Fed says Md. economy is growing -- slowly 'Uneven' conditions found nationwide


NEW YORK -- Euphoria is a long way off, but a survey of conditions in Maryland released yesterday by the regional Federal Reserve Bank had a reassuring undercurrent of continued -- albeit slow -- growth and optimism.

The survey was part of a broader "beige book" compilation of regional conditions, reported by each of the 12 regional banks to assist the Open Market Committee of the Federal Reserve Board in determining monetary policy.

Nationwide conditions have been "uneven,"according to the Fed report, with manufacturing, retail sales and loan demand differing significantly by region.

Maryland is part of the five-state 5th District, stretching to South Carolina and inland to West Virginia. It is an unusually diverse area, but in the current survey, though some differences were apparent, stability and modest improvement were widespread.

"The 5th District tone has been consistently upbeat," said Robert Graboyes, economist at the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond, Va., headquarters for the district. "It didn't change much last time, and it changed even less this time. Usually, somewhere in the survey you see some significant movement, but that just hasn't been the case. It's still growing. A lot of people wish it were growing faster, but there is little indication of any additional dip."

Manufacturing improved in most areas of the country, including the 5th District and Maryland. None of the Maryland manufacturers polled separately as part of a Fed survey said they thought their own business would decline in the coming six months.

Although that is a good sign, they were not entirely sanguine. The overall health of the national and regional economies had weakened in recent weeks, they said. And, although new orders continue to grow, the manufacturers said they expected their own work forces to decline.

A special question asked in the 5th District revealed how tentative confidence is. Asked whether the economic recovery was sustainable, the most popular answer among Maryland companies, chosen by nearly half of the 15 surveyed, was "not sure." About 40 percent were optimistic about a sustainable recovery, and 13 percent were not.

"Its optimism with caveats," Mr. Graboyes said.

The rest of the district was more optimistic. Fifty-five percent said the recovery was sustainable, 16 percent said it was not, and 29 percent were unsure.

Maryland and the rest of the district diverged on exports, which are looked to by many as a primary engine of expansion.

Export activity increased at all of the three primary ports in the district -- Baltimore, Charleston, S.C., and Hampton Roads, Va. -- but in the past month, Baltimore was the only one where export activity was expected to decrease during the six months ahead.

District retailers said business was stable and that they expected it to get better.

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