WASHINGTON - The economy is continuing to expand in most parts of the United States, "but at a slow and uneven pace," the Federal Reserve Board said in a report issued yesterday.
The so-called beige book report, which is based on a survey of business conditions in the 12 Federal Reserve District banks, was prepared to aid deliberations by the 12-member Federal Open Market Committee that is scheduled to meet Nov. 17 to review monetary policy.
The report says the districts of Boston, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Dallas all reported some improvement in business activity, "ranging from a slightly more positive tone in Boston to a modest expansion in St. Louis."
Conditions in the New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco districts did not look as good, "with improvement in some sectors and sluggishness in others."
Private analysts said the findings are in line with the view that the economy is continuing to struggle.
"It's a mixed economy," said Paul Kasriel, vice president for Northern Trust Co. in Chicago. "It is growing slowly, and it is not producing any price pressures."
Retail sales improved in most areas of the country in recent weeks, the report says, but the extent of gains varied. "Moreover, some retailers stated that the selling climate remained difficult and that discounting and other promotional efforts were needed in order to achieve the latest increases," it says.
Sales gains were up slightly in Boston and Philadelphia and "markedly improved" in Cleveland, the report says. By contrast, sales remained sluggish in California, which is still suffering from the contraction in the defense industry and weakness in real estate.
Manufacturing activity lost momentum in several districts, the report says. Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia reported either a slower pace of expansion or actual declines in output. Demand was slower for aircraft and defense goods, nonelectrical machinery, rubber and plastics, and primary metals.
Manufacturing firms surveyed expressed concern about the low level of consumer confidence and weakness in the economies of major U.S. trading partners.
A separate report yesterday from the Commerce Department says new orders for manufacturers jumped 1.1% in September, the largest monthly decline since June. However, the gain followed two straight monthly declines and was concentrated in non-durable goods.
Orders for non-durable goods slipped 0.1%, according to the department's revised figures. That was less than the 0.4% decrease reported earlier this month, but still marked the third straight monthly decline.
The Fed report says several districts reported a pickup in residential construction and sales, with gains concentrated in the low- and middle-income range of single-family homes.
Boston reported that the real estate market had stopped declining in most New England states and that sales volume was up "substantially" from a year earlier, the report says. Cleveland and St. Louis both said residential contracts and permits were "well above" last year's levels.
By contrast, California reported a large jump in mortgage foreclosures in the southern part of the state in connection with defense industry cutbacks.
Loan demand was up slightly in several districts, but mortgage refinancing activity seems to have peaked in many areas, the report says.
"The economy is stagnating right now," said Sung W. Sohn, chief economist for Norwest Corp. in Minneapolis. "That is going to create a major challenge for the new President, Gov. [Bill] Clinton."
Sohn said he believes Clinton should announce a stimulus program of $25 billion to $30 billion, which would be a "cosmetic package" that could boost consumer confidence without unnerving the bond market.