Thank you. In terms of market developments, I would like to focus on three major topics. First is the sharp adjustment in market expectations concerning monetary policy since the last FOMC meeting. Second, I will talk about the persistence of high risk appetites in credit markets, with a focus on what may be the most vulnerable market in the United States—the subprime mortgage sector. Third, I want to discuss the possible factors behind some of the sharp shifts we have seen in commodity prices since the last FOMC meeting, in particular whether these price movements reflect a shift in risk appetite among noncommercial investors or fundamental developments in supply and demand.
First, there has been a sharp shift in market expectations with respect to interest rates since the last meeting. At the time of the December meeting, the consensus view among market participants was that the FOMC would begin to lower its federal funds rate target this spring and that this easing process would continue into 2008, with cumulative rate cuts of about 75 basis points. As you can see in chart 1, which looks at the federal funds futures market, and chart 2, which looks at the yield spreads between the March 2008 and the March 2007 Eurodollar futures contracts, expectations have shifted very sharply over the past month. There is now no easing priced in through midyear 2007 and a residual of only about 25 basis points of easing priced in beyond that. This shift in expectations can also be seen across the Treasury yield curve. As chart 3 shows, the Treasury yield curve is now slightly above where it was at the time of October FOMC meeting. Since the December FOMC meeting, there has been a rise of about 35 to 40 basis points in yields from two-year to thirty- year maturities. The shift in expectations is reflected predominately in real interest rates. As can be seen in chart 4, breakeven inflation rates have not changed much since the last FOMC meeting—the decline in breakeven rates that occurred early in the intermeeting period has been reversed more recently, and so we are at or slightly above where we were at the December meeting. This upward shift in real rates appears to reflect a reassessment by market participants not only about the near-term path of short-term rates but also about what level of real short-term rates is likely to prove sustainable over the medium and longer term. The buoyancy of the recent activity data may have caused some market participants to reassess what level of the real federal funds rate is likely to prove “neutral” over the longer term.
Regarding the issue of risk appetite, there appears to be no significant change since the last FOMC meeting. Risk appetite remains very strong. Corporate credit spreads remain very tight—especially in the high-yield sector (as shown in chart 5)— and implied volatilities across the broad market categories—equities and interest rates (see chart 6) and foreign exchange rates (see chart 7)—remain unusually low. Moreover, the turbulence in some emerging debt and equity markets experienced early this month was mostly transient and has subsided as well. So things appear calm. But what are the areas of greatest risk?
In the United States, the subprime mortgage market appears to be a particularly vulnerable sector. The vulnerability stems from four factors. First, this market is relatively new and untested. Chart 8 shows the overall trend of first residential mortgage originations and the share of these mortgages by type—conforming, jumbo, subprime, and alt-A, which is a quality category that sits above subprime but is not quite as good as conforming. As can be seen in this chart, subprime mortgage originations have climbed in recent years, even as overall originations have fallen. In 2006, subprime mortgages were 24 percent of total originations, up from a share of about 10 percent in 2003. The second factor is that credit standards in this market appear to have loosened in 2006, with the proportion of interest-only loans and low- documentation loans climbing as a share of the total. As a result, there are some signs that strains in this market are increasing. As chart 9 shows, delinquency rates have moved somewhat higher. In contrast, charge-offs remain low, held down by the rapid house price appreciation that we saw in recent years. Most noteworthy, as shown in chart 10, the most recent 2006 vintage of subprime mortgages is showing a much more rapid rise in delinquencies than earlier vintages showed. The third factor is that most outstanding subprime mortgage loans have adjustable rates. There is significant reset risk given the rise in short-term rates in 2005 and the first half of 2006 and the fact that many of these loans started with low “teaser” rates. Fourth, housing prices are under some pressure, and this could contribute to further credit strains. I see some risk of a vicious cycle. If credit spreads in the securitized market spike because loan performance is poor, a sharp downturn in lending could result as the capital market for securitized subprime mortgage products closes. This constriction of credit could put downward pressure on prices and lead to more credit problems among borrowers. The result would be additional credit quality problems, wider credit spreads, and a further contraction of credit. Fortunately, to date the news is still fairly favorable. The strong demand for the credit derivatives obligations created from subprime mortgage products has restrained the rise in credit spreads. As can be seen in chart 11, spreads are still well below the peaks reached in late 2002 and early 2003. Thus, the economics of making such loans and securitizing them into the capital markets still work. But this situation could change very quickly, especially if the labor markets were to become less buoyant and the performance of the underlying loans were to deteriorate, leading to a surge in delinquencies and charge-offs.
Let me now turn to the commodity markets. The issue I wish to examine here is whether some of the sharp movements in commodity prices that we have observed since the last FOMC meeting represent shifts in the risk appetite among noncommercial investors who have put funds into commodities as a new asset class versus the contrasting view that these price movements predominantly represent changes in the underlying supply and demand fundamentals. To get a sense of this, let’s look briefly at three commodities that have moved the most and are representative of their classes—copper, corn, and crude oil. As chart 12 shows, the sharp decline in copper prices appears linked to the large rise in copper inventories at the London Metal Exchange. If anything, the price decline appears overdue. For corn, the rise in prices also appears consistent with declining stocks both in the United States and globally (see chart 13) as well as the growing demand anticipated for corn in the production of ethanol. For crude oil, the decline in prices is more difficult to tie back to inventories. Although U.S. inventories remain high relative to the five-year historical average (as shown in chart 14), this situation has persisted for some time without having a big effect on prices. Instead, the shift in oil prices appears to be driven mostly by longer-term forces. This can be seen in two ways. First, as shown in chart 15, the change in oil prices has occurred in both spot and forward prices. The oil curve has shifted downward in mostly a parallel fashion, which also calls into question the role of unseasonably warm weather as the primary driver. If weather were the primary factor, then the decline in prices should have been reflected much more strongly in the spot and very short-end of the oil price curve. Second, as shown in chart 16, OPEC spare production capacity has been increasing and is expected to continue increasing in 2007. This growing safety margin reflects both slower growth in global demand and the expansion of non-OPEC output. The improved safety margin may be an important factor behind recent developments in the energy sector.
Finally, there were no foreign operations during this period. I request a vote to ratify the operations conducted by the System Open Market Account since the December FOMC meeting.