Federal Reserve officials released on Wednesday their final summary of economic conditions in 2014, ending the year on an upbeat note with reports of continued growth.
In its latest Beige Book—a catalog of economic reports from contacts across all 12 Fed districts—the central bank noted that "national economic activity continued to expand in October and November."
Missing from the latest phrasing is the Fed's usual qualifier, which typically describes growth as "modest to moderate." The change could signal a more optimistic outlook from policymakers, who voted in October to end the central bank's most recent round of quantitative easing and who are now faced with the prospect of raising interest rates.
The report also found that contacts in many districts "remained optimistic about the outlook for future economic activity."
Contacts reported improvements across all economic segments in most districts, though indicators were mixed regionally.
In the housing arena, both construction and real estate activity expanded overall in the last two months, with a "fair amount of variation" across sectors. Homebuilding increased on balance across the country, though the multifamily side of the market remained stronger than the single-family side in several districts. Of particular note, the Dallas district saw an increase in construction-related lending, with strength reported in loans for both single-family and multifamily projects.
About half of the districts reported an increase in home sales, according to the Fed, though that also leaned more toward the multifamily sector in many districts. Home prices were little changed in most regions, excepting the Richmond, Atlanta, Dallas, and San Francisco districts.
On the financing side, lending held steady or increased across most areas, with a few districts reporting more aggressive competition on loan pricing and terms and an easing in lending standards.
Home mortgage lending was up in a number of regions, "reflecting a mix of new mortgages, refinancings, and home equity lines of credit," the Fed said. However, the environment remains tough for first-time homebuyers, particularly in the Cleveland and Richmond districts, where hopeful borrowers continued to face challenges qualifying for a loan.
The Fed also added that contacts in the Boston area were optimistic that the new Qualified Residential Mortgage rule would help boost lending volumes.
Other economic signs were similarly encouraging. In the labor market, employment gains in the past two months were widespread across the nation, though contacts in some districts reported continued difficulties filling roles in skilled positions.
Hiring plans increased in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis, according to the Fed, and firms in Kansas City and Dallas reported difficulties retaining key workers as labor market conditions strengthened.