“The tone was one of modest but uneven growth,” opined the Federal Reserve of the US economy in its beige book survey published Wednesday.

The Fed’s diagnosis for the period late-April-through-May was echoed by the National Bureau of Economic Research, whose report also appeared Wednesday.

In a more cautious assessment, the NBER’s Business Cycle Dating Committee was loathe to declare the recession over yet. While noting that employment had recently increased and “other signs indicate that the decline in activity that began last year may have come to an end,” the bottoming-out will be officially determined “at some future date”.

Qualifying its caution, the committee stressed that it typically waits “many months after an apparent trough to make its decision because of data revisions and the possibility that the contraction would resume.”

Meantime, the beige book noted that while labor markets in most regions remained slack, manufacturers in different parts of the country did report improved business. But overall there was little between its buff covers to dispel a gloomy underside to the economic recovery:

Conversely, however, the latest data from the Labor Department suggests “evidence of a benign inflation outlook”. A moderate 0.9% rise in imported petroleum prices, coming after double-digit gains in the two previous months, was offset by a 3.1% decline in oil imports since May 2001. Prices of other imported goods slipped 0.1% in May from April, led by a 0.3% drop in auto-related products, and by slight declines for capital goods and other industrial equipment and supplies.

• The recovery was equally nebulous on the other side of the herring pond with European new car sales – a key indicator of consumer confidence – showing in May the largest monthly fall since February 2001 amid signs of weakening demand in several markets.

Data published Thursday by the Association of European Automobile Manufacturers records an 8% decline last month in European new car registrations to 1.29m units. Of the continent’s five largest markets, only the UK showed growth.

Commented Professor Garel Rhys, director of the centre of automotive industry research at Cardiff University Business School: “This shows the west European market is really in the doldrums, and it could stay like this until the first quarter of next year as consumers outside Britain rein in spending.”

Industry analysts calculate that European car sales are down by around 5% to 13.8m units on an annualised basis

Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online and Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff