Thank you, Mr. Chairman. My outlook for the economy hasn’t changed much since our last meeting, but I have become more concerned about the risk to the outlook for real growth. So in my comments this morning, I’ll explain why my risk assessment has changed.
The homebuilders with whom I spoke over the past several weeks told me that the low interest rates and the new financial products created an environment in which they did five years’ worth of business in the space of three years. They said that most homebuilders recognized that this pace of activity was unsustainable and so they planned accordingly. A few small builders have declared bankruptcy, and others still may do so; but for the most part, builders feel that they are financially prepared to make it through the next one or two years of poor business. So the financial condition of homebuilders is not my chief concern.
However, I have become more worried about the potential spillover of housing conditions into consumer spending from wealth effects, income constraints, and creditworthiness. I think I’m going to give the counterpoint to President Lacker on these issues. The Greenbook points out that the OFHEO price index is still increasing a bit, but the builders I met with convinced me that the published prices for new homes don’t accurately reflect market conditions. Sellers are offering nonprice concessions, such as upgrades for appliances, carpets, fixtures, and so forth. Some builders are going to great lengths to keep published prices up. I’ve been told stories of builders in Arizona who have been giving buyers new Lexuses as part of the overall deal so that they don’t have to bring down the prices in their subdivision. Also, it seems as though owners of existing homes are not yet willing to reduce their asking prices by very much. With potential buyers still waiting for prices to fall further, traffic levels and transactions are low. It seems as though markets are not yet close to functioning smoothly, and homebuilders are telling me that it could take another year before buyers and sellers exhibit more confidence. I am concerned that we don’t yet have a good handle on where house prices are headed and how the uncertainties surrounding house prices might affect consumer spending. Second, the support to consumption provided by cash-out refinancing is not likely to be available going forward to the same degree that we’ve had during the past several years. Finally, the financial condition of some households has become pretty fragile, and we all know that rates on adjustable mortgages, including some subprime mortgage loans, continue to reset at higher rates. The adjustable rate mortgages are already causing some well- publicized problems for some households.
Builders in my region report that the ability of potential homebuyers to qualify for home mortgages is becoming an issue. One homebuilder from Columbus told me that he is giving away new cars as well, but his motivation provides a twist on the Lexus story. Some of his customers are struggling to qualify for mortgage loans. So he’s giving them new cars so that they can get rid of their current cars and the payment obligations that go along with them. [Laughter] He’s not giving them a Lexus; he’s giving them a Kia. [Laughter] Now, if we could get these homebuilders to adopt a Buy American strategy, we might also be able to solve our domestic auto problem.
As I said at the outset, I don’t have a major disagreement with the Greenbook baseline. I think that the outlook for near-term growth has deteriorated a little since October, and the Greenbook reflects that. I just think that there’s greater likelihood that the real economy could prove to be weaker than the baseline in the Greenbook in 2007, and the key risk in my view is the degree of spillover from the housing market into the rest of the economy. The Greenbook’s extended house decline alternative scenario represents this risk, although I have not yet heard stories that are quite as dramatic as the 20 percent decline in home prices in that scenario.
Not much has changed, as many others have already commented, in the inflation outlook. The inflation trend continues to be hard to interpret, but I still expect core inflation to drift down gradually over the forecast period. Although there is still a risk that inflation will remain higher than I desire, I think that favorable compensation developments and declines in shelter costs could speed that rate of decline. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.