The economy's sharp downhill slide eased in the late spring and hopes for future business activity improved, suggesting that the worst of the recession has passed.
A Federal Reserve snapshot of economic conditions issued Wednesday found that five of the Fed's 12 regions said that the "downward trend is showing signs of moderating."
In addition, "several" regions said that their expectations of future business activity have improved, although they don't see a "substantial increase" through the end of the year, according to the Fed report. In the last survey, several regions simply noted signs of some stability at low levels.
Altogether, the assessments of businesses on the front lines of the economy appeared to be slightly better than those they provided in the previous report issued in mid-April.
Known as the the Beige Book, the Fed survey is consistent with observations made by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and other central bank officials that the recession, which started in December 2007 and is now the longest since World War II, is loosening its strong hold on the economy.
Many analysts predict the economy is sinking at a pace of between 1% to 3% in the current quarter. If they are right, that would mark a big moderation from the steep declines seen since last fall.
The economy shrank at a pace of 6.3% in the final quarter of last year, the most in a quarter-century, then by 5.7% in the first three months of this year. It marked the worst six month performance in 50 years.
The survey's findings will figure into discussions when Bernanke and his colleagues meet next on June 23-24.
Economists have mixed opinions on whether the Fed will take additional action to bolser the economy at that time. Some believe the Fed will move to increase its purchases of government bonds in a bid to drive down rates on mortgages and other consumer debt. The goal: spur Americans to buy more, which would aid the economy.
Manufacturing activity declined or stayed at low levels across most Fed regions, the report said.
In an encouraging note, the Richmond region reported a rise in both new orders placed with factories and shipments.
Consumer spending, the lifeblood of the economy, "remained soft" as shoppers focused on buying "less expensive necessities." Reports from New York, Minneapolis and Dallas indicated a modest rise in retail sales, while the Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, Kansas City and San Francisco regions said sales were "flat or mixed." The other regions experienced declining sales.
New car sales stayed "depressed" across most Fed regions.
Travel and tourism activity dropped as vacationers spent less.
On the housing front, the residential market remains weak, but there were some positive signs. Real-estate agents in eight of the 12 regions — New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas and San Francisco — reported an "uptick in home sales."
Weakness in the jobs market persisted nationwide, with wages generally flat or falling, the Fed said.
The nation's unemployment rate jumped to 9.4% in May, even as job losses slowed considerably, the government reported last week.