Thank you, and thank you all for very helpful comments. As usual, let me briefly summarize what I heard today and then make a few comments of my own. Again, in summary, data since the March meeting have been soft, and economic activity is weak. But the recent news has not generally been worse than expected. There was disagreement over whether we are technically in a recession. Most saw improved economic growth in the second half of 2008 with further improvement in 2009, although some saw more-protracted weakness. The housing sector remains weak, though there were reports of improvement. Starts and the demand for new houses continue to decline. Prices are falling. Inventories of unsold homes remain very high. Housing demand is affected by restrictive conditions in mortgage markets, fears that house prices have much further to fall, and weakening economic conditions. Retail sales, sentiment, and consumer spending have generally been soft, reflecting a long list of headwinds, including tightening credit, weaker house prices, and higher energy prices. Payrolls are falling, although there are some pockets of strength. Unemployment is likely to keep rising. It may remain somewhat high into 2010. We will soon see whether the fiscal stimulus package affects either the consumer or business investment plans. Possibly, liquidity-constrained consumers may respond more strongly than normally. Business sentiment is also relatively weak, reflecting in part credit conditions but also the uncertain prospects for the economy and continued cost pressures. Investment has softened somewhat, including declines in commercial real estate investment. Strength in foreign markets is helping support U.S. production and profits, especially manufacturing, although foreign economies may slow in the coming quarters. The energy and agricultural sectors are strong.
Financial conditions have improved in the past month, with financing conditions better, credit risk spreads coming in a bit, and both equities and real interest rates up since the last meeting. Decent earnings, a sense on the part of some that the bulk of the write-downs in the banking sector have been taken, the ability of financial institutions to raise capital, and possibly Fed actions, including liquidity provision and the actions regarding Bear Stearns, have contributed to the improvement. On the other hand, many markets remain fragile, including the key interbank market and other short-term funding markets. Some expressed the view that more- significant write-downs and financial stress lie ahead, as house prices continue to fall and the slowing economy weakens credit quality, and that the full impact of tighter credit has not yet been felt in the nonfinancial economy. Others, however, were less concerned about the real effects of the financial conditions. Financial conditions and the housing market probably remained the most important downside risks to growth, although energy prices were also cited.
Readings on core inflation were moderate in the intermeeting period, although some of the reasons for improvement may be transitory. Oil prices have continued to move up, contributing to higher headline inflation. Other commodity prices have also begun to rise again. Many firms noted these strong cost pressures and indicated some ability to pass those costs along to consumers. Inflation breakevens showed improvement at some horizons since the March meeting, possibly reflecting lower risk premiums, though survey inflation expectations were higher. The dollar appreciated during the intermeeting period, but longer-term depreciation and rising import prices remain another source of pressure on inflation. Nominal wage gains remain moderate, however, and markups are high. Uncertainty about the course of oil and other commodity prices adds to overall inflation uncertainty and perhaps to inflation risks that are now somewhat more to the upside. Many participants expressed concerns about these upside risks, about inflation expectations, and about the maintenance of the Fed’s inflation-fighting credibility. Any comments?
Let me just add a few thoughts to what has already been said. On the real side, I think that I am probably somewhat more pessimistic than the median view that I heard around the table. First of all, I am reasonably confident that we are in a recession. We don’t see these dynamic patterns of employment, sentiment, and so on without a recession being eventually called by the NBER. That fact, I believe, raises the risks of more-rapid declines in employment and consumer spending in the months ahead because there seem to be somewhat more-adverse dynamics in a recession scenario. Second, I remain concerned about housing, which is not showing really any significant signs of stabilization. Mortgage markets are still dysfunctional, and the only source of mortgage credit essentially is the GSEs, which are doing their best to raise fees and profit from the situation. Sales of new homes remain weak. Inventories of unsold homes are down in absolute terms, but they still are very high relative to sales. We heard this morning of yet even faster price declines for housing. As I’ve said several times at this table, until there is some sense of a bottoming in the housing market and in housing prices, I think that we are not going to see really broad stabilization, either in the economy or in financial markets. Now, there are some positives—exports, for example—which have kept manufacturing and other industries from declining as much as usual during a recession. Interestingly, this could be a mirror image of the 2001 recession. In 2001, the business sector was weak, and consumption and housing were strong. We could have the mirror image this time.
In financial markets, there certainly have been improvements, and that is certainly encouraging. I agree with people about that. But we have heard a few people in the market say that credit losses and write-downs are in the ninth inning. As a baseball fan, I think we are probably closer to the third inning. Let me explain why I think that. The IMF recently projected aggregate credit losses on U.S.-based assets of about $945 billion worldwide, with about a quarter of those coming in the U.S. banks and thrifts. The Board staff has a somewhat lower number, around $700 billion to $800 billion, but they have a higher fraction in U.S. banks and thrifts. So the basic numbers are pretty similar in that respect. The staff projection for credit losses for U.S. commercial banks and thrifts, excluding investment banks, is about $215 billion for this year and next year and $300 billion if the recession is more severe. In addition, the staff projects about $60 billion in write-downs of CDOs and other types of traded assets. Now, most of those $60 billion write-downs have been taken. They are mostly held by the top banks, and they have mostly been already written off. However, of the $215 billion to $300 billion in projected credit losses, so far U.S. banks and thrifts have acknowledged only about $60 billion. So if you put together those numbers, you find that we are about one-third of the way through total losses.
Now, there are, in fact, obviously some countervailing factors. Banks and thrifts have already raised about $115 billion in capital since the middle of last year, which essentially covers the losses announced so far. But that said, there is still a lot of deleveraging to go. There is going to be a long process of selling assets, reducing extensions of credit, and building capital ratios. This may not yet be fully felt in the real economy, but it will eventually be there. So I do think that we are going to see continued pressure from financial markets and credit markets, even if we don’t have any serious relapses into financial stress. So, again, I am somewhat more skeptical about a near-term improvement in economic growth, although I do acknowledge that the fiscal package and other factors that the Greenbook mentions will be helpful.
The question has been raised about whether monetary policy is helpful and what the stance of monetary policy is. I agree with the comment that the real federal funds rate is not necessarily the best measure of the stance of monetary policy right now. Let me take an example that was given in the New York Fed’s daily financial report a couple of days ago, which was about the all-in cost of asset-backed securities backed by auto loans. According to this report, in February of ’07, the three-year swap rate was about 5 percent, and the spread on AAA tranches of auto-backed ABS was about 10 basis points. The all-in cost was 5.07 percent for this particular asset. In February of ’08, the three-year swap rate was 3.15 percent, almost 2 percentage points lower, but the spread on AAA tranches was 195 basis points. Therefore, the overall all-in cost of auto loan ABS was 5.36 percent. So the net effect is—well, is monetary policy doing anything? Absolutely. We have reduced the safe rate. We have brought down the cost of funds. But the spreads have obviously offset that. So what we have really done is essentially offset the effects of the credit crisis. Obviously, if we had not responded to the situation, those costs would be much higher, and the extent of restriction would be a lot greater. For these reasons, I really do believe that we need to take a much more sophisticated look at what the appropriate interest rate is. The Taylor rules, in particular, are just not appropriate for the current situation because the equilibrium real interest rate of 2 percent that is built into them is not necessarily appropriate.
Let me turn to inflation, which a lot of people talked about today. First, let me just say that I certainly have significant concerns on the nominal side. In particular, I have a lot of anxiety about the dollar. Foreign exchange rates in general are not well tied down, and they are very subject to sentiment and swings in views. Therefore, although I think that the depreciation of the dollar so far is a mixed bag—obviously, it has effects on different parts of the economy—I do think that there is a risk of a sharper fall with possibly adverse implications, in the short run, for U.S. assets and, in the long run, perhaps implications for our position as a reserve currency and so on. So I think that is an issue to be concerned about. For that reason and for other reasons as well, I am very sympathetic to the view I hear around the table that we are now very, very close to where we ought to be, that it is time to take a rest, to see the effects of our work, and to pay equal attention to the nominal side of our mandate. I agree with all of that. So I am hopeful that in our policy discussion tomorrow we will be fairly close around the table.
That being said, I do want to take a little exception to some of the discussion about inflation. There is an obvious and very elementary distinction between relative price changes and overall inflation. Let me ask you to do the following thought experiment. Imagine you are speaking to your board. Last year, as a first approximation, headline inflation was 4 percent, labor compensation grew at 4 percent, and oil prices rose 60 percent. Let’s imagine that we had been so farsighted and so effective that we managed to keep headline inflation last year at 2 percent. The implications would have been, assuming that relative price changes were the same, that wages would have grown at 2 percent and that oil prices would have risen at 57 percent. In the conversation with your board, your board would say, “This inflation is killing us. These costs are killing us. We have to pass them through.” They would, and they would be right. When there are big changes in relative prices, that is a real phenomenon, and it has to be accommodated somehow by nominal price shifts. So to the extent that the changes in food and oil prices reflect real supply-and-demand conditions, obviously they are very distressing and bad for the economy and create a lot of pain, but they are not in themselves necessarily under the control of monetary policy. If we give the impression that gasoline prices are the Fed’s responsibility, we are looking for trouble because we cannot control gasoline prices. That said, of course we need to address the overall inflation rate. We need to address inflation expectations. All of that is very important. But, again, we need to make a distinction between relative price changes and overall inflation.
Now, a more sophisticated response to that is, “Well, maybe monetary policy is contributing to these relative price changes as well”; and I think that is a very serious issue. Certainly the dollar has some effects on oil prices. But keep in mind that a lot of the depreciation of the dollar is a decline in real exchange rates, which is essential in any case for balancing our external accounts. So, yes, the depreciation of the dollar, through our policies, has contributed somewhat to commodity prices. But compared with the overall shifts in relative prices that we have seen, I think it is not that large. There are other hypotheses suggesting that we have been stimulating speculation in a bubble, suggesting that low real interest rates contribute to commodity price booms. I don’t want to take more time, but the evidence for those things is very limited. In particular, the fact that we have not seen any buildups in hoarding or inventories is a very strong argument against the idea that inflation expectations, hoarding, or speculation is a major factor in energy price increases. So, yes, the nominal side is very important. We need to address that. I agree with that. But we should try to help our audiences understand the very important distinction between real and nominal changes.
I think I will stop there. If I can ask for your patience, we could do the briefing on the alternatives today and give ourselves more time tomorrow. Around the table, does that seem okay? I’ll call on Bill English.