Transcripts of the monetary policymaking body of the Federal Reserve from 2002–2008.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. At the time of our last meeting, I held out hope that the financial turmoil would gradually ebb and the economy might escape without serious damage. Subsequent developments have severely shaken that belief. The bad news since our last meeting has grown steadier and louder, as strains in financial markets have resurfaced and intensified and as the economy has shown clear signs of faltering. In addition, the downside threats to growth that then seemed to be tail events now appear to be much closer to the center of the distribution. I found little to console me in the Greenbook. Like the Board staff, I have significantly marked down my growth forecast. The possibilities of a credit crunch developing and of the economy slipping into a recession seem all too real.

Conditions in financial markets have worsened. Rates on a wide array of loans and securities have increased significantly since our last meeting, including those on term commercial paper, term LIBOR, prime jumbo mortgages, and high-yield corporate bonds. CDS spreads from major financial institutions with significant mortgage exposure, including Freddie and Fannie, have risen appreciably. In addition, broad stock indexes are down nearly 5 percent. At the same time, measures of implied volatility in equity, bond, and foreign exchange markets have all moved up, reflecting the greater uncertainty about the economy’s direction.

The most recent data on spending have been discouraging as well. Data on house sales, prices, and construction have been downbeat, and foreclosures on subprime loans have moved even higher. Even with efforts such as those facilitated by the Administration to freeze subprime rates, foreclosures look to rise sharply next year, which may dump a large number of houses on a market already swamped with supply. This will exacerbate the downward pressure on house prices and new home construction from already elevated home inventories. Indeed, the ten-city Case-Shiller home-price index has declined more than 5 percent over the past year through September, and futures contracts point to another sizable decline over the next twelve months.

I am particularly concerned that we may now be seeing the first signs of spillovers from the housing and financial sectors to the broader economy. Although the job market has remained reasonably healthy so far, real consumer spending in September and October was dead in the water, and households are growing more pessimistic about future prospects. The December reading of consumer sentiment showed another decline, and the cumulative falloff in this measure is becoming alarming. Gains in disposable income have been weakened. With consumer sentiment in the doldrums, house prices on the skids, and energy prices on the rise, consumer spending looks to be quite subdued for some time. This view is echoed by the CEO of a national high-end clothing retailer on our board, who recently emphasized to us that the positive chain store sales data in November were in fact artificially boosted by the Thanksgiving calendar shift and that the underlying trend for his business has worsened notably.

My modal forecast foresees the economy barely managing to avoid recession, with growth essentially zero this quarter and about 1 percent next quarter. I expect growth to remain below potential throughout next year, causing the unemployment rate to rise to about 5 percent, much like in the Greenbook. This forecast assumes a 50 basis point decline in the federal funds rate in the near future, placing the real funds rate near the center of the range of estimates of the neutral rate reported in the Bluebook. I should emphasize that I do not place a lot of confidence in this forecast, and, in particular, I fear that we are in danger of sliding into a credit crunch. Such an outcome is illustrated by the credit crunch alternative simulation in the Greenbook. Although I don’t foresee conditions in the banking sector getting as bleak as during the credit crunch of the early 1990s, the parallels to those events are striking. Back then, we saw a large number of bank failures in the contraction of the savings and loan sector. In the current situation, most banks are still in pretty good shape. Instead, it is the shadow banking sector— that is, the set of markets in which a variety of securitized assets are financed by the issuance of commercial paper—that is where the failures have occurred. This sector is all but shut for new business.

But bank capital is also an issue. Until the securitization of nonconforming mortgage lending reemerges, financing will depend on the willingness and ability of banks, thrifts, and the GSEs to step in to fill the breach. To the extent they do, that will put further pressure on their capital, which is already under some pressure from write-downs on existing loans and holdings of assets. Banks are showing increasing concern that their capital ratios will become binding and are tightening credit terms and conditions. Several developments suggest to me that this situation could worsen. In addition to the problems plaguing the adjustable-rate subprime mortgages, delinquencies have recently started to move up more broadly—on credit card and auto loans, adjustable-rate prime mortgages, and fixed-rate subprime mortgages. My contacts at large District banks tell me that, because the economy continues to be reasonably healthy and people have jobs, things are still under control. But if house prices and the stock market fall further and the economy appears to be weakening, then they will further tighten the lending conditions and terms on consumer loans to avoid problems down the road, and these fears could be self-fulfilling. If banks only partially replace the collapsed shadow banks or, worse, if they cut back their lending in anticipation of a worsening economy, then the resulting credit crunch could push us into recession. This possibility is presumably increasingly reflected in CDS and low-grade corporate bond spreads. Thus, the risk of recession no longer seems remote, especially since the economy may well already have begun contracting in the current quarter. Indeed, the December Blue Chip consensus puts the odds of a recession at about 40 percent. This estimate is within the range of recession probabilities computed by my staff using models based on the yield curve and other variables.

Turning to inflation, data on the core measure continues to be favorable. Wage growth remains moderate, and the recent downward revisions to hourly compensation have relieved some worries there. Inflation expectations remain contained. As I mentioned, I expect some labor market slack to develop, and this should offset any, in my view, modest inflationary pressures from past increases in energy and import prices and help keep core PCE price inflation below 2 percent. Continued increases in energy and import prices pose some upside risk to the inflation outlook, but there are also downside risks to inflation associated with a weakening economy and rising unemployment.

To sum up, I believe that the most likely outcome is for the economy to slow significantly in the near term, flirting with recession, and I view the risk to that scenario as being weighted significantly to the downside. In contrast, I expect inflation to remain well contained, and I view those risks as fairly balanced.

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