U.S. businesses see modest increase in activity, Fed survey shows

(Reuters) – U.S. businesses saw a modest increase in activity and employment generally increased through late August, a Federal Reserve report showed on Wednesday, but economic growth remained sluggish in some parts of the country.

The report highlighted the uneven economic rebound taking place in the U.S. economy, with some areas such as residential real estate surging with the help of low interest rates, but other sectors struggling to rebound.

“Economic activity increased among most Districts, but gains were generally modest and activity remained well below levels prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Fed said in its “Beige Book” report, which is based on anecdotal information collected from business contacts across the country. 

The Fed’s survey was conducted in its 12 districts from July through late August.

The report showed economic progress was not spread equally across the nation, with the New York Fed district reporting that economic activity had stalled, the Chicago Fed district reporting it had increased strongly, the Atlanta Fed district seeing mixed signals, and the San Francisco Fed saying activity expanded slightly.

That dovetails with what a variety of new high-frequency indicators have been indicating for weeks: After an initial early surge off the bottom in May and June, the U.S. recovery has entered a much lumpier stage as COVID-19 hot spots force regional retrenchments.

Nationally, the number of new coronavirus infections is down to about 41,000 a day, from 77,000 in July, but some states are still struggling to contain the virus. Households and businesses also received less federal support in August, which marked the end of a $600 weekly supplement to unemployment benefits and the expiration of the Paycheck Protection Program, which offered forgivable loans to small businesses.

Some businesses continued to struggle to find needed workers, an issue made more severe by a shortage of child care services, as well as uncertainty over the coming school year and jobless benefits.

Companies are taking different approaches for how they pay workers during the crisis. While some firms looked into rolling back hazard pay for jobs with high exposure to the coronavirus, others decided not to do so to boost staff morale and help recruitment.

Overall, the report found wages were flat to slightly higher in most of the Fed districts, with greater pressure showing among lower-paying positions.

Uncertainty weighed heavily, but firms in many regions saw at least some improvement coming, the report showed. In the Chicago Fed district, most firms forecast growth ahead but did not expect a recovery until at least the second half of 2021.

In the Fed’s St. Louis district, for example, about half of contacts expected sales to return to pre-crisis levels, while a third thought it would take more than 12 months. In the Dallas district, expectations for future activity fell, even as uncertainty rose sharply.

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