WASHINGTON - Consumer lending picked up in most of the country in recent weeks, while business lending remained sluggish, the Federal Reserve reported Wednesday.

And real estate markets - both residential and commercial - expanded in most regions during September and October, the central bank said.

In its periodic report of regional economic conditions, called the Beige Book, the Fed noted growth in consumer spending and tourism, little inflation in retail goods, and some improvement in manufacturing.

Growth Seen |Slow to Moderate'

Despite the mostly upbeat report, the Fed characterized economic activity as "increasing at a slow to moderate pace" overall. Activity in parts of New England and the West Coast remained "mixed," the Fed said. Those characterizations have changed little from Fed reports last summer.

"I think that's going to be the theme that will be played out now, month after month," said James Chessen, chief economist at the American Bankers Association. "It's going to sound like a broken record."

Refinancing Cited

The Beige Book is prepared by the Fed's 12 district banks every six weeks, in anticipation of a Federal Open Market Committee meeting. The panel's next meeting is Nov. 16.

Mr. Chessen attributed stronger consumer activity to savings from home refinancings, which until recently had not spurred economic activity.

"We haven't seen it over the last two years," he said. "We're now starting to see a little of that with consumer spending, particularly home sales."

Economists also attributed some of the consumer activity to midwesterners recovering from the summer floods.

Highlights of the report, by Fed district, follow:

* Boston: Gradual improvement in economic conditions, with home sales strengthening and inflation low.

* New York: Office leasing activity picked up, and vacancy rates fell in some areas, including Manhattan. Loan demand was firm, with home mortgage demand especially strong.

* Philadelphia: Total loan volume picked up modestly, mostly on the consumer side. Bankers expect moderate growth in economic activity and lending.

* Cleveland: The area has seen "surprising growth" in consumer lending. Commercial credit demand has grown slightly.

* Richmond, Va.: Credit conditions have "strengthened slightly," with commercial and consumer loan demand up a bit. Refinancing activity rose; mortgage originations were steady.

* Atlanta: Loan demand was flat, with refinancings comprising 75% of residential mortgage lending. Commercial loan demand "remained muted."

* Chicago: Economic activity has picked up, with retail sales and housing activity strong. Manufacturing output improved, especially in the auto industry.

* St. Louis: Small businesses have grown noticeably, and loan demand is on the upswing, especially for consumer credit. Some worry that deposit growth is not keeping up with loan demand.

* Minneapolis: Construction leads the economy, which is growing moderately. Manufacturing is stable, and unemployment rates have fallen slightly.

* Kansas City, Mo.: Demand for business, consumer, and home loans has increased, along with retail sales and housing activity. Loan-to-deposit ratios either stayed flat or edged up.

* Dallas: Commercial construction has picked up, and housing construction is strong. Home mortgage demand has been strong, unlike commercial loan demand, which has been below expectations.

* San Francisco: Despite sluggish growth in California, the rest of the region continued to improve. In California, loan volume was flat, but other states, like Oregon, reported both deposits and loans rising. Mortgage refinancing activity is increasing again.

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