The Federal Reserve’s Beige Book adds color to economic data

The Beige Book may not be a page turner on your spring reading list, but when it comes out Wednesday, economists will read it closely to get a more timely sense of what is happening in this economy.

So what exactly is the Beige Book? And is it maybe a bit more colorful than the name suggests?

You might call the Beige Book an anthology in which each of the 12 Federal Reserve districts writes its own chapter. Emily Kerr, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said the Beige Book — which these days is more of a Manila-decorated PDF — is actually vibrant.

“The purpose of writing and putting it together, and especially publishing it, is to add color to what’s happening in the economy,” Kerr said.  

The data comes from phone conversations and surveys with bankers, industry leaders and others that include questions like: “How is your hiring, you know, different now from six weeks ago? How about your outlook?” Kerr said. “If you’re manufacturing, what about your production? If you’re a retailer, what about your sales?” 

So what makes the Beige Book stand out in a deluge of hard economic numbers? 

“A lot of the data that we get on the economy just lags,” said Bill English, a Yale finance professor and a former Fed official. The Beige Book offers a more immediate picture, which English said is handy for setting interest rates. “It’s the timeliness that makes this potentially valuable.” 

This round, he thinks the Fed will be especially interested in the information the Beige Book gathers on bank lending. And the report isn’t just useful for the Fed, said Texas State University economics professor Ren Zhang.

“Investors can also read the Beige Book and see, OK, the Fed’s evaluation of the current economic conditions,” he said.  

But the Beige Book has its limits, Zhang said. Its relevance fades after a few weeks. So, unlike great works of literature, the Beige Book has a relatively short shelf life. 

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