Eleventh District Beige Book
November 29, 2023
Summary of Economic Activity
The Eleventh District economy expanded at slower pace than in the previous reporting period. Manufacturing output rose, while growth in services stalled out and retail sales fell. Loan volumes declined at a faster rate than the previous reporting period as credit conditions remained tight and the cost of credit high. Home sales decreased, and activity in the energy sector was flat to up. Recent rains somewhat improved district agricultural conditions. Local nonprofits continued to cite broad based increases in demand for assistance. Employment was little changed, and wage growth continued to normalize. Input cost and selling price growth were above average in the service sector but modest to slight in manufacturing, construction, and energy. Outlooks remained negative with geopolitical instability, heightened macroeconomic uncertainty, and the high cost of credit cited as key headwinds.
Employment expanded slightly over the past six weeks. The pace of hiring decelerated broadly, and some freight carriers, high-tech, and manufacturing companies reported layoffs. A few service firms said they were keeping staff on payrolls despite a notable drop in sales, though one respondent said they plan to cut salaries in early 2024 to avoid layoffs. Labor availability improved and reports of labor shortages were less prevalent. One staffing firm said they were more comfortable letting unproductive workers go since they felt more confident about replacing them. However, shortages of engineers, restaurant workers, and specialty construction labor persisted.
Wage growth continued to normalize, though it was still slightly elevated. Homebuilders noted some reprieve in labor costs, and energy companies said wage growth was slowing with pressures limited to select job categories. However, a fabricated metal manufacturer reported paying workers for 40 hours/week though the firm did not have enough work to keep them busy. Most staffing firms saw continued upward wage pressures, though one contact anticipates some easing in the first half of 2024 as hiring is expected to slow.
Input cost and selling price growth was mixed, still slightly elevated in the service sector but generally modest in construction, manufacturing, and energy. Growth in airfares eased amid increased capacity, and fuel costs ticked up. Construction materials, home, and land prices were mostly unchanged but elevated. Freight shipping rates fell, and a transportation firm reported that companies were signing longer-term freight contracts due to low rates. Numerous firms cited higher borrowing costs as an impediment to business growth.
Texas manufacturing activity expanded modestly in October. In durables, production increases were led by fabricated metals and machinery manufacturing. However, output in transportation equipment manufacturing declined, and a contact noted that the UAW strike somewhat hurt sales. Output rose in nondurable manufacturing. Chemical production was mixed, and refinery activity decreased. Overall, manufacturing outlooks worsened, and uncertainty remained elevated with several contacts citing geopolitical instability and high interest rates as headwinds.
Retail sales declined during the reporting period. Some retailers attributed the weakness in spending to elevated economic uncertainty and high interest rates. Reduced affordability resulting from higher car prices and interest rates also depressed auto sales over the past six weeks. Overall, retail inventories dipped for the first time since mid-2022, and outlooks remained negative.
Service sector activity held steady during the reporting period. Overall, revenues were flat on net, with numerous firms pointing to heightened macroeconomic and geopolitical uncertainty and high interest rates as factors impacting demand. Revenues were flat to down in several industries, including transportation and warehousing and professional and business services but rose in healthcare. Leisure and hospitality firms said revenues continued to soften partly due to slower consumer spending and high economic uncertainty, and one contact said their expansion plans were on hold until yearend 2024. Staffing firms cited a slowdown in demand for their services, as demand for high-skilled workers weakened while placements for support staff and low-skilled workers remained stable. Airlines saw strong activity. Domestic leisure travel activity cooled, but international leisure travel stayed strong. Business travel was stable but trailed pre-pandemic levels.
Construction and Real Estate
Housing demand weakened during the reporting period. Home sales and buyer traffic fell while cancellations rose, and contacts pointed to higher mortgage rates as the key factor impacting activity. Buyer incentives including rate buydowns and discounting remained widespread, and there were reports of additional incentives being offered to discourage buyers from cancelling contracts. Outlooks were weak and contacts noted reduced affordability, high mortgage rates, and tighter lending for construction and development loans as headwinds.
Activity in commercial real estate softened. Apartment leasing slowed and rents were flat to down. Office leasing remained minimal; vacancy rates were high, and concessions remained generous. With new supply outpacing demand, industrial vacancy rates ticked up and rent growth cooled. Heightened macroeconomic uncertainty, high capital costs, and diminished appetite to lend continued to deter investment across property types.
Overall loan volume declined at a faster pace over the past six weeks, led by a sharp decline in residential real estate lending. Loan demand has been falling for over a year, though the pace of decline has eased. Credit standards continued to tighten, and loan pricing continued to rise at an above-average pace this period. Driven by a marked increase in consumer loan delinquency, overall loan nonperformance rose at its highest rate since 2020. Bankers remained pessimistic, with expectations of further increases in loan nonperformance, declining loan demand, and worsening business activity over the next six months.
Oil field activity was flat to up over the past six weeks. The recent spate of mergers and acquisitions continued to put slight downward pressure on activity levels. Orders for oilfield services equipment were stable as customers limited spending to maintaining current capacity. In 2024, capital expenditure growth in oil and gas production is anticipated to be concentrated in international offshore drilling, with only modest increases expected in U.S. production-related work.
Recent rainfall improved soil moisture over the past six weeks, though much of the District remained in drought. Crop production was substantially higher this year across the board—wheat, cotton, corn, sorghum, and soybeans—largely due to drought conditions being less severe than last year, particularly in the Texas panhandle. Cattle prices declined over the reporting period but remained elevated, and contacts noted a continued tight supply of cattle and resilient demand for beef amid high prices.
Demand for nonprofit services rose broadly, and contacts expected further increases in requests for assistance with the holiday season approaching. Affordable housing continued to be a pressing concern not just for low-income households but for some seniors too, and one nonprofit said that even with housing vouchers they were facing difficulty finding units for their clients. Moreover, finding developers to build subsidized housing was difficult. Sunsetting of various COVID relief funds has posed several challenges, particularly for childcare centers. Contacts noted that multiple daycare centers had closed. Demand for food assistance has accelerated since spring 2023. Nonprofits noted challenges in meeting their fundraising goals, which some attributed to donor fatigue.
Find the full Beige Book report at www.federalreserve.gov/monetarypolicy/beige-book-default.htm
For more information about District economic conditions visit: www.dallasfed.org/research/texas