Thank you, Mr. Chairman, now that I have everyone’s attention, [laughter] I’m going to start with some information on the District and then talk briefly about the national economy from my perspective. Let me begin by saying that the District’s activity did slow over the second half of 2006 in line with the national economy itself. The slowdown was most apparent in housing and manufacturing. However, the most recent data that we have from November and December indicate a pickup in some of the activity. Moreover, reports from our directors and our business contacts suggest a considerable degree of optimism among them going forward, more than we expected actually. One area in which we are seeing signs of improvement is housing itself. While new construction activity does remain subdued in our region, sales activity has picked up, and the inventory situation appears to be improving in our major markets. Nonresidential construction remains strong and is offsetting some of the weakness on the residential side. District employment growth has risen in recent months, and labor markets remain tight for us. In addition to continuing shortages of skilled workers in a large number of technical and professional areas, we have recently received reports that the hospitality and recreational sectors are experiencing difficulty in finding lower-skilled workers as well. We have also received numerous reports from directors in District businesses indicating higher year-end wage and salary increases.
The situation in agriculture is somewhat mixed. The sharp increases in crop prices, especially corn, driven by exports of ethanol and exports of corn itself, have caused the USDA to boost estimates of 2007 farm income rather significantly. However, higher crop prices are also eroding profitability of livestock producers and processors in our region, which is a fairly important sector.
One important sector in which activity appears likely to slow in 2007 is energy. The District economy has benefited tremendously over the past few years from the rise in energy prices, which has spurred increased production of traditional products—and that includes oil, gas, and coal—as well as alternative fuels like ethanol and biodiesel. According to reports from a couple of our directors, however, the recent decline in energy prices has already led to a reduction in drilling activity and is likely to cause some cutbacks in new investment in alternative fuels as well.
Turning to the national outlook, I, like others, have noted the recent strength in the economy and have raised my estimates of growth for the fourth quarter and somewhat raised them for the first quarter. I continue to expect growth to rise over 2007 modestly toward what I think is potential, in the neighborhood of 3 percent. However, now I expect it to occur a little more quickly than I did at the December meeting. Accordingly, recent economic information has led me to reassess the balance of risks to the outlook. I believe the downside risks from the further slowing of housing have diminished somewhat. Moreover, I share the view that the recent weakness in manufacturing activity reflects a better balancing of production and inventories rather than a fundamental weakness. Going forward, the improved outlook for energy prices should support consumer spending by improving consumers’ disposable income, and we may see additional fiscal stimulus resulting from the more-favorable budget positions of the state and local governments.
Finally, in terms of the inflation outlook, my views have not changed materially since the last meeting. I’ve been encouraged by the recent inflation data, and I continue to expect inflation to decline over the forecast period. I expect the core CPI to be in the 2.3 percent range and core PCE inflation to be about 2 percent for 2007. However, as others have noted, core inflation is too high, and considerable uncertainty remains about whether the recent progress will be sustained. Particularly, it is not clear how the opposing trends of lower energy prices and greater resource pressures may play out over the next few quarters. Consequently, it seems to me that there is upside risk to the inflation outlook. Thank you.