WASHINGTON -- The economy expanded at a slow to moderate pace over the past two months in most areas of the country, but overall hiring was weak, according to a Federal Reserve survey released Wednesday.
Modest improvement in all but one of the Fed's 12 banking districts suggests the economy is growing but barely enough to keep the unemployment rate from rising. And the debt crisis in Europe could slow such growth, especially if that region falls into a recession.
Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, said the Fed's survey depicted an economy that "continued to muddle along, far from a robust pace."
THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Buy This Photo
Stronger consumer spending, tourism, and manufacturing drove the growth. The one exception was the St. Louis district, where conditions declined. Still, hiring was weak in most areas. And businesses in six of the Fed regions said they had a hard time finding qualified workers for those jobs that were open, particularly for high-skilled manufacturing and tech positions.
The Fed's Cleveland region, which includes Ohio, Kentucky, and parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, reported that business activity expanded at a modest pace, retail sales picked up slightly, and auto dealers reported good sales for new and used vehicles.
Roughly 14 million people were unemployed in October. The government is to report Friday on November unemployment and job growth.
The Fed survey, known as the Beige Book for the color of its cover, covered the period from Oct. 8 through mid-November. The Fed's last survey said most areas reported slight improvement in September and early October. But several regions said businesses had grown more cautious and were holding back on spending.
The economy grew at an annual rate of 2 percent over the summer after nearly stalling in the first six months of the year. Recent data suggest slightly better growth in the final three months of the year.
Retailers reported strong sales over the Thanksgiving weekend, consumer confidence surged in November to the highest since July, and Americans' pay rose in October by the most in seven months. Those all point to a strong holiday shopping period and slow but steady growth in 2012.
In its survey, the Fed said manufacturing was growing steadily. Every district except St. Louis reported increases in orders, shipments, or production, helped in many cases by stronger auto production.
Seven districts reported gains in retail sales.
Tourism growth was solid in many districts. Boston, New York, Richmond, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and San Francisco all reported strength in hotel bookings.