Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Developments during the intermeeting period have heightened my concern about downside risks to economic growth and slightly allayed my concern about upside risks to inflation. Let me begin with growth. The moderate growth rate registered in the second quarter was disappointing, especially because it benefited from the temporary effects of the fiscal stimulus package. Moreover, the pattern of consumer spending during the quarter, with weakness in June, is worrisome. With all the publicity surrounding the rebate checks, households may have put them to work earlier than usual, especially since they were facing significantly higher prices for food and gasoline. This interpretation does not bode well for activity in the current quarter. Assuming no change in the funds rate this year, we have lowered our forecast for real GDP growth for the second half of the year about ⅓ percentage point, to just ¾ percent, and project a correspondingly higher unemployment rate.
Our forecast for weak second-half growth reflects not only the unwinding of fiscal stimulus but also adverse financial sector developments. The credit crunch appears to have intensified since we last met. Evidence of tighter financial conditions abound. Risk spreads and the interest rates charged on a variety of private loans, including mortgages, are up noticeably, and lending standards have tightened further. Credit losses have risen not only on mortgages but also on auto loans, credit cards, and home equity lines of credit. As a consequence, the list of troubled depository institutions is growing longer. IndyMac and First National will not be the last banks in our region to fail. Indeed, the decline in broad stock market indexes is partly a reflection of the market’s concerns about the health of the financial sector. Many financial institutions are deleveraging their balance sheets and reducing loan originations. For example, a large bank in my District has begun now in earnest to cancel or cap outstanding home equity loans and lines of credit, despite an ongoing concern about alienating consumers. Tighter credit is affecting demand. Anecdotal reports suggest that the plunge in July car sales partly reflects a tightening of credit standards for auto loans and leases. A large bank reports a substantial drop in demand for mortgage credit in response to the recent rise in mortgage interest rates, and the anecdotal reports that we hear support the Greenbook’s negative view of the effect of credit conditions on investment in nonresidential structures.
The housing sector is of considerable concern. House prices have continued to fall at a rapid rate, and futures prices suggest a further decline of around 10 percent over the next 12 months. This forecast seems reasonable given the overhang of homes for sale, the recent rise in mortgage rates, and the tightening of credit. Unfortunately, the risk of an adverse feedback loop from tighter credit to higher unemployment, to rising foreclosures, to escalating financial sector losses, to yet tighter credit remains alive and well, in my opinion. Indeed, stress tests conducted by some of the large financial institutions in our District reveal an exceptionally high sensitivity of credit losses to both home-price movements and unemployment. The “severe financial stress” simulation in the Greenbook illustrates my concern. It is not my modal forecast, but it certainly seems well within a reasonable range of outcomes. The probability of such a scenario has risen, in my view, since we met in June.
One partially mitigating factor that should help to support consumer spending is the drop in the price of oil since our last meeting. But to the extent that the decline in oil prices partly reflects reduced expectations for global growth, the net impetus from stronger domestic spending will be offset by weaker export growth. Continued declines or even stabilization in oil prices will, however, be good for inflation. We have revised down slightly our forecast for core inflation as a consequence. Moreover, the fact that we were not once again surprised on the upside by oil prices has had a small favorable effect on my perception of inflation risks going forward. That said, inflation risks obviously remain. Even with the recent decline, energy prices are well above year-ago levels and are not only pushing up headline inflation but also spilling, to some extent, into core. Higher headline inflation could undermine our credibility and raise inflation expectations. If the public concludes that our implicit inflation objective has drifted up, workers may demand higher compensation, setting off a wage–price dynamic that would be costly to unwind.
Fortunately, the reports I hear are consistent with the view that no such dynamic has taken hold. My contacts uniformly report that they see no signs of wage pressures. They note that high unemployment is suppressing wage gains. Growth in our two broad measures of labor compensation are low and stable; and taking productivity growth into account, unit labor costs have risen only modestly. I tend to think of the chain of causation in a wage–price spiral running from wages to prices, but it is certainly possible that the causation also, or instead, runs in the opposite direction. Either way, though, faster wage growth is an inherent part of the process by which underlying inflation drifts up, and at present we see not the slightest inkling of emerging wage pressures.
Growth in unit labor costs also remains at exceptionally low levels. I would also note that I have looked for evidence of some increase in the NAIRU due to sectoral reallocation by examining the Beveridge curve, thinking that if there were sectoral reallocation we might see an outward shift in the Beveridge curve. I have detected no evidence of such an outward shift. These facts provide me with some comfort. Moreover, various measures of longer-term inflation expectations suggest that they remain relatively well contained. When we met in June, the Michigan survey of inflation expectations five to ten years ahead had recently jumped a couple tenths of a percentage point. I argued then that the respondents to that survey typically overrespond to contemporaneous headline inflation. Since that meeting, oil prices have come down a bit, and so have the Michigan survey measures. Assuming that the funds rate is raised from 2 percent to 3 percent in 2009, my forecast shows both headline and core PCE inflation falling to about 2 percent in that year. So, in summary, during the intermeeting period, my forecast for economic growth has weakened, and that for inflation has edged down slightly. I consider the risks to our two policy objectives pretty evenly balanced at the present time.