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The Atlanta Fed's SouthPoint offers commentary and observations on various aspects of the region's economy.

The blog's authors include staff from the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network and Public Affairs Department.

Postings are weekly.


August 20, 2015

It's Mostly Sunny in Florida

20130910-0498-jacksonville
Jacksonville, Florida. Photo by Kendrick Disch

In a February SouthPoint post about economic conditions in north and central Florida, we reported that our contacts' optimism in late 2014 had carried into the new year. Since then, the Regional Economic Information Network team at the Jacksonville Branch has noted an overall improvement in activity and continued positive sentiment.

General business conditions continue firming
Feedback throughout the winter months was quite upbeat. Most contacts felt that an improving economy and labor market were driving growth. In early spring, although feedback remained positive, the messages became more mixed, with some contacts indicating a plateau in growth—most notably, transportation and retail contacts cited challenges from severe weather in various markets. However, bankers noted reasonable momentum with consumers and businesses; real estate contacts saw robust activity with increasing sales and prices at all price points; and homebuilders and commercial construction firms noted much stronger levels of activity. Tourism remained vibrant. Though the consumer inched along, restaurants reported revenue increases that they believe were the result of lower gas prices influencing discretionary spending. As spring progressed, activity continued along an upward, albeit slow, trajectory.

By midsummer, a small number of contacts reported demand was flat, and transportation contacts reported that activity—especially related to the movement of energy-related materials—declined notably since the first quarter. However, a majority of other contacts noted improved activity. Some began to add to capacity to meet increased demand—and, more importantly, anticipated future demand.

Employment largely stable
Throughout the first part of 2015, contacts continued to indicate no major problems in filling jobs outside of information technology (IT), accounting, compliance, and truck drivers. Staffing levels across firms generally remained steady, with some adding to headcount. Those hesitant to add staff turned to contingent labor (such as contract staff or temps) to meet demand. In late spring, we began to hear about increased turnover at many levels, and recruiting and retention appeared to be getting tougher. In central Florida, tourism contacts cited concerns of potential worker shortages as a result of a very low regional unemployment rate and increased construction attracting available labor.

Labor, nonlabor costs and price pressure surfacing
By March, mentions of mounting wage pressures at all job levels surfaced. Though not universally reported, numerous contacts said they were beginning to increase starting salaries, which they noted will eventually ripple through higher levels of staff to maintain internal pay equity and retain talent. Wages increased for engineers, truckers and technicians, and IT specialists. Into the summer, stories of referral and signing bonuses, customized perks, and other benefits enhancements for both recruitment and retention became more common.

Feedback on health care costs continued to be mixed. Health care costs for most increased at a pace greater than overall inflation, though companies continued to try to minimize the increases by changing plan designs or by sharing more of the cost with employees.

Overall, concerns about nonlabor costs were muted. Some mentioned lower energy and fuel costs have offset increases in other input costs.

The ability to raise prices varied among industries. However, a number of contacts indicated pricing power had improved, though the magnitude of price increases was limited. Generally, though, margins were edging up.

Credit, investment remain available
Throughout the first half of the year, credit was readily available and banking contacts reported increased activity. Many companies, especially small businesses, continued to deleverage even in the low interest rate environment, and many larger firms reported funding investments internally. Lenders reported increases in mortgage refinances as rates dipped, and they noted improved home equity levels. Auto lending was described as extremely strong.

Almost without exception, retail contacts noted expansion activity and further growth plans, all the result of expectations for stronger consumer spending. Real estate agents indicated that appraisal issues improved, and buyers, even the self-employed, generally faced little trouble financing home purchases. Stories regarding business investment were mixed between outlays for deferred projects and spending for new demand. This year, it's become clear that there is less hesitation about investment.

Business outlook mostly bright
Though we heard a couple of references to a cloudier outlook during the next two to three years as we approach another presidential election, collectively—and as recently as July—most REIN contacts and board members were as positive about current activity and future expectations as we have seen since the recession.

What's is in store for Florida in the second half of the year? Stay tuned.

By Chris Oakley, regional executive, and Sarah Arteaga, REIN director, both of the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

May 14, 2015

Middle Tennessee Consumer Confidence on the Rise

Last week, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's research director Dave Altig wrote a macroblog post that emphasized the importance of consumer spending as the economy tries to rebound from a disappointing first quarter. Incoming data indicate that consumers haven't been willing to open up their wallets as much as expected considering recent economic conditions. The underlying fundamentals that influence consumer spending would suggest a higher level of consumption than the economy is currently experiencing. In a recent speech, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart pointed out these fundamentals, which included real personal income growth, household wealth, access to credit, and consumer confidence. According to the Middle Tennessee Consumer Outlook Index, released on May 1, Middle Tennessee has the confidence fundamental covered.

The Middle Tennessee Consumer Confidence survey is conducted by the Office of Consumer Research at Middle Tennessee State University, headed by Professor Timothy Graeff. Students in Graeff's marketing research course conduct the survey by phone. The 11-question survey asks questions related to economic conditions in the United States as well as Middle Tennessee.

The overall index rose to its highest level since June of 2004 (see the chart).

Chart-1

Participants felt particularly more optimistic about the local economy than the national economy. A solid 65 percent of survey participants indicated that business conditions in Middle Tennessee were good, but only 27 percent felt that conditions were good for the nation.

Looking forward, the future expectations index also rose since the last survey, suggesting that people are more optimistic about the economy over the near term. When asked what conditions for Middle Tennessee would be like in six months, 44 percent indicated things would be better, and 50 percent felt things would be about the same. The national numbers were less optimistic than the local but still represented an improvement over the last survey, with 26 percent indicating conditions would improve and 57 percent stating conditions would stay about the same.

The national consumer confidence indexes have trended up overall since the depths of the recession but still have not reached levels seen in the mid-2000s (see the chart).

Consumer-confidence

Still, as Dave Altig pointed out in his macroblog post and President Lockhart in his speech, the fundamentals suggest that consumer spending will pick up in the not-too-distant future. Our confidence may be slightly guarded, but we are optimistic. Just like Middle Tennessee.

By Troy Balthrop, a senior Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch

March 3, 2015

Tiny Bubbles in Alabama

Do you like to blow bubbles when you're chewing gum? I do. I recently discovered that bubbles are not just fun to blow when you're chewing gum—they can also be a fun and interesting way to visualize data. Yes, I said data. At the Atlanta Fed, we often use bubble charts to track and analyze certain data series. It is particularly helpful when we compare two bubble charts with the same information from different points in time.

In the charts below, which focus on Alabama, each bubble provides a static representation of a given value while also providing comparative information to other industries. The bubble size in these charts illustrates the most recent three-month average of jobs in that industry. The y (vertical) axis shows the three-month average annualized (or short term) job growth, and the x (horizontal) axis shows year-over-year (or long-term) job growth.

The chart is divided into four quadrants. A bubble in the upper-right quadrant (expanding) indicates positive movement in employment (both short- and long-term measures are positive), whereas the lower-left quadrant (contracting) indicates both measures are negative. The upper-left quadrant (improving) indicates the three-month measure is positive, but we're not seeing positive movement year over year. Lastly, the lower-right quadrant (slipping) is positive year over year, but the three-month measure is negative.

As you can see in the first chart, Alabama's leisure and hospitality employment in December 2013 was in the expanding quadrant. We interpret that as this sector has been making gains over the short and long run. This gain stands in contrast to the information sector, which contracted during both the short and long term, putting it firmly in the bottom-left quadrant.

alabama-momentum

Now, let's take a look at how some of Alabama's industries are doing. In December 2014, the leisure and hospitality sector was still expanding (gaining 8,800 jobs). According to the University of Alabama's Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER), the increase in leisure and hospitality is the result of staffing in food services and drinking places (restaurants, for example). CBER's Ahmad Ijaz said, "Restaurants are adding jobs all across the country."

The construction sector is in an even better position, moving from a contraction in December 2013 to expansion a year later. The Birmingham Business Journal, in an article from January 2015, said "Alabama is ranked eighth among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in construction jobs added." Likewise, the Alabama Department of Labor reported that Alabama "employment in the construction sector is at its highest point since November 2010."

Finally, a look at the manufacturing industry in Alabama also showed notable improvements. In 2013, it seemed like manufacturing employment was easing into the "slipping" quadrant, indicating a short-run slowdown. But 2014 saw it move firmly into the expanding quadrant. CBER's Ijaz tells us that this is the result of the automotive industry adding jobs from October 2013 to October 2014. He said that Alabama is one of the few states adding jobs in this sector. In September 2014, AL.com reported that Alabama's auto industry was projected to grow 2 percent in 2014 while the rest of the U.S. auto industry would contract about 4 percent.

alabama-momentum-2

So now that we've scrutinized past data, what are Alabama's employment projections for 2015? According to CBER's latest forecast, Alabama is expected to see stronger growth in employment in 2015 overall. I look forward to comparing bubble charts later in the year. In the meantime, I think I'll grab a piece (or two) of gum.

By Susan Remy, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst at the Birmingham Branch of the Atlanta Fed

February 27, 2015

Through the Eyes of a Big Fan

When Janet Yellen was named chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in February 2014, she became the fourth chair in my 30-year career here at the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch. While I vaguely remember Chairman Paul Volcker once visiting the branch, I was so new to the Bank and pretty naïve as to what the Fed actually did that I don't think I paid much attention back then. Soon after was Chairman Alan Greenspan, a brilliant man who spoke of economic conditions in a manner admittedly a bit hard for me to understand, especially since my Fed career began in an area not focused primarily on studying the economy. Then along came Chairman Ben Bernanke! Finally, someone who spoke in terms that even I could grasp. Couple his arrival with the creation of the Regional Economic Information Network and my foray into the world of economics (and the need for me to pay closer attention), I became an instant fan! I watched with great interest as Chairman Bernanke and the Federal Open Market Committee dusted off many lesser-known tools (as well as unveiling some brand-new tools) in the Fed's toolbox to help stimulate the economy during and after the Great Recession.

So, imagine my thrill at finding out that Chairman Bernanke was going to be a keynote speaker at this year's National Retail Federation's (NRF) annual conference that I had the great fortune to attend! I was like, whoop whoop! (I know, I'm just a big fan at heart!)

The morning of his appearance, I got up at zero-dark-thirty and was the first in line to enter the massive convention hall where he was scheduled to speak. I made a bee-line to the front and scoped out the best seat in the house. And I waited with anxious anticipation. I was like a teenage girl at her first rock concert when he took the stage. I listened intently as he and the president of Saks Fifth Avenue, who is serving as this year's NRF chairman, discussed the fallout from the global economic crisis and current prospects for the U.S. economy and the retail industry. It was amazing to listen to Bernanke speak in a much more casual manner (since now his comments do not necessarily move markets) about the events of the crisis and the actions taken by the Fed. (Remember, he is a scholar of the Great Depression of the 20th century and understood how the Fed could work to avoid the mistakes of the past.)

In addition to Chairman Bernanke sharing insights about the crisis with the audience, he commented on the transparency of the Federal Reserve System by saying, "In the middle of a crisis explaining where, why, and how we do what we do is as important as taking actions." When asked about the current state of the economy, Bernanke indicated that the U.S. economy is enjoying a genuine recovery. However, he has some concern regarding the European Union, noting that the situation should be watched carefully.

He was then asked what he missed most about being Fed chairman. He said that when he was chairman, he was driven everywhere by his security detail, so little things like traffic and finding parking spaces were never a concern. What he misses most, he said, "is not having to find my own parking spaces." He paused briefly and added, "That's all I miss."

How was I lucky enough to see Chairman Bernanke in person? As I mentioned, this was the NRF's annual conference, and one of my responsibilities as an analyst is to follow the retail sector and consumer behavior. So aside from my thrilling moment as a fan, what other insights did I glean at the conference? Well, when I attended the same conference two years ago, the underlying tone among participants was, "How do we get the consumer back to spending?" This year, the participants were upbeat and the focus seemed to be "We've got the consumer back, but how do we keep them back?" One answer was to create an engaging and exciting shopping experience.

Retailers must have been successful because revolving credit is up and consumer confidence is high. Let's take a look at our consumers and their behavior during the 2014 holiday shopping season.

Consumer credit outstanding rose $14.8 billion in December from $13.5 billion in November (see the chart). Nonrevolving credit, which is made up mostly of auto and student loans, rose $9.0 billion. However, the more noteworthy movement is that revolving credit rose a significant $5.8 billion in December from November's decline of $0.9 billion. In my opinion, this increase indicated the consumer was willing to take on debt previously avoided. Revolving credit, composed primarily of credit card loans, showed its strongest growth in eight months (the chart compares month-over-month data).

Change-in-consumer-credit

The Conference Board's survey on current conditions rose significantly to a seven-year high of 112.6 points in January from December's reading of 99.9. The University of Michigan's index rose to 109.3 points in January from 104.8 in December. The Conference Board's current conditions survey is based on the survey participants' view of current economic conditions as it relates to businesses and jobs, while the University of Michigan's survey is based on the individuals' sentiment as it relates to their personal households (see the chart).

Consumer-confidence-indices

The Conference Board's measure of expectations rose moderately to 96.4 points in January from 88.5 in December. The University of Michigan's index rose to 91.0 points in January from December's reading of 86.4. The expectations surveys by both entities are based on the same views of the survey participants as the current conditions surveys. However, the forward-looking expectations time frame differs. The Conference Board is looking six months out, and the University of Michigan is looking one to five years out (see the chart).

Consumer-confidence-indices-measuring-expectations

It appears, for now, that the consumer is increasingly upbeat, which is vital to the strength of the economy. Several District retail contacts recently reported double-digit growth and record-setting volume in 2014. Casual dining establishments saw an uptick in volume as consumers seem to be trading up from fast-food options.

Although total retail sales fell 0.8 percent in January from 0.9 percent in December, core retail sales—those excluding auto, gas, and building materials—rose 0.2 percent in January from December's decline to 0.1 percent, month over month. Retail sales maintained the same pace of growth for December and January rising 3.3 percent year over year (see the chart).

Retail-sale

Overall, the consumption sector looks reasonably vibrant. And as one of my industry contacts said, "Every day gets better." It appears that Chairman Bernanke isn't the only one enjoying his current situation.

Photo of Christine VietsBy Christine Viets, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Jacksonville Branch of the Atlanta Fed

August 20, 2015

It's Mostly Sunny in Florida

20130910-0498-jacksonville
Jacksonville, Florida. Photo by Kendrick Disch

In a February SouthPoint post about economic conditions in north and central Florida, we reported that our contacts' optimism in late 2014 had carried into the new year. Since then, the Regional Economic Information Network team at the Jacksonville Branch has noted an overall improvement in activity and continued positive sentiment.

General business conditions continue firming
Feedback throughout the winter months was quite upbeat. Most contacts felt that an improving economy and labor market were driving growth. In early spring, although feedback remained positive, the messages became more mixed, with some contacts indicating a plateau in growth—most notably, transportation and retail contacts cited challenges from severe weather in various markets. However, bankers noted reasonable momentum with consumers and businesses; real estate contacts saw robust activity with increasing sales and prices at all price points; and homebuilders and commercial construction firms noted much stronger levels of activity. Tourism remained vibrant. Though the consumer inched along, restaurants reported revenue increases that they believe were the result of lower gas prices influencing discretionary spending. As spring progressed, activity continued along an upward, albeit slow, trajectory.

By midsummer, a small number of contacts reported demand was flat, and transportation contacts reported that activity—especially related to the movement of energy-related materials—declined notably since the first quarter. However, a majority of other contacts noted improved activity. Some began to add to capacity to meet increased demand—and, more importantly, anticipated future demand.

Employment largely stable
Throughout the first part of 2015, contacts continued to indicate no major problems in filling jobs outside of information technology (IT), accounting, compliance, and truck drivers. Staffing levels across firms generally remained steady, with some adding to headcount. Those hesitant to add staff turned to contingent labor (such as contract staff or temps) to meet demand. In late spring, we began to hear about increased turnover at many levels, and recruiting and retention appeared to be getting tougher. In central Florida, tourism contacts cited concerns of potential worker shortages as a result of a very low regional unemployment rate and increased construction attracting available labor.

Labor, nonlabor costs and price pressure surfacing
By March, mentions of mounting wage pressures at all job levels surfaced. Though not universally reported, numerous contacts said they were beginning to increase starting salaries, which they noted will eventually ripple through higher levels of staff to maintain internal pay equity and retain talent. Wages increased for engineers, truckers and technicians, and IT specialists. Into the summer, stories of referral and signing bonuses, customized perks, and other benefits enhancements for both recruitment and retention became more common.

Feedback on health care costs continued to be mixed. Health care costs for most increased at a pace greater than overall inflation, though companies continued to try to minimize the increases by changing plan designs or by sharing more of the cost with employees.

Overall, concerns about nonlabor costs were muted. Some mentioned lower energy and fuel costs have offset increases in other input costs.

The ability to raise prices varied among industries. However, a number of contacts indicated pricing power had improved, though the magnitude of price increases was limited. Generally, though, margins were edging up.

Credit, investment remain available
Throughout the first half of the year, credit was readily available and banking contacts reported increased activity. Many companies, especially small businesses, continued to deleverage even in the low interest rate environment, and many larger firms reported funding investments internally. Lenders reported increases in mortgage refinances as rates dipped, and they noted improved home equity levels. Auto lending was described as extremely strong.

Almost without exception, retail contacts noted expansion activity and further growth plans, all the result of expectations for stronger consumer spending. Real estate agents indicated that appraisal issues improved, and buyers, even the self-employed, generally faced little trouble financing home purchases. Stories regarding business investment were mixed between outlays for deferred projects and spending for new demand. This year, it's become clear that there is less hesitation about investment.

Business outlook mostly bright
Though we heard a couple of references to a cloudier outlook during the next two to three years as we approach another presidential election, collectively—and as recently as July—most REIN contacts and board members were as positive about current activity and future expectations as we have seen since the recession.

What's is in store for Florida in the second half of the year? Stay tuned.

By Chris Oakley, regional executive, and Sarah Arteaga, REIN director, both of the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

May 14, 2015

Middle Tennessee Consumer Confidence on the Rise

Last week, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's research director Dave Altig wrote a macroblog post that emphasized the importance of consumer spending as the economy tries to rebound from a disappointing first quarter. Incoming data indicate that consumers haven't been willing to open up their wallets as much as expected considering recent economic conditions. The underlying fundamentals that influence consumer spending would suggest a higher level of consumption than the economy is currently experiencing. In a recent speech, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart pointed out these fundamentals, which included real personal income growth, household wealth, access to credit, and consumer confidence. According to the Middle Tennessee Consumer Outlook Index, released on May 1, Middle Tennessee has the confidence fundamental covered.

The Middle Tennessee Consumer Confidence survey is conducted by the Office of Consumer Research at Middle Tennessee State University, headed by Professor Timothy Graeff. Students in Graeff's marketing research course conduct the survey by phone. The 11-question survey asks questions related to economic conditions in the United States as well as Middle Tennessee.

The overall index rose to its highest level since June of 2004 (see the chart).

Chart-1

Participants felt particularly more optimistic about the local economy than the national economy. A solid 65 percent of survey participants indicated that business conditions in Middle Tennessee were good, but only 27 percent felt that conditions were good for the nation.

Looking forward, the future expectations index also rose since the last survey, suggesting that people are more optimistic about the economy over the near term. When asked what conditions for Middle Tennessee would be like in six months, 44 percent indicated things would be better, and 50 percent felt things would be about the same. The national numbers were less optimistic than the local but still represented an improvement over the last survey, with 26 percent indicating conditions would improve and 57 percent stating conditions would stay about the same.

The national consumer confidence indexes have trended up overall since the depths of the recession but still have not reached levels seen in the mid-2000s (see the chart).

Consumer-confidence

Still, as Dave Altig pointed out in his macroblog post and President Lockhart in his speech, the fundamentals suggest that consumer spending will pick up in the not-too-distant future. Our confidence may be slightly guarded, but we are optimistic. Just like Middle Tennessee.

By Troy Balthrop, a senior Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch

March 3, 2015

Tiny Bubbles in Alabama

Do you like to blow bubbles when you're chewing gum? I do. I recently discovered that bubbles are not just fun to blow when you're chewing gum—they can also be a fun and interesting way to visualize data. Yes, I said data. At the Atlanta Fed, we often use bubble charts to track and analyze certain data series. It is particularly helpful when we compare two bubble charts with the same information from different points in time.

In the charts below, which focus on Alabama, each bubble provides a static representation of a given value while also providing comparative information to other industries. The bubble size in these charts illustrates the most recent three-month average of jobs in that industry. The y (vertical) axis shows the three-month average annualized (or short term) job growth, and the x (horizontal) axis shows year-over-year (or long-term) job growth.

The chart is divided into four quadrants. A bubble in the upper-right quadrant (expanding) indicates positive movement in employment (both short- and long-term measures are positive), whereas the lower-left quadrant (contracting) indicates both measures are negative. The upper-left quadrant (improving) indicates the three-month measure is positive, but we're not seeing positive movement year over year. Lastly, the lower-right quadrant (slipping) is positive year over year, but the three-month measure is negative.

As you can see in the first chart, Alabama's leisure and hospitality employment in December 2013 was in the expanding quadrant. We interpret that as this sector has been making gains over the short and long run. This gain stands in contrast to the information sector, which contracted during both the short and long term, putting it firmly in the bottom-left quadrant.

alabama-momentum

Now, let's take a look at how some of Alabama's industries are doing. In December 2014, the leisure and hospitality sector was still expanding (gaining 8,800 jobs). According to the University of Alabama's Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER), the increase in leisure and hospitality is the result of staffing in food services and drinking places (restaurants, for example). CBER's Ahmad Ijaz said, "Restaurants are adding jobs all across the country."

The construction sector is in an even better position, moving from a contraction in December 2013 to expansion a year later. The Birmingham Business Journal, in an article from January 2015, said "Alabama is ranked eighth among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in construction jobs added." Likewise, the Alabama Department of Labor reported that Alabama "employment in the construction sector is at its highest point since November 2010."

Finally, a look at the manufacturing industry in Alabama also showed notable improvements. In 2013, it seemed like manufacturing employment was easing into the "slipping" quadrant, indicating a short-run slowdown. But 2014 saw it move firmly into the expanding quadrant. CBER's Ijaz tells us that this is the result of the automotive industry adding jobs from October 2013 to October 2014. He said that Alabama is one of the few states adding jobs in this sector. In September 2014, AL.com reported that Alabama's auto industry was projected to grow 2 percent in 2014 while the rest of the U.S. auto industry would contract about 4 percent.

alabama-momentum-2

So now that we've scrutinized past data, what are Alabama's employment projections for 2015? According to CBER's latest forecast, Alabama is expected to see stronger growth in employment in 2015 overall. I look forward to comparing bubble charts later in the year. In the meantime, I think I'll grab a piece (or two) of gum.

By Susan Remy, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst at the Birmingham Branch of the Atlanta Fed

February 27, 2015

Through the Eyes of a Big Fan

When Janet Yellen was named chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in February 2014, she became the fourth chair in my 30-year career here at the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch. While I vaguely remember Chairman Paul Volcker once visiting the branch, I was so new to the Bank and pretty naïve as to what the Fed actually did that I don't think I paid much attention back then. Soon after was Chairman Alan Greenspan, a brilliant man who spoke of economic conditions in a manner admittedly a bit hard for me to understand, especially since my Fed career began in an area not focused primarily on studying the economy. Then along came Chairman Ben Bernanke! Finally, someone who spoke in terms that even I could grasp. Couple his arrival with the creation of the Regional Economic Information Network and my foray into the world of economics (and the need for me to pay closer attention), I became an instant fan! I watched with great interest as Chairman Bernanke and the Federal Open Market Committee dusted off many lesser-known tools (as well as unveiling some brand-new tools) in the Fed's toolbox to help stimulate the economy during and after the Great Recession.

So, imagine my thrill at finding out that Chairman Bernanke was going to be a keynote speaker at this year's National Retail Federation's (NRF) annual conference that I had the great fortune to attend! I was like, whoop whoop! (I know, I'm just a big fan at heart!)

The morning of his appearance, I got up at zero-dark-thirty and was the first in line to enter the massive convention hall where he was scheduled to speak. I made a bee-line to the front and scoped out the best seat in the house. And I waited with anxious anticipation. I was like a teenage girl at her first rock concert when he took the stage. I listened intently as he and the president of Saks Fifth Avenue, who is serving as this year's NRF chairman, discussed the fallout from the global economic crisis and current prospects for the U.S. economy and the retail industry. It was amazing to listen to Bernanke speak in a much more casual manner (since now his comments do not necessarily move markets) about the events of the crisis and the actions taken by the Fed. (Remember, he is a scholar of the Great Depression of the 20th century and understood how the Fed could work to avoid the mistakes of the past.)

In addition to Chairman Bernanke sharing insights about the crisis with the audience, he commented on the transparency of the Federal Reserve System by saying, "In the middle of a crisis explaining where, why, and how we do what we do is as important as taking actions." When asked about the current state of the economy, Bernanke indicated that the U.S. economy is enjoying a genuine recovery. However, he has some concern regarding the European Union, noting that the situation should be watched carefully.

He was then asked what he missed most about being Fed chairman. He said that when he was chairman, he was driven everywhere by his security detail, so little things like traffic and finding parking spaces were never a concern. What he misses most, he said, "is not having to find my own parking spaces." He paused briefly and added, "That's all I miss."

How was I lucky enough to see Chairman Bernanke in person? As I mentioned, this was the NRF's annual conference, and one of my responsibilities as an analyst is to follow the retail sector and consumer behavior. So aside from my thrilling moment as a fan, what other insights did I glean at the conference? Well, when I attended the same conference two years ago, the underlying tone among participants was, "How do we get the consumer back to spending?" This year, the participants were upbeat and the focus seemed to be "We've got the consumer back, but how do we keep them back?" One answer was to create an engaging and exciting shopping experience.

Retailers must have been successful because revolving credit is up and consumer confidence is high. Let's take a look at our consumers and their behavior during the 2014 holiday shopping season.

Consumer credit outstanding rose $14.8 billion in December from $13.5 billion in November (see the chart). Nonrevolving credit, which is made up mostly of auto and student loans, rose $9.0 billion. However, the more noteworthy movement is that revolving credit rose a significant $5.8 billion in December from November's decline of $0.9 billion. In my opinion, this increase indicated the consumer was willing to take on debt previously avoided. Revolving credit, composed primarily of credit card loans, showed its strongest growth in eight months (the chart compares month-over-month data).

Change-in-consumer-credit

The Conference Board's survey on current conditions rose significantly to a seven-year high of 112.6 points in January from December's reading of 99.9. The University of Michigan's index rose to 109.3 points in January from 104.8 in December. The Conference Board's current conditions survey is based on the survey participants' view of current economic conditions as it relates to businesses and jobs, while the University of Michigan's survey is based on the individuals' sentiment as it relates to their personal households (see the chart).

Consumer-confidence-indices

The Conference Board's measure of expectations rose moderately to 96.4 points in January from 88.5 in December. The University of Michigan's index rose to 91.0 points in January from December's reading of 86.4. The expectations surveys by both entities are based on the same views of the survey participants as the current conditions surveys. However, the forward-looking expectations time frame differs. The Conference Board is looking six months out, and the University of Michigan is looking one to five years out (see the chart).

Consumer-confidence-indices-measuring-expectations

It appears, for now, that the consumer is increasingly upbeat, which is vital to the strength of the economy. Several District retail contacts recently reported double-digit growth and record-setting volume in 2014. Casual dining establishments saw an uptick in volume as consumers seem to be trading up from fast-food options.

Although total retail sales fell 0.8 percent in January from 0.9 percent in December, core retail sales—those excluding auto, gas, and building materials—rose 0.2 percent in January from December's decline to 0.1 percent, month over month. Retail sales maintained the same pace of growth for December and January rising 3.3 percent year over year (see the chart).

Retail-sale

Overall, the consumption sector looks reasonably vibrant. And as one of my industry contacts said, "Every day gets better." It appears that Chairman Bernanke isn't the only one enjoying his current situation.

Photo of Christine VietsBy Christine Viets, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Jacksonville Branch of the Atlanta Fed