Beige Book: Tariff Panic And More Widespread Labor Shortages

Two month ago, we summarized  the July Beige Book by saying that shortly after the March inflationary panic, the one thing, perhaps the only thing, that was fascinating companies was the continuing threat of trade wars. In fact, we said that the "quick and dirty summary" for the May Beige Book, when economic activity continued to expand "at a modest to moderate pace across the 12 Federal Reserve Districts", would, in a word literally, be "tariffs" and here's why:

  • March Beige Book instances of word "tariff": 0
  • April Beige Book instances of word "tariff": 36
  • May Beige Book instances of word "tariff": 22
  • July Beige Book instances of word "tariff": 31

Fast forward to today when fears of trade wars have unmoderated (no pun intended) and there were no less than 41 instances of the word "tariff" in the just released, September Beige Book.

Despite the ongoing tariff fears, the U.S. economy is expanding at a "moderate pace" with tight labor market conditions and rising input costs partly due to trade disruptions. Furthermore, consumer spending continued to grow at a modest pace since the last report while businesses generally remained optimistic about the near-term outlook, though most districts noted concern and uncertainty about trade tensions. A number of districts noted that such concerns had prompted some businesses to scale back or postpone capital investment.

That said, the Beige Book - which was based on anecdotal information collected by the 12 regional Fed banks through Aug. 31 - noted, although the biggest risk to the economy was clear:

"Tariffs were reported to be contributing to rising input costs, mainly for manufacturers,” the Fed report said.

The Beige Book also said that labor markets were "characterized as tight throughout the country," and, despite trade tensions, "businesses generally remained optimistic about the near-term outlook."

While construction workers, truck drivers, engineers, and other high-skill workers remained in short supply, a number of districts also noted shortages of lower-skill workers at restaurants, retailers, and other types of firms.

Inflation remained brisk, as all districts noted fairly widespread input price pressures, particularly for construction materials and freight transportation. Tariffs were reported to be contributing to rising input costs, mainly for manufacturers. That said, the report noted that there were signs of a "deceleration,'' which was unexpected. Furthermore, the Beige Book added that companies generally absorbed most of input price increases, which tends to crippled margins.

Meanwhile, despite the now legendary labor shortage, wage growth was mostly characterized as modest or moderate, though a number of districts cited steep wage hikes for construction workers. One wonders how long it will take employers to realize that they can easily overcome said shortages by simply hiking wages.

Fed districts also weighed in with detail on how trade disputes are impacting businesses:

"Nearly two-thirds of the firms that offered general comments noted that price hikes and/or supply disruptions had already occurred or were anticipated because of tariffs,” the Philadelphia Fed said in its section of the report. “Some typical responses were that tariffs ‘have put us out of business' on certain products and are a ‘cloud on every facet of our business planning."

Despite the prevailing optimism, most districts reported concerns and uncertainty about trade tensions. “A number of districts noted that such concerns had prompted some businesses to scale back or postpone capital investment,” according to the report.

It was not clear if tariffs were also preventing companies from buying back their stock in record amounts...

Below, courtesy of Bloomberg, are selected anecdotes from the latest Beige Book:

  • Boston: The labor shortage for restaurant workers continued to be very troublesome, particularly on the Cape: contacts cited not enough U.S. workers and not enough visas for seasonal foreign workers
  • New York: Home sales activity dropped off sharply in New York City, especially in Manhattan. Selling prices have remained mostly flat, though one real estate expert interpreted the drop-off in sales as suggesting a decline in underlying values and partly attributes this to the new federal tax law
  • Philadelphia: One analyst noted that there was a slowdown in travelers from China and that U.S. households have been funding travel from savings -- a trend deemed unsustainable
  • Cleveland: There was some concern that the impact of tariffs would soon filter through the supply chain in the form of higher prices of new transportation equipment, including trucks and trailers
  • Richmond: A Maryland can manufacturer feared price increases would lead to permanent business losses as customers would look for alternative forms of packaging
  • Atlanta: Many contacts expressed concerns that uncertainty over increasing materials prices was making bidding and fulfilling projects more challenging
  • Chicago: Overall crop yields in the district appeared set to forge a new record as the result of widespread good weather
  • St. Louis: Multiple manufacturers reported facing elevated input prices linked to steel and aluminum tariffs as well as increased freight costs
  • Minneapolis: A western Wisconsin contact said increasing entry-level wages from $11 to $13 "hasn’t had much of an impact in recruiting, but moving to over $15 has"
  • Kansas City: District contacts reported a decrease in farm income in addition to stronger demand for farm loans
  • Dallas: A transportation services firm was offering up to $15,000 in multi-year sign-on bonuses in some areas
  • San Francisco: In Oregon, leasing demand for retail and warehouse spaces picked up further, due in part to the growing cannabis industry

Needless to say, as long as employers continue to complain about lack of skilled workers instead of materially hiking wages, the status quo in which the Fed will remain confused by the "mysterious" lack of inflation, will continue.