Economy showing improvement, Fed 'beige book' survey shows

Seven of the Fed's 12 regions reported 'moderate' growth during early spring in 'beige book' survey

A Federal Reserve survey shows the U.S. economy strengthening over the last two months in areas that include manufacturing, construction, retail sales and bank lending.

Seven of the Fed's 12 regions — Boston, New York, Richmond, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas and San Francisco — reported "moderate" growth during the early spring, and the remaining five described growth as "modest," according to the 'beige book' survey released Wednesday.

Retail sales were reviving, helped by pent-up demand for new cars after the harsh winter, the survey found. Manufacturing was expanding in all regions, along with lending. One weakness was home sales, held back in large part by a tight supply of available homes.

The beige book is based on anecdotal reports from businesses and will be considered along with other data when Fed policymakers meet June 17 and 18.

Economists expect the Fed in June to pare its pace of monthly bond purchases by an additional $10 billion while pledging to keep its key short-term interest rate at a record low near zero for a "considerable" period after its bond purchases end.

Since December, the Fed has been reducing its bond purchases, which were designed to keep long-term rates low to spur spending and economic growth. The purchases, now at $45 billion a month, will probably be phased out entirely this fall.

The beige book suggests that despite the spring rebound in activity, inflation remains contained and wage pressures subdued. Low inflation has given the Fed the leeway to keep interest rates exceptionally low to try to boost growth and lower unemployment.

In other economic news, the U.S. Commerce Department said the trade gap widened to its highest level in two years as Americans bought more imported goods and exports slowed.

The trade deficit grew to $47.2 billion in April from $44.2 billion in March, the department said. Exports slowed in April, down slightly to $193.4 billion. Imports, meanwhile, surged by nearly $3 billion to $240.6 billion, suggesting consumers were spending more.

Though consumer spending is growing, the slowdown in exports could cause the country's total economic output to slow, analysts said. The increased spending on imported goods means foreign firms are getting a larger share of American dollars.

"Trade looks likely to be a small drag on [second-quarter] GDP," Ian Shepherdsen, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in a note to clients.

The uptick in imports was mainly driven by increased spending on consumer goods and cars, the Commerce Department said. Combined, these segments grew by $2 billion from March to April.

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