- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 14, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — The economic recovery is spreading to most parts of the country. Merchants are seeing better sales and factories are boosting production, but many companies are still wary of ramping up hiring, the Federal Reserve reported Wednesday.

The Fed’s new survey is consistent with Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s view that a modest recovery is unfolding, although it won’t be strong enough to quickly drive down unemployment, now at 9.7 percent.

All of the Fed’s 12 regions except for St. Louis said “economic activity increased somewhat.” That was an improvement from the last Fed survey, released in early March, in which nine regions reported modest economic advances. Snowstorms crimped activity along the East Coast during the survey period.

In the new survey, the St. Louis region said economic conditions had “softened.” That finding was a downgrade from the previous report when the region reported mixed economic conditions.

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The Fed report, known as the Beige Book, will figure prominently when Mr. Bernanke and his colleagues meet April 27-28 to decide the future course of interest rate policy. Economists predict the Fed will continue to hold rates at record lows to nurture the recovery. It has kept rates at superlow levels since December 2008.

The new survey suggested that consumers, whose spending accounts for 70 percent of national economic activity, are doing their part to keep the recovery going. Retailers in most parts of the country reported sales increases, and merchants were “cautiously optimistic regarding future sales,” the report said. Car sales were up in many places, as well as tourism spending.

Factories saw improvements, too. Orders, shipments and production were up in all parts of the country — except for St. Louis. Many areas reported positive results in metals and fabrication. Makers of autos and auto parts also saw improvements. Production rose for electronic equipment, computers and high-tech goods.

Trouble spots for the economy remain. The housing market is still fragile, and commercial real-estate activity stayed “very weak” in most parts of the country, the Fed said.

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