Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Our high-level view of current circumstances is that the real economy is quite weak, with weakness widespread. The financial markets are turning optimistic, and elevated prices and inflation remain a serious concern. Reports from our directors and District business contacts were broadly similar to the incoming national data and information from other Districts reported in the Beige Book. Observations from such District input support themes in the national data—for example, employment growth is quite weak. In this round of director reports and conversations, I heard an increasing number of reports of holds on hiring and expansion plans. One representative of a major retailer of home improvement goods reported that hiring for seasonal employees will be down 40 percent this spring. This translates to approximately 45,000 jobs. Nonresidential real estate development continues to slow in the District, especially in Florida and Georgia. Of the 18 commercial contractors contacted in April, 15 expect that commercial construction will be weaker for the rest of 2008 than for the same period in 2007, with several predicting even more pronounced weakness in 2009. On the brighter side, Florida Realtors are anticipating that sales over the next few months will exceed year-ago levels, and builders are signaling less weakness than in recent reports. This is a level of optimism we have not heard from Florida for some time. However, housing markets in the rest of the District continue to weaken. We heard several complaints that obtaining financing is a serious problem for commercial and residential developers and consumer homebuyers. In sum, the information from the Sixth District seems to confirm what I believe is the continuing story of the national real economy captured in the Greenbook—that is, shrinking net job creation, developing weakness in nonresidential construction, and a bottom in the housing market still not in sight.
In contrast, conditions in the financial markets appear to have improved substantially. As has been my practice, I had several conversations with contacts in a variety of financial firms. There was a consistent tone suggesting that financial markets are likely to have seen the worst. This does not mean that no concerns were expressed. Some contacts had concerns about European banks and credit markets, and concern about the value of the dollar, notwithstanding the recent rally, is coming up in more contexts. Concern was expressed about the dollar’s disruptive effect on commodity markets, in turn affecting the general price level—in particular, the effect of high energy prices on a wide spectrum of businesses’ consumer products and even on crime rates in rural and far suburban areas related to the theft of copper wiring and piping from vacant homes and air conditioning units. I worry that a narrative is developing along the lines that the ECB is concerned about inflation and the Fed not so much. This narrative encourages a dollar carry trade mentioned, again, by some financial contacts that puts downside pressure on the dollar that potentially undermines both growth and inflation objectives. I remain concerned about the vulnerability of financial markets to a shock or surprise, but overall, my contacts express the belief that conditions are improving. The Atlanta forecast submission sees flat real GDP growth in the first half of 2008, with gradual improvement in the second half. We continue to believe that the drag on economic activity from the problems in the housing and credit markets will persist into 2009.
On the inflation front, I am still projecting a decline in the rate of inflation over this year. I’ve submitted forecasts of declining headline inflation in 2009 and 2010, but I should note that my staff’s current projections suggest that improvement to the degree I would like to see may require some rises in the federal funds rate. It is my current judgment that, with an additional 25 basis point reduction in the fed funds rate target, policy will be appropriately calibrated to the gradual recovery of growth and the lowering of the inflation level envisioned in our forecast. This judgment is based on the view that, with a negative real funds rate by some measures, policy is in stimulative territory; that a lower cost of borrowing in support of growth depends more on market-driven tightening of credit spreads than a lower policy rate; that further cuts may contribute to unhelpful movements in the dollar exchange rate; and that extension of the four liquidity facilities may allow us to decouple liquidity actions from the fed funds rate target. In my view, we are in a zone of diminishing returns from further funds rate cuts beyond a possible quarter in this meeting. That said, as stated in the Greenbook, uncertainty surrounding the outlook for the real economy is very high, and the Committee needs, in my view, to preserve flexibility to deal with unanticipated developments. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.