Md. economy picking up, Fed says Noticeable improvement reported for entire region.


Maryland's economy "picked up steam" in the past several weeks, as indicators ranging from retail sales to spring planting by farmers showed improvement, the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond reported yesterday.

The new assessment was slightly more optimistic than the "some improvement" the Fed used in January to describe the economy in the mid-Atlantic region, and markedly better than the term used two months before that: "sluggish."

The Richmond bank, in a separate report on manufacturing, concluded that business activity and the optimism of Maryland manufacturers increased in late March and early April, with 72 percent of companies surveyed predicting increased business activity in six months.

The new survey of general economic conditions came in the Fed's bimonthly "beige book," named for the color of its jacket, which is published before the Federal Reserve Board's Open Market Committee meetings, where monetary policy is set. The next meeting will be held May 19.

The Fed last cut interest rates April 9, when it lowered its target for the federal funds rate, the amount banks charge each other on overnight loans, to 3.75 percent from 4 percent.

Most of the Fed's 11 other regional banks mirrored the Richmond bank's view.

The March survey was more cautious, noting "modestly more optimistic" business sentiment. The survey before that, in early January, depicted a stagnant economy.

The Richmond bank cited more retail activity, including sales of big-ticket items such as refrigerators and cars; higher production and new orders among manufacturers; stronger home sales and higher prices; and more loan demand among financial institutions.

But some economists were unconvinced a full-bore recovery was under way without sustained growth in employment.

"Those are good signs," MNC Financial Inc.'s chief economist, William Treacy, said of the Richmond Fed's report. "But the underlying forces behind the recovery still appear to be uneven."

"We won't start to see a real sense of recovery until employment numbers start to rise," he said, noting that as late as February there was still no improvement in Maryland's unemployment rate of 7.5 percent. The state could issue the March numbers as early as tomorrow.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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