Are there other questions for Dave? If not, if I could kick off the general discussion, I will talk a bit about how I see the economy. I have two main points to make. First, I think the downside risks to the economy are quite significant and larger than they were. Speaking as a former member of the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee, I think there are a lot of indications that we may soon be in a recession. I think a garden variety recession is an acceptable risk, but I am also concerned that such a downturn might morph into something more serious, and I will talk about that in a moment. My second point is that I think that 100 basis points of easing may or may not be a rough offset, in terms of expectations, to the decline in demand that we have seen, but I don’t think that we have done really very much at all in terms of taking out insurance against what I perceive to be the greater risk at this point.
So let me address those questions just a bit. President Lacker already anticipated me in mentioning the regime-switching models of recession. Those suggest a nonlinear process: There are two states of the world—a growth state and a recession state—and the behavior of the economy is different in those two states. Those models fit pretty well, although, of course, like many econometric models they are mostly retrospective. But some of the indicators suggesting a switch are things like falling equity prices, slower manufacturing growth, rising credit spreads, and—an often very effective indicator—the fact that the federal funds rate is so far above two- year interest rates at this point. Those would all be indications that the regime is about to switch, if it hasn’t already.
President Lacker also mentioned the idea of a stall speed. I presented some figures on that in a meeting in 2006. There have been situations of a 0.3 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate in a month that have been reversed, but there has never been in our case a 0.6 increase over a period of time that didn’t translate into a recession and a much greater increase in unemployment. Similarly, there has never been a sustained GDP growth rate below 2 percent— and we have a 1 percent forecast for 2008—that has not turned into a recession. Indicative of the kind of behavior that we have seen in the past, let me just refer to the last two recessions. Unemployment was 5.2 percent in June 1990, having been there for about two years. It jumped to 5.5 percent in July, by the next June it was 6.9, and the following June it was 7.8. In December 2000, unemployment was 3.9, it was 4.3 at the cyclical peak in March 2001, and ultimately it hit 6.3 in June 2003. So there is some tendency, once a stall speed is reached, for the economy to slow quite considerably. Again, like David, I don’t know if we’re there yet. Obviously, ex ante it’s extremely hard to tell, but I do think the risks are at least 50 percent at this point that we will see an NBER recession this year. Now, as I said, the concern I have is not just a slowdown but the possibility that it might become a much nastier episode. The main mechanism I have in mind—there are several possibilities, but I think the financial markets are the main risk.
Let me talk a bit about banks, which are at the center of this set of issues. I’m going to talk a bit about the 21 large, complex banking organizations (LCBOs). I have had some data worked up for me by the supervisory staff. Since August these 21 LCBOs have announced $75 billion in extraordinary markdowns associated with various credit issues. They have, on the other hand, either raised or plan to raise $50 billion in capital. Therefore, one might say, “Well, that looks pretty good.” I think, though, on net that there is really actually quite a fragility here. Several factors are going to put pressure on bank capital going forward. First, they have been taking assets on the balance sheet, as you know—about $250 billion so far of semi-voluntary additions coming from off-balance-sheet conduits and others. It is hard to say how much contingent additional exposure they have. There are a lot of different estimates. For these 21 banks, the Board supervisory staff identified between $250 billion and $300 billion more of potential exposures to bring back on the balance sheet. The BIS, at the meeting I attended over the weekend, looking at the 20 largest international banks, estimated $600 billion. We don’t know how much it is going to be, but the banks themselves are somewhat unsure about potential exposures.
Loan-loss reserves are quite low for this stage in the cycle, about 1.4 percent, compared with, say, 2.5 percent during the headwinds period of the early 1990s, and that is partly a result of the SEC regulations, which have forced banks to keep their reserves low. There is a lot of concern in banks about additional credit losses and downgrades, concern about financial guarantors, and, of course, macro concerns. Finally—and I think this is one of the most worrisome things to me—we are beginning to see some credit issues outside of housing and mortgages. Credit card delinquencies have jumped in a few banks’ home equity lines. There are concerns in commercial real estate, particularly in some regions like Florida and California. And with fair value accounting, as pricing goes down, even if you don’t yet see a cashflow effect, you get immediate effects on capitalization.
The implications of this, even if the economy continues along, say, the Greenbook’s estimates, are that lending is going to be quite tight. Banks are reluctant to take loans onto their balance sheets because of the capital constraints. They are, in fact, raising their internal capital targets because of their concerns about credit losses and about additional off-balance-sheet responsibilities. We have seen contraction not only in the primary mortgage market but also in home equity lines of credit, and I suspect we will see tighter conditions for credit cards, CRE lending, and non-investment-grade corporates. A question is high-grade corporates. There has even been some deterioration in, say, A-rated corporations.
I have had a lot of opportunities to talk to bankers. We had a meeting over the weekend in Basel between the central bankers and about 50 private-sector representatives. The thrust that I got was that things are going to be pretty tight. “We are going to meet our regular customers’ needs, but all of this is conditioned on no recession.” As one banker put it in our meeting, “There is no Plan B.” So a concern that is evident is that, if economic conditions worsen notably, the effects on bank capital, on credit risk, and so on will create a more severe credit situation, which could turn a garden variety downturn into something more persistent.
The other issue, of course, is housing. Credit markets and housing are interacting very closely. I think that residential construction is going to stop subtracting so much from GDP growth because there is a non-negativity constraint. Eventually, the declines in residential construction will have to stop, but we are pretty far from the non-negativity constraint on prices, and I think that is where the issue is. I have reviewed the staff’s analysis of house prices. They make perfectly reasonable guesses about what house prices will do. But it is inherently very difficult, and there is a very wide range of possible outcomes. If the housing market continues to be weak and if credit continues to be tight, then the possibility of a much more significant decline in house prices, particularly in some regions, is certainly there; and that, in turn, would have significant effects on credit markets and on the economy.
So I have tried to be quick; I don’t want to take too much time; but I see a lot of indications that a recession may well happen. Given the additional considerations of credit markets and housing markets, I am concerned that we might get something worse than, say, 2001.
The other question I raised was, Have we done enough? We have done 100 basis points. Of course, it is hard to know. A few indicators: The Greenbook-consistent medium-term r*, which is an indicator of the real funds rate that leads to full employment in three years, was 3.3 percent in August 2007. It is currently about 1.8 percent, so that is a decline of 150 basis points. That is just one rough indicator of the decline in aggregate demand. I have not redone the Taylor rules, but for December the estimated forecast- and outcome-based Taylor rules showed a rate of about 4.0 to 4.1. Again, that would not include any risk-management considerations. That is just sort of an average over periods of both inflation risk and growth risk. I guess I would also mention the 2001 pattern, the most recent episode. The FOMC—many of you were there, I was not—dropped the rate 250 basis points in a little over four months in early 2001. Obviously, that was a much more aggressive episode.
What about inflation? The fact is that we are in a tough bind here, and we don’t have any easy, simple solution. We are going to have to balance risks against each other. We are going to have to do it in a forward-looking way, and we are going to have to try to make some judgments. I’ll make a couple of comments. First, even assuming no recession, as the staff does, the staff has core and total inflation back into a reasonable approximation of price stability by 2009. As they note, wage growth has slowed; that doesn’t seem to be incorporating any inflation pressures. The other thing I would say is that, if we do have a recession, inflation during recession periods does tend to fall fairly quickly. In the 1990 episode I mentioned before, between June 1990 and June 1993, core PCE inflation fell from 4.4 to 2.7 percent. Of course, in the 2001 episode, despite 550 basis points of easing, we went from 2.2 percent in the fall of 2001 to unwelcome disinflation in 2003. So should there be a recession, the inflation problem would probably take care of itself.
Now, there is an argument—and Governor Mishkin’s speech on Friday makes the case pretty well—that, when you have these kinds of risks, the best way to balance the growth and inflation risks is to be aggressive in the short run but to take back the accommodation in a timely way when the economy begins to stabilize. I realize this is not easy to communicate, but I think if we attempt to do so we can make some progress on that front.
So, to summarize, we have a very difficult situation, but I do think the downside risks have increased and are quite significant. I don’t think that our policy thus far has gotten ahead of the curve, so to speak, in terms of taking out insurance. Although, again, I’m not recommending any action today, I think we need to be cognizant of this issue as we go into the January and subsequent meetings. So let me stop there and open the floor for your reactions and comments. I’d like to know if you are comfortable not acting today—waiting until the January meeting. On the other hand, I am also interested in knowing if you share my assessments or if you don’t. Let me be clear: I am not asking now for a commitment to any particular action in January. I am not asking for carte blanche. I am simply trying to see if we are all on the same page, or more or less on the same page, so that we can collectively communicate more effectively and I hope take the right actions when the time comes. So let me stop there, and Debbie will call on members. President Lacker.