The pace of economic activity has slowed or held steady in parts of the country, revealing a choppy path back to health.
A new survey released by the Federal Reserve Wednesday found the U.S. economy growing this summer, even as risks mount.
Of the 12 regions tracked by the Fed, the survey said that growth held steady in Cleveland and Kansas City, but slowed in Atlanta and Chicago. Economic activity elsewhere was described as modest.
High unemployment, cautious consumers and businesses, an ailing housing market and an edgy Wall Street have kept the recovery from gaining strength.
Manufacturing expanded in most regions. However, half of them — New York, Cleveland, Kansas City, Chicago, Atlanta and Richmond — reported that activity had "slowed" or "leveled off." Steel production declined in both Chicago and Cleveland.
Retailers reported sales gains, although merchants in some places said shoppers focused on buying "necessities." Sales of big-ticket goods were slower. In fact, reports across most regions found that auto sales had declined.
The housing market turned more sluggish after homebuyer tax credits expired in April. Commercial real estate businesses continued to "struggle" across all 12 regions, the survey said.
Jennifer Lee, economist at BMO Capital Markets, said "it was a relief" that the Fed's survey didn't point to a "re-emergence of another recession" given the adverse conditions. "Activity is picking up but unfortunately the pace remains sluggish," she said. "Still no solid evidence that a `double dip' is going to happen."
The findings will figure into deliberations when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues meet next on Aug. 10. The Fed has signaled that it will hold rates at record lows at that time and probably well into next year to help energize the recovery.
And Bernanke told Congress last week that the Fed is prepared to take new steps to stimulate economic growth if the recovery were to flash signs of sliding back into recession. At the same time, Bernanke downplayed the odds that the economy would slide back into a "double dip" recession.
The survey also found that prices of many goods and services held steady in most regions, more evidence that inflation isn't a problem because the economy is still weak. Companies are hesitant to jack up prices when shoppers are so cautious, and employers aren't handing out hefty pay raises, either.
Some improvements were reported in employment conditions. However, companies are still relying heavily on temporary workers, rather than hiring full-time employees.
The Fed's region-by-region survey, traditionally known as the Beige Book, provides a unique snapshot of the nation.
The central bank's 12 regional arms have their people fan out to gather information from businesses and talk to local economists and experts on the markets. The result is a more intimate look at the overall economy than broad statistics provide.
The Fed survey is based on information collected from the Fed's 12 regional banks on or before July 19. The picture painted by the survey is consistent with the assessment Bernanke gave Congress last week.
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