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Weather held back economy

Packages moved along a FedEx conveyor belt in Los Angeles International Airport. Eight of the Fed’s 12 regions reported slightly improved activity in January and early February.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/File

Packages moved along a FedEx conveyor belt in Los Angeles International Airport. Eight of the Fed’s 12 regions reported slightly improved activity in January and early February.

WASHINGTON — A Federal Reserve survey shows severe weather held back economic growth in much of the nation from January through early February. Even so, conditions strengthened in most US regions, thanks to slight gains in areas such as employment and commercial real estate.

Eight of the Fed’s 12 regions reported improved activity, according to the Beige Book survey released Wednesday. The improvement was depicted as ‘‘modest to moderate.’’

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New York and Philadelphia, two regions hard hit by winter storms and freezing cold, reported a drop in activity attributed to the weather. Retail sales, including auto purchases, were depressed. So was manufacturing. Factories reported power outages and delayed deliveries of supplies.

The Beige Book is based on anecdotal reports from businesses and will be considered with other data when the Fed meets March 18-19.

The summary and the individual reports from each of the 12 regions were sprinkled with references to the harsh weather much of the country has endured this winter.

In New England, the report found little hiring and modest wage increases, although businesses generally had cautiously positive outlook. The report included information from the last weeks of 2013.

In Massachusetts, home and condominium sales were flat in December compared with a year ago, while sales declined in New Hampshire and Rhode Island and increased in Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont, the Fed reported.

Regional retail businesses reported that sales at the end of 2013 ranged from slight decline to increases of up to 10 percent, compared with the previous year. Several merchants said they expected to see modest increases in apparel prices as a result of the rising cost of raw materials and overseas labor.

Boston area hotels reported record occupancy rates and revenues for 2013 and revenues are expected to continue to grow. While severe winter weather helped hotels’ bottom lines, restaurants, museums, and other venues lost revenue due to harsh winter conditions.

Several manufacturers also reported being affected by weather, losing days of production in February. Of 13 manufacturers, nine reported higher sales than a year ago. Three firms in the semiconductor industry reported strong sales, “confirming the end of that sector’s slowdown,” the report said. Most firms reported increased capital spending in 2013 and expect increases again in 2014.

New England software and information technology providers reported stronger-than-expected business through February. Wages were steady and firms were awarding merit pay hikes in the 2.5 to 3.5 percent range.

Staffing firms said the areas of greatest demand for workers include software, engineering, specialty manufacturing, and health care.

The national report also indicated that severe weather had hurt factory production and manufacturing sales in Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, and Dallas.

Weather had caused power outages, disrupted supply chains, and curtailed factory production schedules.

Travel and tourism were reported to be strong across most of the districts, with the heavy snowfall benefiting ski resorts in some parts of the country.

When the Fed meets later this month, it will be the first meeting under the new chair, Janet Yellen.

Most analysts expect the Fed will continue paring the bond purchases it has been making to try to keep long-term loan rates low to support the economy. In an appearance last week to deliver the Fed’s twice-a-year economic report to Congress, Yellen said recent data have pointed to some weaker-than-expected gains in consumer spending and job growth.

She said the Fed will be watching to see whether the slowdown proves to be only a temporary blip caused by weather. Yellen said she was open to adjusting the pace of the bond-buying reductions if the economy should weaken.

A key piece of data likely to influence the March meeting will be the release Friday of the jobless report for February.

Megan Woolhouse of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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