By MARTIN CRUTSINGERWASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Strong auto sales, better hiring and a continued housing recovery helped the U.S. economy grow in January and February throughout the country, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Federal Reserve. The survey noted that 10 of the Fed's 12 banking districts reported moderate or modest growth, while the Boston and Chicago districts reported slow growth. Consumer spending increased in most regions, although spending growth slowed in many districts and much of the gains were driven by auto sales. Many districts said consumers pulled back slightly elsewhere after seeing taxes rise and gas prices increase. Some also expressed concerns about federal spending cuts that started on March 1. Housing markets showed more strength in nearly all parts of the country. Manufacturing grew modestly in most regions after struggling in through most of 2012. And many districts reported improvement in individual jobs markets. The report, called the Beige Book, provides anecdotal information on economic conditions through February 22. The information will be discussed along with other economic data during the Fed's next policy meeting on March 19-20. Analysts said the report was slightly more upbeat than the previous Fed survey, noting the modest rebound in manufacturing in the past two months. Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, called the latest survey "more encouraging news on the U.S. economy." Many economists believe Fed officials will maintain their low-interest rate policies at current levels but take no new steps at the March meeting. In January, the Fed stood behind aggressive steps it launched in December to try to reduce unemployment. It repeated that it would keep its key short-term interest rate at a record low at least until unemployment falls below 6.5 percent. And the Fed said it would keep buying Treasurys and mortgage bonds to help lower borrowing costs and encourage spending.
The unemployment rate was 7.9 percent in January when the Fed last met.The economy has shown improvement since then, even as Americans paid higher taxes and automatic government spending cuts loomed. On Jan. 1, nearly all Americans who draw a paycheck began paying higher Social Security taxes and income taxes rose for the highest earning workers. The tax increases and broader budget debate in Washington haven't slowed financial markets. The Dow Jones industrial average closed Tuesday at a record high and kept rising Wednesday. The index of 30 big corporations has more than doubled since hitting a low during the financial crisis in March 2009. Consumer confidence rose in February from January, according to surveys by both the Conference Board and the University of Michigan. Factories and service companies both grew at the fastest pace in at least a year, according to surveys issued Friday and Tuesday by the Institute for Supply Management. And payroll processor ADP said Wednesday that U.S. businesses added 198,000 jobs in February. The private survey also revised January's hiring figures to show companies added 215,000 jobs that month, 23,000 more than what had initially been reported. The figure suggests that the government's February jobs report, to be issued Friday, may come in above economists' forecasts. Analysts expect it will show the economy added 152,000 jobs and the unemployment rate dipped to 7.8 percent from 7.9 percent in January.