Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I thought I’d focus a little more today in my comments on the State of Florida as it relates to the housing sector. We’ve heard a lot more positive comments in just the past few minutes about housing. So let me offer a contrarian view, if you will. Florida accounts for about 41 percent of our District employment and 6 percent of overall U.S. employment. As for housing, Florida represented 8 percent of U.S. home sales in 2005 and 6 percent in 2006 as sales and construction continued to decline. To put these numbers in perspective, single-family existing home sales in Florida have dropped 40 percent since January 2005 versus an 11 percent decline in the United States as a whole. Anecdotal reports are that builders are continuing to work down existing inventory and are not starting new projects. In most areas of the state, starts have fallen even more than sales, which should lessen the run-up in housing inventory over the immediate future. Permit issuance for single-family homes is down 54 percent in Florida since January 2005 compared with 28 percent in the nation as a whole. There are certain encouraging signs from reports noting, as mentioned earlier, that buyer traffic is better in some areas, and several of the building contacts that we spoke with expect or, perhaps I would note more accurately, are hopeful that new home sales will improve by the second quarter of 2007.
Home prices have declined modestly but remain well above the levels implied by the pre- 2003 trends in most areas. This places housing affordability at a relatively low level by historical standards. As I noted at previous meetings, the demand in coastal markets is being constrained by the steep rise in homeownership insurance that has caused monthly housing costs to rise sharply, even as house prices moderate. We’ve heard reports that in markets where prices accelerated the most in recent years, such as south Florida, employers are struggling to recruit staff because of the high housing costs, with some firms electing to leave south Florida and others beginning to convert corporate owned land to corporate housing just so that they can recruit employees. As I reported at our last meeting, the decline in housing activity continues to have a negative effect on housing- related sectors specifically in the South because of our concentration in the carpet and other related industries. Housing-related employment is no longer a net contributor to year-over-year employment growth in the United States, even though overall job growth has remained very firm.
District banks reported that credit quality has softened but remains at very strong levels. However, banks are beginning to be a bit more vocal in expressing concern with regard to the possibility that builders will face financial problems in the coming months. In addition, banks express concern about the number of speculative condominium projects in south Florida. District banks have lower earnings targets for 2007, and the expectation is that bank merger and acquisition activity and layoffs will increase in the coming year. Some banks are even putting out the “for sale” sign in the hope of cashing out now, noting that things could get ugly over the next two years in some areas.
Outside the housing sector, indicators of economic performance in the District were mixed. Reports on holiday-related sales were on the positive side, whereas tourism remains relatively mixed across the District. Reports from the manufacturing sector were also mixed, with a weakness in the housing-related industries offset to some extent by the expanding activity in industries related to defense and energy.
For the U.S. economy as a whole, the drag from housing that we experienced over the second half of 2006 does not appear at this time to pose a serious threat to the overall economy, although some forecasters anticipate below-trend real GDP growth for the end of 2006 and the first quarter of 2007. Most would say that this situation is temporary and would anticipate that real GDP growth will rebound and be close to the trend rate of 3 percent for the rest of 2007. Our staff projections of real GDP growth have had about the same tone as those of the external forecasters. Our staff believes real GDP growth will be sustained in 2007 by job creation that should match the experience that we’ve seen in 2006.
Measured core inflation was well in excess of 2 percent at the end of 2006. The staff forecast is that core inflation will continue to hover just above 2 percent for all of 2007. The expectation is that price growth in services will continue to dominate core inflation going forward. In my comments I’ve focused a bit more on housing. I would just close by noting that my continued concern would be the lack of impetus to drive down inflation over the long term. Thank you.