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

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Like several of you, I’m going to focus on housing and what we’re seeing in the banking sector and in mortgage performance. Since the last meeting, I am feeling better about the housing market in the aggregate. It looks as though home sales are stabilizing for the fourth quarter. On the whole, home sales actually did go up a bit. The inventory of new homes for sale has now fallen for five months through December, and mortgage applications for home purchases continue to move above the levels of last summer, when they hit bottom. The National Association of Realtors is estimating that existing home sales have already bottomed out, and homebuilder sentiment improved in three of the four past months. But even if sales really have stabilized, the inventory of homes for sale still must be worked down before construction and growth resume in this market. Given that some existing homes have likely been pulled off the market in light of slower sales and moderating housing prices, this inventory correction period will probably continue into 2008. I think this is particularly true in markets such as Florida, as First Vice President Barron mentioned, where a large amount of speculative investment occurred during the boom period—with three to five years of excess construction from the investor side. So those homes still have to be worked through.

Asset quality in the consumer sector as a whole is very good. We have come through one of the most benign periods. The exception, as Bill mentioned in his presentation earlier today, is the subprime market. When you dissect it, you see that prime mortgage delinquencies are flat and subprime mortgages at a fixed rate are flat. The whole problem is in subprime ARMs, which are running into difficulties. The four federal regulatory agencies are looking harder at some of these subprime products. We started reviewing 2/28 mortgages, and now we’re looking at and testing some other products. We’re finding that the issues are getting more troublesome the further we dig into these products. To put the situation in perspective, subprime ARMs are a very small part of the whole mortgage market. As Vincent mentioned, subprime is about 13 percent, and the ARM piece of the subprime is about half to two-thirds, so we’re talking perhaps around 8 percent of the aggregate mortgages outstanding. We’re seeing that the borrowers who got into these during the teaser periods now are seeing tremendous payment shocks. For example, 2/28s that are going from the fixed two-year period to the adjustment period basically had their interest rates double, so they’re going from a 5 percent handle to a 10 percent handle, and the borrowers don’t have the discretionary income to absorb that. This type of mortgage was sold to a lot of subprime borrowers on the idea that they are lending vehicles to repair credit scores. You will show that you are going to pay during the early period, and then you can refinance and get a lower long-term rate, so you’ll never pay the jump. But we’re finding that some of these mortgages have significant prepayment penalties, and so to refinance and get the better terms, some borrowers are getting into difficulty. Because of the moderation in housing prices, these borrowers haven’t built up enough equity to absorb the prepayment penalty. So the problem stems from a combination of factors. There are a lot of spins on these products, but we’re trying to take an approach based on principles in looking at what’s really happening.

I also want to mention that, although the ownership of the mortgages is very diffuse and so we’re not seeing any real concentrated risk, particularly in banking, we do need to pay more attention to where the mortgage-servicing exposures are. The servicing of these mortgages that are securitized is concentrated in certain institutions. Clearly, when you have such a high level of delinquencies and potential defaults, all profitability in servicing is gone. So there could be some charge-offs in these securitized mortgages. Also, I think all of you have noticed the number of mortgage brokers that have closed up shop in the past six months because they couldn’t get enough liquidity or capital to repurchase the early defaults of these recent pools. That is really shrinking the origination pocket. I should also say that, with the exception of the subprime ARM mortgages, we feel very good about overall credit quality.

When I look at the economy as a whole, I also see that except for housing construction and autos, the rest of the economy is sound. The recent growth in employment and the strong wage growth give me comfort that the income growth of consumers is there to mitigate some of the wealth effects that we may have with moderating housing prices. But I also share the concerns that some of you mentioned here, and that President Yellen spoke of in a speech, about the issue regarding productivity trends and wage growth, and determining how fast the economy is growing. Productivity is going to have to grow faster to absorb the higher wage growth, particularly as employment growth continues strong, and I think the slack in the skilled labor force is getting very, very limited.

When I think, in aggregate, about the data since our last meeting, I feel a little better about inflation because it appears to be moderating, but I’m not jumping for joy because we need a few more months. However, the growth information has been, instead of mixed as at the last meeting, generally stronger, and that does make me feel better. In net, then, based on the recent information, I’m even a bit further along on the side that the risks have moved higher for inflation than on the side of the risk of a slowdown in the economy. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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