The huge volume of economic data that constantly bombards economists and investors can become overwhelming. While it may be tempting just to glance at the headline numbers and move on to other, more exciting things, in doing so you risk missing something buried in the secondary data that adds an important detail to the overall release or, in some cases, contradicts the conclusion you might draw from the headline. Yet all of us have competing demands on our time, and even when looking more closely at something would be beneficial, sometimes you simply need to get other things done.
In today's always-busy world, it would be awfully nice if someone would spend the time and go to the trouble of putting together a detailed summary of all the economic data releases that contain information about the overall economy. And since we're making a wish list, let's add some analysis of various industries, and bring in information from various parts of the country to see whether there are any big differences across various regions. One last thing: We're a little strapped for cash at the moment, so could you please find someone to do all of this for free?
Well, as a certain economics professor once said, nothing's really free. However, your tax dollars already pay for staff at the Federal Reserve to compile a report that has much of the information you'd want to see, condensed and analyzed for your review. It's called the Beige Book, and for people who don't have a lot of time to look at hundreds of pages of data, it's the next best thing to Cliffs Notes -- and I suspect that you shouldn't wait for publisher John Wiley & Sons
The basic concept
The Beige Book, officially titled Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions, is a report that collects a variety of types of information, then condenses it into a brief but detailed overview of the state of the economy. It comes out eight times a year, usually about two weeks before the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee meets to discuss interest-rate policy. The report is prepared by one of the Federal Reserve's district banks, and the responsibility for creating it rotates among the 12 district banks, with a different bank producing each new report.
The general format stays relatively similar from report to report. It starts with the most general information about the overall economy; usually, the first paragraph of the report is a pronouncement about whether economic growth appears to be accelerating or slowing, with a poll of the 12 districts to show any regional disparities. The next few paragraphs provide summary sentences about various components of the economy. This is then followed with more detailed sections about each of those components, including consumer spending, tourism, the service industry, manufacturing, construction, real estate, banking and finance, agriculture and natural resources, labor, and price levels.
After providing summary information for the country as a whole, the Beige Book turns to economic conditions in each of the 12 individual districts that make up the Federal Reserve system. The regional reports tend to include information about most of the economic components listed above, but the order in which they are presented indicates their relative importance to that region's economy. For instance, in the report released yesterday, the Dallas district report begins with a discussion of oil prices, while the report on the Cleveland district starts with commentary on manufacturing and labor conditions.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the Beige Book is pretty easy to read. After enduring word-by-word Fed-speak analysis every time the Fed changes interest rates, you'll appreciate the clear discussion of issues, which includes not only basic descriptions of macroeconomic activity, but also anecdotes from a variety of sources that add a human element.
Since the Beige Book is prepared using economic data that in many cases are already available to the public before the Fed report, it's rare to find surprises about overall national economic conditions. However, because information on regional economic conditions is less widely distributed and sometimes contains far less detail than national data does, the Beige Book is extremely useful in comparing the opportunities and challenges facing various parts of the country. For instance, yesterday's report showed a number of differences among geographic regions. While service-sector activity generally increased, Boston and Cleveland experienced weakness. And although manufacturing did well in many districts, Philadelphia reported falling levels of activity. Residential real estate had a general slowdown in activity, but some markets reported increased activity.
For investors, the Beige Book is helpful in two major ways. First, since the report is prepared in advance of Federal Open Market Committee meetings, it's reasonable to assume that the Fed uses the report in its analysis of the economy and to assist it in making decisions about interest rates. Second, the discussion of regional conditions can help you evaluate the prospects for regional businesses in which you invest. For example, investors considering the stock of the St. Joe
For those who are weary of wading through pages of spreadsheet tables and dollar figures, the Federal Reserve's Beige Book provides light reading in comparison. While it can't take the place of timely data on specific economic indicators, it provides an excellent summary, in relatively plain English, on the state of the national economy and conditions in various areas across the country.
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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger is an ardent Fed-watcher, but he hadn't joined the Ben Bernanke Fan Club at the time this article was published. He doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this article. While the Fed releases reports in color, the Fool's disclosure policy is always perfectly clear.