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Beige Book Notes Small Steps

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Economic activity continued to show moderate improvement, particularly in manufacturing, retail and nonfinancial services from November to December, according to the latest beige book data from the Federal Reserve on Wednesday.

Growth was modest except in the districts of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Richmond where expansion was most pronounced.

The beige book, formally called the Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions by Federal Reserve District, is published eight times a year, usually two weeks before the Federal Open Market Committee meeting.

Retail was a particularly strong area as holiday sales in 2010 strengthened from last year and largely exceeded expectations. Residential real estate remained a soft spot, and only a handful of districts noted increases in commercial leasing activity. Financial conditions, meanwhile, were mixed.

While most retailers and manufacturers saw rising costs, only a fraction could be passed on to consumers because of competitive pressures.

Regarding the closely watched labor market, most reports noted modest hiring growth but said upward pressure on wages was "very limited."

According to the report, "Most districts indicated that business contacts were positive about the outlook, although still generally cautious."

The report will be referenced by the Federal Open Market Committee during its next policy-setting meeting on Jan. 25-26.

-- Written by Melinda Peer in New York.

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