Thank you. Thank you everyone. Let me try to summarize this discussion. It is a little harder than usual. Broadly, the macroeconomic news came in slightly better than expected during the intermeeting period. Housing has been very weak, as expected; but consumption, investment, and net exports were relatively strong in recent months. In the aggregate data, there is yet no clear sign of a spillover from housing. Most participants expect several weak quarters followed by recovery later next year.
The risks remain to the downside but may be less than at our last meeting. One issue, given all these factors, is determining the equilibrium short-term interest rate. Financial market conditions have improved somewhat since our last meeting, with investors discriminating among borrowers and with the process of price discovery proceeding. There was general agreement that conditions are not back to normal and that it would be some time before that happened. Some suggested that a risk of relapse remains, should credit quality worsen or further bad news be disclosed. Lending conditions have tightened, particularly for mortgages, and securitization remains impaired. There is not yet much evidence that this tightening is affecting business borrowing, however, although financial conditions may have somewhat increased uncertainty among business leaders.
Views on how consumption would evolve were mixed. Consumer sentiment is on the weak side, house prices are down, and oil prices are up, which suggests some weakening ahead. However, the labor market remains reasonably solid, which should support consumer spending. Anecdotal information about consumer spending was unusually mixed. Some saw evidence of growing weakness in consumption. This evidence included weak reports from shippers and credit card companies. Others saw the consumer side as slowing a bit but generally healthy. Investment, including investment in commercial real estate, may also be slowing somewhat; but again, the evidence is mixed. Manufacturing growth appears to be moderating. Other sectors— including energy, agriculture, high-tech, and tourism—are doing well. Core inflation has moderated, and there was generally more comfort that this improvement would persist. There was less concern expressed about tightness in labor markets and wage pressures. Energy prices and food prices could lead total inflation to rise, perhaps even into next year, and there is the risk of pass-through to the core. Similar concerns apply to the dollar and to export prices. Some, but not all, TIPS-based measures of inflation expectations have risen, and survey-based measures have been stable. Most participants saw inflation risks to the upside, but at least some saw them as less pressing than earlier this year. That is my summary. Comments?
Well, again, as usual, it is hard to be the last person to speak, but let me make just a few comments. First, as always, the Greenbook was very thoughtful. The authors have done a good job of balancing the risks, and I find their forecast very plausible as a modal forecast. Housing does seem to be very weak, of course, and manufacturing looks to be slowing further. But except for those sectors, there is a good bit of momentum still in the economy. Having said that, I think there is an unusual amount of uncertainty around the modal forecast, maybe less than in September but still a great deal.
Let me talk briefly about three areas: financial markets, housing, and inflation. A lot of people have already spoken about financial markets. Market functioning certainly has improved. Our action in September helped on that. For example, commercial paper markets are working almost normally for good borrowers, the spreads are down, and volumes are stable. One concern that we had for quite a while was that banks would be facing binding balance sheet constraints because of all the contingent liabilities that they had—off-balance-sheet vehicles, leveraged loans, and so on. That problem seems to be somewhat less than it was. Some of the leveraged loans are being sold off, some of the worst off-balance-sheet vehicles are being wound down. So there is generally improvement in the financial market, certainly. In the past couple of weeks there has been some deterioration in sentiment, and I see that as coming from essentially two factors. First, there were a number of reports of unusually large and unanticipated losses, which reduced the confidence of investors that we had detected and unearthed all the bad news. This problem will eventually be resolved, but clearly we still have some way to go to clarify where people stand. The other issue, which I think is more pertinent to our discussion, is about economic fundamentals. There was a very bad response, for example, to Caterpillar’s profit report, and so the market is appropriately responding to economic fundamentals as they feed through into credit concerns.
From our perspective, one of the key issues will be the availability of credit to consumers and firms going forward. My sense—based on my talking to supervisors, looking at the senior loan officer survey, and talking to some people in the markets—is that banks are becoming quite conservative, and that is what Kevin said. It is not necessarily a balance sheet constraint but more a concern about renewed weakness in markets. It is also a concern about the condition of borrowers, about credit risk, and the demands of investors for very tight underwriting. Now, of course, tight underwriting is not a bad thing; it is a good thing. But from our perspective, we need to think about its potential implications for growth and, if you like, for r*. The biggest effect of the tighter underwriting, of course, has been on mortgage loans, although we have seen a bit of improvement in the secondary market for prime jumbos, which is encouraging if that continues. This is the area in which vicious-circle effects, which Vice Chairman Geithner and others have talked about, is most concerning. House prices, according to the Greenbook, are projected to fall 4½ percent over the next two years. Clearly, there is some downside risk to that. If house prices were to fall much more, that would feed into credit evaluations, into balance sheets, back into credit extension, and so on. So I think there is a risk there, as Governor Kroszner and Governor Mishkin also discussed. The corporate sector is not much of a problem. Good firms are issuing debt without much problem. I don’t really have much read on small business, but I have not heard much complaining in that area either. With respect to consumers, my guess is that we are going to see some effects on consumers. Certainly, home equity loans and installment loans have tightened up. We can see that in the senior loan officer survey. We don’t see that yet for credit cards, but since a lot of credit cards are used by people with subprime credit histories, I suspect that we will see some tightening there. So I do expect to see some effect on consumers from credit conditions.
As has already been mentioned, an area we also need to note is commercial real estate. Financing conditions have already tightened there quite considerably, and spreads are much wider. The senior loan officer survey shows the tightening of terms and conditions that matches previous recessions, and CMBS issuance has dropped very significantly. You can debate whether or not this tightening is justified by fundamentals. On the one hand, vacancy rates remain low, and rents are high. On the other hand, it is still also true that price-to-rent ratios are quite high. If you calculate an equity risk premium for commercial real estate analogously to the way you calculate one for stocks, you would find that it is at an unusually low level, which would tend to suggest that prices may fall. So it is uncertain, I would say. Certainly one area in which we might see further retrenchment in commercial real estate is the public sector: Tax receipts are slowing, and that might affect building decisions. So I do think this is another area in which we will be seeing some effects from credit tightening. I should be clear—the Greenbook already incorporates a considerable slowdown in commercial real estate, but that means it will no longer offset the residential slowdown.
I just want to make one comment about housing, which I think we all agree is a central source of uncertainty, both for the credit reasons I have discussed and in terms of prices, wealth, and other issues. Let me just make one point that I found striking anyway, which is that—at least from the Greenbook—the forecast of a strengthening economy by next spring and the second half of next year is very closely tied to the assumption that housing will turn around next spring. In particular, if you look at all the final demand components for the economy, other than housing, in 2007 those components contributed 3.5 percentage points to GDP. According to the Greenbook forecast, in 2008 all those components together will contribute 2.0 percentage points to GDP. So the fact that GDP doesn’t slow any more than 0.6 comes from the assumption that the negative contribution of housing next year will be much less than it was in this year. It is certainly possible—again, I think the Greenbook authors have done a good job of balancing the risks. But as we have noted, we have missed this turn before, and it could happen again. So let me just note that as an important issue. If we do miss on that turn, the other forecast errors for consumption and so on obviously would be correlated with that miss.
Finally, let me talk for a moment about inflation. I want to share the concerns that some people have noted. If you wanted to be defensive about inflation, you could point out that the movement in oil prices and the dollar and so on is in part due to our actions. But it is also due to a lot of other things—for example, the dollar in broad real terms is about where it was in the late ’90s. In that respect, it is perhaps about where it should be in terms of trying to make progress on the current account deficit. Similarly, with oil, a lot of other factors besides monetary policy are involved. That said, I share with Governor Warsh the concern that the visibility of these indicators day after day in financial markets and on television screens has a risk of affecting inflation psychology. I do worry about that. I think we should pay attention to that. So I do think that is a concern, and we obviously need to take it into consideration in our policies, in our statements, and in our public remarks.
I have one more comment on housing before ending. In thinking about the turnaround for housing next year, Governor Kroszner talked about resets and those sorts of issues. We spend a lot of time here at the Board thinking about different plans for refinancing subprime borrowers or other borrowers into sustainable mortgages. We have looked at the FHA and other types of approaches. A very interesting paper by an economist named Joseph Mason at Drexel discusses, at a very detailed institutional level, the issues related to refinancing, in terms both of the servicers’ incentives and of the regulatory perspective. Mason points out that there are some serious regulatory problems with the massive refinancing effort, including consumer protection issues, because refinancing can be a source of scams. There are also issues of safety and soundness because refinancing can be a way to disguise losses, for example. If you read that paper, I think you will be persuaded—at least I am becoming increasingly persuaded—that a significant amount of refinancing will not be happening and that we will see substantial financial problems and foreclosures that will peak somewhere in the middle of next year. So I think that is an additional risk that we ought to take into account as we think about the evolution of housing.
Those are just a few comments on the general outlook. Let me just note, we will adjourn in a moment. There will be a reception and a dinner, for those of you who wish to stay. There will be no program or business, so if you have other plans, feel free to pursue them. A number of pieces of data, including GDP, will arrive overnight, and we will begin tomorrow morning with a discussion of the new data. Perhaps that will help us in our discussion of policy. Thank you. The meeting is adjourned.