stabilized.
"Manufacturers' assessments of future factory activity improved marginally over the survey period as well, with contacts in the Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Kansas City Districts noting a slight upturn in the outlook for production and sales," said the Fed report.
Meanwhile, housing markets remained "depressed," but "there were some signs that conditions may be stabilizing," the report said, adding that homebuyer tax credits, lower mortgage rates and lower prices have attracted buyers.
Similarly, while consumer spending remained generally weak, some districts reported that sales rose slightly or declines moderated. The same goes for real estate markets — they continued to be weak, but some areas reported a pickup in home sales.
Additionally, some regions reported a slight improvement in retail sales even though they remained sluggish across the board.
All districts reported downward pressure on prices and troubled labor markets.
"Employment continued to decline across a range of industries, with only scattered reports of hiring," said the Fed report.
The report is a survey from the regional Fed banks and was prepared ahead of the April 28-29 Fed policy meeting. Information for the report was collected on or before April 6.
Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has also been cautiously optimistic about the economy. On Tuesday, Bernanke said he was optimistic about the economy's longer-term prospects. Pointing to figures on housing, consumer spending and new vehicle sales, he added that there have been signs that the sharp decline in economic activity might be slowing.
Still, a government report Wednesday proves the continued challenges facing manufacturing. According to the data, capacity use at U.S. factories fell to a record low in March. Meanwhile, firms continue to shed jobs.
In their March meeting, the Fed's policy panel voted unanimously to keep the target federal-funds rate in a range near zero. At the same time, they surprised markets by buying up to $300 billion in longer-term Treasurys and boosting the size of a lending program aimed at mortgage-backed securities by another $750 billion.
During that meeting, staff economists marked down their economic forecasts, with a slow recovery not expected until next year.