Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Since our last meeting, the news in the Third District economy has been mixed but, on balance, slightly more positive than the previous report. The District continues to grow at a moderate pace, and we expect that pace to continue. The bright spot since our last meeting is a rebound in regional manufacturing activity, which had been flat for the past six months. In June, the Philadelphia Business Outlook Survey index of current activity rose sharply—18 percentage points—from a level of 4.2. This is the highest level it has obtained since April 2005. The index of new orders also showed a sizable jump, and capital spending plans firmed in the survey. Respondents also expected further improvement in manufacturing activity over the coming months.
Job growth in the region, however, was somewhat slower over the past two months compared with earlier in the year, but we really didn’t expect much since payrolls seemed to rise much more rapidly than expected during the first quarter. Year-to-date payroll growth is running about 0.6 percent at an annual rate. That rate is slower than the national average but is fairly typical of our region, where population growth is rather flat. Labor force participation is rather flat as well. Unemployment rates, however, remain low in our three states, and firms still report having difficulty finding both skilled and unskilled workers.
It is no surprise, as everyone has said, that residential construction in our region continues to decline and remains weak. The value of contracts for residential buildings has fallen more than 30 percent in the region during the first five months of this year compared with last year at this time—but that, we have to remember, was near the peak. Real estate agents and homebuilders generally report slowing of sales in May. While the number of existing homes for sale on the market has increased, average selling prices have not changed much. I would characterize the nonresidential real estate market in the region as fairly firm, although construction is not as strong as last year. Office vacancy rates continue to fall, and in Center City Philadelphia, they dropped to 10 percent. They were about 17 percent just around eighteen months ago. Real estate firms report that overall demand for industrial space continues to be robust and that vacancy rates for this type of space are near record lows in some markets. Rental rates continue to rise, particularly for warehouse space, and rents are at a record high in those areas. I take these reports as indications of continued expansion in economic activity going forward.
Interestingly enough regarding building, I had two observations from CEOs. One is CEO of a building supply company that manufactures throughout the United States and has sales of almost $10 billion. He said that, remarkably, even with what is going on with homebuilding, his sales are holding up very, very strongly and they are doing very, very well this year. Another CEO, whose company produces products mostly for residential cabinetry and other types of things, one of the largest in the country, says that, while new home sales for his work are way down, they have largely been offset by remodeling activity—people have substituted remodeling for buying a new home.
As long as I’m reporting anecdotes here, I will pass on one other anecdote, for what it is worth, about trucking. I listened to President Fisher and President Poole talk about volumes in trucking. Just as an observation, an executive who runs a trucking company throughout the country told me that one thing that has happened in trucking is that, rather than shipping boom boxes, they are shipping iPods. [Laughter] That is true of a lot of consumer goods. Instead of shipping large CRT screens, they now ship flat panel displays. So even while the volume of goods is being reduced, gasoline prices are high, and they are laying off truckers and downsizing the volume, the value of what they are shipping has been maintained pretty well. So he was noting a dynamic of value versus volume here, which I thought was very interesting.
On the inflation front in the District, prices for industrial goods continue to increase, but retail price increases have not been widespread. However, many of our business contacts continue to express concern over rising energy costs and food prices and the effect on their businesses and the consumers. I interpret this to mean that they continue to be puzzled by our focus on core inflation when they see that overall inflation is what affects the consumer and their businesses, and they seem to doubt core inflation’s value as a policy objective or a measure of underlying inflation. They may be wrong in that, but it tells me that, if they continue to be confused by how we view core inflation and what we use it for, we might need to improve our communication to the public about how we think about it and why we focus on it.
On the national level, I have become more comfortable with the economic situation as the year has progressed. At our meeting in May, we were beginning to see some positive signs regarding both real economic activity and inflation. Durable good orders were up, allaying some concerns about the first quarter’s weakness in business investment. Improved ISM numbers were signaling that the slowdown in manufacturing might be ending; and although housing markets remained weak, there were limited signs of any significant spillovers to other sectors. Labor markets remained firm. At that time there were signs that core inflation might be moderating. As a consequence, I expressed hope that in the coming months those data would be reinforced.
Fortunately, from my perspective, those hopes have been largely realized. Coming into this meeting, we have received more positive news on the economy, and I have become somewhat more confident that the economy is on track to return to near-trend growth later this year as the effect of the housing correction moderates, albeit very slowly. Indeed, data received to date suggest that we will see a substantial rebound in real GDP growth this quarter, as the Greenbook has noted. After several months of stagnation, manufacturing activity seems to have picked up, and business fixed investment is moderately strengthened. Labor markets remain firm, and yet in recent quarters we have noted a seeming disconnect between strong labor markets and weaker GDP growth. However, we now may be getting some hints that this puzzle is more apparent than real, and I want to reinforce the point that President Yellen made earlier in that I think two factors suggest this. First, from December to May the household survey showed almost no employment growth whatsoever, whereas the establishment survey showed 1.2 percent annual growth during that period. Second— and again as President Yellen noted—the Business Employment Dynamics report came out. It was only for the third quarter of last year, but it showed about 155,000 fewer jobs created in the third quarter than we thought. What is important about that report is that it arguably does a better job of tracking the birth and death of firms in the data, and so there is some reason to believe that, while this is suggestive, the payroll employment that we have been seeing may not be as strong as perhaps we thought, and that may make some of this puzzle less of a concern. Moreover, as President Yellen pointed out, it is also relevant for the longer term because, if employment wasn’t as strong as we thought, productivity is going to end up being higher than we thought, and it will help resolve some of that slowdown in productivity. So I think there are various hints that that may be the direction that we are headed.
In my own forecast, I see slightly more underlying strength and so a somewhat faster return to trend growth than the Greenbook does. The current stance of monetary policy is maintained. I see strength in personal income, a strong balance sheet (as we saw earlier today), strong equity markets, and a resiliency already shown by consumers despite the lower home equity values and higher gasoline prices, suggesting that there is probably slightly more momentum in consumer spending than suggested in the Greenbook. I am modestly more optimistic about the labor market than the Greenbook—modestly, as I anticipate less of a downturn in labor force participation rates than is built into that forecast. The rise in long-term interest rates reflects the market’s upgrading of its assessment of the economy’s strength going forward. Indeed, as has been noted a couple of times, that uptick in long-term interest rates has been, I won’t say a worldwide phenomenon, but certainly widely spread in many countries around the world, which may be saying that global growth is more stable, predictable, and positive than perhaps we thought.
Now, this is not to say that I do not see risks around this growth forecast. Of course, as everyone else does, I see housing as the biggest downside risk that we face. There is still considerable uncertainty out there, and I do not want to underestimate the risk. Housing inventories remain high, and I do not see any strong evidence of pickup in demand. Despite the problems in subprime lending markets, however, I think the financial sector remains healthy—healthier now than it was perhaps in the early ’90s with the previous housing boom. I am more comfortable with the notion that there will be no spillovers into other parts of the economy, and thus I have become more comfortable with forecasts of return-to- trend growth in the second half of this year and into ’08.
On the inflation front, higher energy prices have led to an acceleration of headline inflation, but there has been some improvement in core inflation measures in recent months. The three-month growth rates in the core CPI and the core PCE have been decelerating since February. Although these developments in inflation are encouraging, I remain cautious about extrapolating too much from recent data. During this cycle we have seen periods of deceleration reversed a couple of months later. Indeed, the Greenbook expects that much of the favorable readings on core PCE inflation will prove transitory. So I remain concerned that our core inflation rates may not continue their recent drift down. I would also caution that headline inflation, as I noted earlier, has remained stubbornly high. Thus, in approaching my forecast, I have assumed that the appropriate policy path was one that would return the economy to steady-state growth and to my inflation target by the end of the forecast period.
Given my outlook on the underlying strength of the economy and an inflation goal of 1.5 percent for the PCE, it should not be surprising that my forecast incorporates a slightly tighter policy path than the Greenbook does. In particular, in my forecast the federal funds rate rises 50 basis points, to 5.75 percent, by early ’08. As progress is made on bringing down inflation starting in the second half of ’08, the fed funds rate moves down, ending at about 5 percent by the end of 2009. This policy path reflects my view that, unless we take further action by additional firming or an announcement or both that commits us to an inflation goal that is lower than the market currently expects, which seems to be about 2.5 percent, I believe it will be difficult to sustain an inflation rate that is in keeping with my view of price stability. I believe this can be accomplished with relatively little effect on real growth in 2008. My assumption in the model with which I’m working is that, once we begin to raise rates, the markets will quickly recognize our commitment to lower inflation and expectations will move down accordingly, mitigating the real output effects of this modest tightening. The movement down in expectations could be expedited by the Committee’s explicitly announcing the target. This view of expectations formation is more heavily weighted to forward-looking elements than to distributed-lag elements of past inflation. By the way, I want to applaud the staff for their work on inflation dynamics. I thought it was an excellent piece of work. I found the discussion very helpful and a step in the right direction, both conceptually and empirically.
In any event, the bottom line for my forecast is that I anticipate that the economy will grow just below trend of 3 percent in 2008 and at trend of 3 percent in 2009, and we achieve an inflation goal of 1.5 percent by the end of the period. Of course, this forecast is based on my desired inflation objective, which may not be representative of other members of the Committee. If there were a common objective that differed from my own view, then my presumed appropriate policy path might be different. Given this observation and the lack of an agreed-upon goal, I think we need to be concerned about how the public will interpret these forecasts, but I will save my thoughts on that for the next go-round.