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

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Since our last meeting, the data bearing on the near-term economic outlook suggest both slower economic growth and a bit less core price inflation going forward. In terms of economic activity, the recent news has been uniformly negative, resulting in a significant downward revision to growth in the Greenbook. Indeed, compared with the outlook of other forecasters, the Greenbook’s projection of real GDP growth for the second half of this year is quite pessimistic; it would now rank in the lower 5 percent tail of the distribution of individual Blue Chip forecasters. I think this pessimism is not completely unfounded, however, largely because of my worries about the housing sector. The speed of the falloff in housing activity and the deceleration in house prices continue to surprise us. In the view of our contacts, the data lag reality, and it seems a good bet that things will get worse before they get better.

A major homebuilder who is on one of our boards tells us that home inventory has gone through the roof, so to speak. [Laughter] He literally said that. With the share of unsold homes topping 80 percent in some of the new subdivisions around Phoenix and Las Vegas, he has labeled these the new ghost towns of the West. In fact, he described the situation at a recent board meeting in Boise. He had toured some new subdivisions on the outskirts of Boise and discovered that the houses, most of which are unoccupied, are now being dressed up to look occupied—with curtains, things in the driveway, and so forth—so as not to discourage potential buyers. The general assessment is that this overhang of speculative inventory implies that permits and starts will continue to fall. Inventory ratios will rise, and the market probably will not recover until 2008. So far, builders remain hesitant to cut prices, fearing that doing so will cause a surge in cancellation rates on sold but unfinished homes. However, builders now routinely offer huge incentives, and price cuts appear inevitable. We have been following the Case Schiller house-price index, which is based on house-price data in ten large urban markets, three of which are in California. Beginning in May of this year, futures contracts on this price index also began trading; they suggest that house prices will be falling at an annual rate of about 6 percent by the end of this year. Of course, trading in this new futures market is still somewhat thin, but it is a signal that we need to keep a very close eye on the incoming data and watch whether the housing slowdown is turning into a slump.

Turning to inflation, core measures of consumer price inflation remain well above my comfort zone, but the latest readings on consumer prices have been modestly better. Unlike the Greenbook, I think the outlook for inflation has actually improved a bit since our last meeting largely because of the recent drop in commodity and crude oil prices. The relief on energy prices is, of course, very welcome, but we do have to be careful not to overestimate the extent to which past energy price pass-through has been boosting core inflation. For example, airfares might seem like an obvious case in which outsized consumer price increases reflect energy price pass-through. However, our staff recently calculated the share of jet fuel costs to total airline operating expenses and estimated that the jump in those costs likely accounted for less than half the rise in airfares this year. Instead, airfares may reflect strong demand and constrained capacity as indicated by very high airline passenger load factors. Still it seems likely that energy pass-through has played at least some role in the run-up of core inflation this year, so any energy price pressure on core inflation is likely to dissipate over time.

Now, as David noted, the Greenbook has completely offset the favorable effects on core inflation from lower energy prices by boosting the growth rate of labor costs. In contrast, I attach a little less weight to the recent data on compensation per hour. My guess is that most of the difference between hourly compensation and the ECI does relate to profit-linked items like bonuses and stock options, and that suggests to me that marginal costs of production are not rising significantly faster. Even if they are, it remains true that markups are high. So with sufficient competitive pressures, firms have room to absorb cost increases without fully passing them into prices.

Finally, I want to add my compliments to those of others to the Board’s staff for a very interesting analysis of inflation dynamics and monetary policy. As I mentioned at our last meeting, it may be unduly pessimistic to assume that the recent rise in inflation will be highly persistent. Over the past ten years, estimated reduced-form models suggest that core inflation generally returns to its sample average after several quarters. Recently our staff examined persistence at a more disaggregated level and found that the same general pattern also holds for each of the major components of the core PCE price index, with price inflation for durables only slightly more persistent than price inflation for nondurables and services. In the current situation, this suite of regressive models indicates that core PCE inflation should fall to just below 2 percent by the middle of next year. I am not quite as optimistic as these simple models, but on balance my concerns about the inflation outlook have been slightly alleviated by recent developments.

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