Economy Watch: Beige Book Reports Residential Market Positives; Job Openings Up Since Last Year; S&P Downgrades Spain

The Beige Book reported that national economic activity has expanded modestly since the last report. Job openings remain unchanged since last month, but have spiked since last year. Standard & Poor's has lowered the rating on Spanish sovereign debt--again.

The latest “Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions by Federal Reserve District,” more conveniently known as the Beige Book, was released on Wednesday and said that U.S. economic activity “expanded modestly since the last report.” The terms “modest” and “flat” and sometimes “slowing” peppered the report’s characterization of the economy. Consumer spending, for example, “was mixed but generally reported to be flat to up slightly over the latest reporting period.”

Still, the Beige Book had some heartening words for real estate, especially for the residential market. “Residential real estate conditions improved since the last report,” it noted. “Most Districts reported strengthening in existing home sales, while prices were described as steady to increasing, with declining inventories noted in the Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts.” Multi-family construction, in particular, was described as robust in a number of districts, and residential rental markets continued to be strong, even in the New York and Atlanta Districts, where rents increased somewhat less strongly this time around than in recent months.

Commercial real estate, on the other hand, was “mixed.” Some office markets — especially in the Northeast — showed signs of softening, while other districts were more mixed or even stable. “Industrial markets showed some strength in the New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Atlanta Districts, while softer conditions were noted in Richmond,” the report noted.

Job Openings Up Since Last Year, Unchanged Since Last Month

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Wednesday in its “Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary” (JOLTS) that the number of U.S. job openings in August was 3.6 million, essentially unchanged from July. The number of openings was little changed in all industries except accommodation and food services, where the number decreased.

The number of job openings in August 2012 increased year-over-year for total jobs and total private-sector jobs, but was little changed for the public sector. Job openings increased since August 2011 for nondurable goods manufacturing, wholesale trade, finance and insurance, and federal government, with the latter balanced out by decreasing job openings at other levels of government.

In August, what JOLTS calls the “quits rate” was unchanged for total jobs, total private-sector jobs, and government jobs. Quits are generally voluntary separations initiated by the employee, which means that the quits rate can serve as a measure of workers’ willingness or ability to leave jobs, and thus a measure of the jobs market. An unchanging quits rate translates, not surprisingly, to a so-so jobs market.

S&P Downgrades Spain, Again

Standard & Poor’s lowered the rating on Spanish sovereign debt to BBB minus, with a negative outlook, on Wednesday. That isn’t quite junk status, but it is in the neighborhood. In fact, BBB minus is junk’s next-door neighbor, as low as an S&P rating can go without jumping the fence and becoming junk. It was the third time this year that the rating agency dropped Spain’s rating.

Wall Street had another down day on Wednesday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average off by 128.56 points, or 0.95 percent. The S&P 500 was down 0.62 percent and the Nasdaq lost 0.43 percent.