Thank you, and thank you all. First, on the long-term projections, I think there’s consensus that we should just go ahead and have a trial run. The staff should review the transcript and make gold out of straw there. We should consult with the subcommittee, and we should think about maybe even a couple of alternatives. Maybe we could try a couple of alternative ways of doing it in October. So let’s go ahead and do something along those lines and keep thinking about how best to do it.
Let me first, as I usually do, try to summarize the discussion around the table, and I’ll add some comments of my own. Beginning with the summary, the incoming data were stronger than expected, notably for consumer spending but for some other components as well. As a result, economic growth in the second quarter, though not robust, was likely positive, continuing the pattern of weak but positive growth since the fourth quarter of 2007. However, to the extent that strength in consumption was transitory or due primarily to fiscal stimulus, some of the growth in the second quarter may have been borrowed from the second half. Participants generally saw growth continuing at a slow pace the rest of the year and improving in 2009. There was, however, some divergence of views, with some expecting a longer period of slow growth.
Recent numbers on retail sales suggest that the consumer is holding up better than expected. Consumer finances may be better than feared, and the fiscal stimulus may already be having an effect. However, as many have noted, there are substantial drags on consumption going forward, including falling wealth and income, credit constraints, and the recent rise in energy prices. Sentiment has also fallen noticeably further. Weaker consumption may, thus, restrain growth later this year, particularly after the effect of the stimulus wanes. Labor markets continue to soften but at a relatively moderate pace. The peak in unemployment is projected to be between 5½ percent and 6 percent. That’s what I generally heard around the table. Prospects for housing continue weak, with falling prices, high inventories, and weak demand. Some saw a possible bottom forming but noted that the recovery of this sector is still some way off. As has been the case for a while, businesses are quite cautious, noting economic uncertainties and surging input costs, with one or two mentions of tighter credit, although that was not a dominant theme today. Real exports continue to grow and are partially offsetting weaker domestic demand, especially in the case of manufacturing.
Financial conditions have been mixed since the last meeting, although the improvements from March have largely been maintained and the risk of systemic crisis may have receded to some degree. Funding markets are generally doing better. The concerns about credit losses have led the stock prices of banks, including regional banks and investment banks, to fall sharply. Capital raising continues, though at less favorable terms and with perhaps declining availability. As the economy continues weak and housing contracts further, more credit losses for banks may well be in store, adding to financial market stress and reducing the availability of new credit. Progress in the financial markets is likely to be slow as the deleveraging process will take a while. Stock prices in general are also lower. Financial conditions in the housing market remain important downside risks to growth, with the spurt in oil prices adding to those risks. Uncertainties about the growth prospects are great. However, tail risks may have moderated somewhat.
Readings on core inflation have remained relatively moderate. However, the sharp rise in oil prices and some other commodity prices, in part reflecting flooding in the Midwest, is likely to lead to very high levels of headline inflation over the next few months. Gas and food prices have become perhaps the most important economic issue for consumers, and firms are feeling ever- increasing cost pressures. Moreover, inflation pressures are global. There are increasing reports of firms being able to pass through these costs, which could lead to an increase in core inflation. On the other hand, slack may restrain core inflation increases. Measures of longer-term inflation expectations have been up a bit on net since April, depending to some extent on the measure chosen. Nominal wage growth is still slowing. Participants debated how much comfort to take from slow wage growth, some arguing that, by the time wages reflected higher inflation expectations, it would be too late. Most saw inflation risks as now to the upside, with the primary concern being the possibility that inflation expectations could rise further as headline inflation rises and more costs are passed through. That’s my very, very quick summary. If anyone has any comments, I’d be happy to hear them.
If not, let me just say a couple of words on my own views here. This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I am not a fine-tuner. I think that the objective of the Federal Reserve ought to be to avoid a very bad outcome, and so my concerns are primarily with tail risks on both sides of our mandate. I think that the evidence of the last month or so provides a bit of reassurance, on both the real side and the financial side, that the tail risks on the growth side of the mandate have moderated somewhat. That being said, I think they remain and are still significant. In particular, as I mentioned in the summary, I am at this point still suspicious of the strength that we saw in the second quarter. If we look at the fundamentals for consumption—including wealth, income, employment, and energy prices—and look at the plunge in sentiment, which is at remarkably low levels, I think there’s a very good chance that consumers will weaken going forward and bring the rest of the economy along with them. In addition, of course, housing remains extremely uncertain. We are at best some distance from stabilization in that market. Even when residential construction begins to stabilize, we’ll still see continuing declines in house prices, which will affect consumer spending and, importantly, will affect financial markets as well as the value of mortgages.
With respect to financial markets, I agree certainly that the crisis atmosphere that we saw in March has receded markedly, but I do not yet rule out the possibility of a systemic event. We saw in the intermeeting period that we have considerable concerns about Lehman Brothers, for example. We watched with some concern the consummation of the Bank of America–Countrywide merger. We worried about a bank in the Midwest. Other regional banks are under various kinds of stress. We’re seeing problems with the financial guarantors, with the mortgage insurers. So I think that those kinds of risk are still there, and we need to be very careful in observing them. Moreover, even if systemic risks have faded, we still have the eye-of-the-storm phenomenon—we may now be between the period of the write-downs of the subprime loans and the period in which the credit loss associated with the slowdown in the economy begins to hit in a big way and we see severe problems at banks, particularly contractions in credit extension.
So I’m not yet persuaded that the tail risks are gone. I think it would be very valuable to have some more data, some more observations, to see how the financial markets and the economy are proceeding. But I want to say that I do agree that the developments in financial markets and the surprisingly strong data in the second quarter should lead us to feel somewhat better. I think we should take a little credit for our various efforts to support both the financial system and the economy.
Now, what about tail risks on the other side—on inflation? The increase in oil prices that we’ve seen in the past six weeks is obviously very, very bad news. I think that the combination of the commodity price increases and what we’re going to see as very ugly headline inflation numbers is beginning to generate a tail risk on that side of the mandate as well, and I am becoming concerned about that. Indeed, I think that it’s now appropriate that we begin, as some of us already have, to move rhetorically toward acknowledging that risk and agreeing that it may be at the point where it even exceeds the risk that we see on the growth side, although I think we’re very uncertain about that.
Now, the concern I have is the following, which is that there has been a lot of talk about policy action. I don’t think that a 25 basis point or even a 50 basis point move, if it’s not viewed as being the start of a continued increase, is going to do very much on the inflation side, frankly. We had a good test of that over the intermeeting period. Partly because of our rhetoric and for other reasons, the dollar strengthened. The two-year rate rose 50 or 60 basis points, and oil prices went up $25. I do not think that with a small change in our stance we can do anything about commodity prices, and frankly, it’s commodity prices that you’re hearing about from your Board members and from people you talk to. It’s the real change in the relative price of those commodities that is painful and the real change in the terms of trade coming through the dollar which is painful, and I don’t think we can do very much about those in the short term. Our objective, of course, as everyone has noted, is to prevent that from becoming a sustained and persistent source of inflation.
So the problem then is that a small amount of movement will not solve the problem. A small to moderate movement, however, might create some serious financial strains given the fragility of the system. I think what we need to do is to decide when we reach that tipping point. There will be a tipping point at which we’re sufficiently confident that the system is stabilizing and that we can begin to turn in a serious way to the inflation concern. A partial one step, unless it signals a longer-term tightening program, could give us the worst of both worlds. We will just have to make the judgment about when we have reached the point of having to switch from our previous approach of supporting the economy and financial system to an approach that is aimed more at containing inflation. It’s going to be a very difficult and delicate situation, but I want to express again my agreement with those of you who are worried about inflation and my belief that the time might be relatively soon. But it’s going to be a very, very delicate decision and one that we have to make with great concern and consideration.
A little anticlimactically, I would like to say just a couple of words about the 1970s because they keep coming up and I do think that these comparisons are a bit misleading. First, in the current episode, commodity prices—particularly oil prices—are basically most or almost all the inflation that we’re seeing. That was not the case in the ’70s. In particular, inflation rose considerably before the first oil price shock in 1973. PCE inflation was 5 percent in 1970, which prompted the wage– price controls, of course, which is an episode we’re all familiar with; and in 1972, before the oil shock, average hourly earnings were growing between 7 and 8 percent. There was already a serious inflation problem before the oil price shocks came. Hence, credibility was already damaged at the time of the oil price shocks. That is not the case here.
Second, the movement in wages and core inflation following the oil price shocks in the 1970s was very striking. From the time of the oil price shock right before the second quarter of 1973 until the first quarter of 1975, total inflation rose a little over 5 percentage points, reflecting the quadrupling of oil prices. During the same period, core inflation rose more than 6 percentage points. In other words, core inflation responded almost one for one to total inflation. Moreover, average hourly earnings rose more than 2 percentage points, and productivity and cost compensation rose 3½ percentage points in that year and a half. So there was a very strong sensitivity of expectations and pass-through to these commodity price shocks. Obviously, we’ve been seeing oil price increases since 2003, and they have not yet shown anything like that effect on core inflation or on wages.
The final observation I’d make about the 1970s is that we shouldn’t forget that, even in that very bad situation with very poorly anchored inflation expectations, the slowing of the economy did do something to reduce inflation. In particular, core inflation fell 3½ percentage points during 1975 following the 1973–75 recession. So while we cannot do much about oil prices, I do think that there is some hope that weakness in the economy is going to provide some restraint on core inflation, which of course will generate a more stable total inflation rate if and when commodity prices stabilize. So I’ve been very all over the map here. I apologize. I tried to organize my thoughts in the meeting.
My bottom line is that I think the tail risks on the growth and financial side have moderated. I do think, however, that they remain significant. We cannot ignore them. I’m also becoming concerned about the inflation side, and I think our rhetoric, our statement, and our body language at this point need to reflect that concern. We need to begin to prepare ourselves to respond through policy to the inflation risk; but we need to pick our moment, and we cannot be halfhearted. When the time comes, we need to make that decision and move that way because a halfhearted approach is going to give us the worst of both worlds. It’s going to give us financial stress without any benefits on inflation. So we have a very difficult problem here, and we are going to have to work together cooperatively to achieve what we want to achieve.
The last thing I’d like to say is on communications. Just talking about communications following this meeting, I’d like to advise everyone, including myself, to lean, not to lurch. That is, we are moving toward more concern about inflation, but we still have concerns about economic growth and financial markets. We should show that shift in emphasis as we talk to the public, but we should not give the impression that inflation is the entire story or that we have somehow decided that growth and financial problems are behind us, because they are not. So if we can convey that in a sufficiently subtle way, I think we will prepare the markets for the ultimate movements that we’re going to have to make.
Again, I very much appreciate your insights and your attention today. We have a dinner at 7:30, and for that reason I think we should probably bring this to a close. We’ll start tomorrow morning with Brian’s presentation of the policy options. The statement is essentially the same as the Bluebook’s. There won’t be any surprises there. So we’ll begin with that first thing in the morning. Thank you.