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US firms more optimistic amid uncertainty: Fed report

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Oct 22, 2020 - 09:25 AM

WASHINGTON — Businesses around the country were a bit more upbeat about their prospects coming out of the worst months of the pandemic, but worries remain, including about jobs and retail, the Federal Reserve said Wednesday.

While growth picked up speed, commercial real estate remains a soft spot, with offices remaining empty and stores going bankrupt or unable to pay their rent, according to the Fed’s latest “Beige Book” survey of economic conditions.

The November 3 presidential election was mentioned only a handful of times in the report, the last before Americans go to the polls to determine whether Donald Trump will get another four years in the White House.

Trump’s handling of the pandemic Covid-19, which inflicted severe damage on the US economy, is a key issue in the election and after tens of millions of job losses he trails behind the Democratic challenger Joe Biden on opinion polls.

“Economic activity continued to increase across all districts,” the report said, although the pace of growth was described as “slight to modest.”

Contacts across the Fed’s 12 regions said their outlook were “generally optimistic or positive, but with a considerable degree of uncertainty,” the report said.

While employment increased in almost all regions, “growth remained slow” and “firms continued to report new furloughs and layoffs.”

The Fed’s Philadelphia branch summed it up: “With the ongoing pandemic and the stimulus ended, uncertainty remained extremely high in anticipation of layoffs, foreclosures and bankruptcies.”

Commercial real estate is in particularly dire straits, though there were signs things were stabilizing over the past few weeks.

“Commercial realtors remained downbeat, citing a lack of interest in commercial space and financial hardship among small businesses and restaurants,” The Cleveland Fed said.

Renting office space firms increasingly are asking for better terms when renewing leases or only renewing for short-term, the Fed said.

And many store or restaurant locations that may have survived with the help of a government loan program, can not pay rent now that the program has expired, the report said.

Policymakers in Washington have been working for weeks to approve a massive new aid package, that would include a new round of low-interest loans and grants to help small and medium businesses weather the downturn.

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