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

So here is my reasoning. I thought that the average includes lots of episodes of more or less steady growth in steady state and then other episodes of cyclical adjustments. In my mind, we were in the middle of a kind of mini-cycle, which was an adjustment from greater-than-sustainable growth to growth that we hope is sustainable. We’ve seen that the adjustment had already created some inventory overhangs and some changes in capital spending plans. So I thought that, because we’re not at a steady state, things might be a little more uncertain than usual. But I compensated for that by narrowing my confidence bands in ’08 and ’09 [laughter] when I think we’ll be close to a kind of a steady state.

On the skews part, like President Geithner, I had downside skews on output. It wasn’t so much housing because I think that, with the adjustment to demand or activity that’s in the staff forecast and my own adjustment to prices, the risks around that are approximately balanced. Nor was it a spreading of problems in the subprime market to other credit markets; I think we’ve seen enough since the subprime problems started to be pretty sure that the risk is no more than the normal kind. Rather, the risk I saw was from concerns about the financial position and the psychology of the household sector and the interaction of those with housing. So it was a spillover in some sense from housing to consumption. The financial obligations ratio is very high. Households, as President Geithner noted, are highly leveraged. One of the surprises to me in the development of subprime markets was apparently how many borrowers and lenders were counting on the future appreciation in houses just to support the debt service, to say nothing of the consumption that must be going on at the same time. I suspect that this is more widespread than just the subprime market. How many households were expecting price appreciation to continue more as it did before rather than to slow down or even for prices to decline (as I think they will), it’s hard to say. But I suspect there are a lot of these households, and I think we could get some feedback there. The staff has the saving rate actually declining in the second and third quarters, and there might be some technical reasons for that. Even to get modest consumption growth, we see a very gradual uptrend in the saving rate over time. That might be the most likely outcome, but it did suggest to me that there is at least some fatter tail on the possibility that households, seeing what’s happening in the housing market and to their financial obligations, will draw back more quickly from spending.

When President Geithner and I were in Basel, the most popular question to us was whether capital spending would really pick up again. A number of central bankers doubted that that could happen as long as consumption wasn’t growing more rapidly. But I’m comfortable with the capital spending pattern so long as the consumption pattern looks something like the pattern in the Greenbook and like the one that I have as my most likely outcome.

More generally, as you pointed out at one point last fall, Mr. Chairman, I think we’re in a very unusual situation of below-potential growth for an extended period—a situation that is pretty much unprecedented without breaking out one way or another. Some nonlinearity is going to come up and bite us here, and, as I see it, the nonlinearity is most likely in the household sector.

Now, if income proceeds along the expected path, it seems to me that there are upside risks to inflation moving down to 2 percent and staying there in our forecast. I think that overall we’re facing a more difficult inflation environment than we have for the past ten years or so: the high level of resource utilization; rising import prices from the decline in the dollar and the high level of demand relative to potential supply globally, including in the emerging-market economies—one thing we heard in Basel was that increasing numbers of these economies are having trouble sterilizing their reserve accumulation and are running into inflation pressures from that happening—higher prices for energy, food, and other commodities; higher headline inflation; and possibly even slower trend productivity growth. I didn’t see a downside skew to any of these things. But, as I thought about the whole picture with all these things seeming to tilt a bit on one side and their interaction, it seemed to me that there was some upside risk to the possibility that inflation expectations would rise rather than stay where they are as assumed in my most likely outcome. Now, for policy purposes, I would weight the upside risk to inflation more than the downside risk to growth, but we’ll get to that later in the day. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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