Thank you, Mr. Chairman. In preparation for submitting my forecast, I looked at my previous forecasts—a humbling but instructive experience usually. [Laughter] Going back a year, I found that, based on the staff’s estimate for 2006, inflation and growth had each turned out within a quarter point of my projections. I’m quite certain that this is not a consequence of any particular expertise on my part. Rather, it is indicative that, in a broad sense, the economy is performing remarkably close to our expectations. President Poole was making this point. Even going back a few years to when we started to remove accommodation, despite large fluctuations in energy prices in recent years, huge geopolitical uncertainties, and a housing boom and bust the dimensions of which we really didn’t anticipate three years ago, the economy is in the neighborhood of full employment, and core inflation is at a fairly low rate by historical standards.
Now, the surprises last year were the surge of inflation in the spring and early summer. That has not been entirely reversed. The extent of the slowdown in productivity growth, both in terms of trend and of actual relative to the lower estimated trend, and the related decline in the unemployment rate suggest that we are entering 2007 with a higher risk of inflation than I had anticipated a year ago. Given this risk, it is especially important that economic growth be no greater and perhaps a little less than the growth rate of potential, and that is my forecast—a small uptrend in the unemployment rate. The issue I wrestled with was how fast the economy will be growing when the drag from housing abates. In early December, the debate might have been about whether demand would be sufficient to support growth as high as potential. But given the stabilization of housing demand, the strength of consumption, and ongoing increases in employment, I asked myself whether we might not find the economy growing faster than its potential beginning in the second half of 2007 and in 2008, thereby adding to inflation pressures.
A couple of forces, however, gave me a little comfort in supporting my projection of only moderate growth. One is the modest restraint on demand from the recent rise in interest rates, especially the restraint on the housing market, and the dollar exchange rate. Another is the likelihood that consumption will grow more slowly relative to income and will lag the response to housing as housing prices level out and as energy prices begin to edge higher. Consumption late last year was probably still being boosted substantially by the past increases in housing wealth and by the declines in energy prices, which combined with warm weather to give a considerable lift to disposable income. On the housing wealth factor, I think our model suggests that it takes several quarters for a leveling out in housing wealth to build into consumption. In fact, the data through the third quarter suggest that prices were really just about leveling out in the third quarter. So it may be a little early to conclude that, just because we’re not seeing a spillover from the housing market to consumption, there isn’t going to be any. I expect some, though modest, spillover. Moreover, some of the impulse in the fourth quarter was from net exports. These were spurred in part by a temporary decline in petroleum imports and an unexpected strength in exports. Those conditions are unlikely to be sustained. In addition, business investment spending has been weaker than we anticipated. Now, I suspect this is, like the inventory situation, just an aspect of adapting to a slower pace of growth, and investment will strengthen going forward. But it does suggest that businesses are cautious. They are not anticipating ebullient demand and a pressing need to expand facilities to meet increases in sales, and their sense of their market seems worth factoring into our calculations. Finally, the fact that I would have been asking just the opposite question seven weeks ago suggests that we’re also putting a lot of weight on a few observations, [laughter] whether regarding the weakness then or the strength more recently.
I do continue to believe that growth close to the growth rate of potential will be consistent with gradually ebbing inflation. For this I would round up the usual suspects, reflecting the ebbing of some temporary factors that increased inflation in 2006. One factor is energy prices. Empirical evidence since the early 1980s to the contrary notwithstanding, the coincidence that President Lacker remarked between the rise and fall in energy prices in 2006 and the rise and fall in core inflation suggests some cause and effect. The increase in energy prices into the summer has probably not yet been completely reversed in twelve-month core inflation rates, so I expect some of that to be dying out as we go into the future. Increases in rents are likely to moderate as units are shifted from ownership to rental markets. The slowdown in growth relative to earlier last year seems to have made businesses more aware of competitive pressures, restraining pricing power. When we met last spring, we had a lot of discussion about businesses feeling that they had pricing power—that they could pass through increases in costs. I haven’t heard any of that discussion around the table today.
The recent slowdown in inflation is encouraging but not definitive evidence that the moderation is in train. The slowdown could have been helped by the decline in energy prices, and that decline won’t be repeated. Goods prices might have been held back by efforts to run off inventories, and that phenomenon, too, would be temporary. As I already noted, the initial conditions—the recent behavior of productivity and the relatively low level of the unemployment rate—suggest upward inflation risks relative to this gentle downward tilt. To an extent, the staff has placed a relatively favorable interpretation on these developments. They haven’t revised trend productivity down any further. They expect a pickup in realized productivity growth over this year. They see a portion of the strength in labor markets as simply lagging the slowdown in growth—a little more labor hoarding than usual as the economy cools, along with some statistical anomalies. Thus, in the Greenbook, the unemployment rate rises, and inflation pressures remain contained as activity expands at close to the growth rate of potential.
President Yellen at the last meeting and Bill Wascher today pointed out two less benign possibilities. One is that demand really has been stronger, as indicated by the income-side data, and that the labor and product markets really are as tight as the unemployment rate suggests. In this case, the unemployment rate wouldn’t drift higher with moderate growth. Businesses might find themselves facing higher labor costs and being able to pass them on unless we take steps to firm financial conditions. The second possibility is that trend productivity is lower. In this case, actual productivity growth might not recover much this year. Unit labor costs would rise more quickly. Given the apparent momentum in demand, we might be looking at an even further decline in the unemployment rate in the near term. Now, my outlook is predicated on something like the staff interpretation, but I think these other possibilities underline the inflation risks in an economy in which growth has been well maintained. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.