Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Whatever you want to call me is fine. [Laughter] I’m just glad to be here. [Laughter] I don’t think I can follow that up.
Given the initial conditions—the doubling and more of energy prices over the past two years, the overexuberant housing market coming to grips with a renormalization of interest rates, a very low personal saving rate, and an uncomfortable increase in inflation this spring—a period of modestly below-trend growth and gradually ebbing inflation, as in the Greenbook forecast, is about as good an outcome as we can expect, as Dave Stockton noted. In that regard, several developments over the intermeeting period have made me a bit more comfortable with the plausibility of such an outlook.
The weakness in housing has deepened and is more definitively leading to growth of output below potential. In fact, in my view the behavior of the housing market constitutes the main downside risk to sustained moderate economic growth. We’re in the middle of a housing adjustment, which has been hard to forecast, especially because it involves the unwinding of an unknown amount of speculative demand. With inventories rising and reports of price cuts getting greater prominence, the market isn’t yet showing signs of clearing and stabilizing. In the Greenbook forecast, residential investment, though weak, is supported by continued growth of income and relatively low mortgage rates, while house prices basically level out in nominal terms. As the Greenbook notes, however, this forecast leaves some aspects of the existing disequilibrium intact, most notably the high level of prices relative to rents. Also, the cutback in construction doesn’t completely offset the apparent excess building of the boom period. As a consequence, I see the housing forecast in the Greenbook as very far from the worst-case scenario that President Minehan characterized it as. And, we are just beginning to see the effect of the downshift in house-price inflation on consumption starting to play out.
Outside of housing, however, recent developments should help to sustain continued economic expansion. Financial conditions remain quite supportive of both business and household spending. Long-term interest rates have fallen appreciably since midyear, and they are low in both real and nominal terms. Risk spreads are narrow, banks have not pulled back on business credit, and equity prices have risen on balance in recent months. Lenders and investors appear to remain confident that the economy will continue to expand at a decent pace.
Higher levels of labor income in the first half of the year, along with a favorable effect on disposable income of a decline in energy prices, will help support consumer spending going forward. Economies elsewhere seem to be expanding at a solid clip. Moreover, they are probably less vulnerable to spillovers from a housing-led slowdown of growth in the United States than they were to weakness in 2001. That weakness was centered in a global market for investment goods and was reflected in global declines in equity prices.
The less robust economy should present businesses with a more competitive environment in which it will be harder to pass through cost increases. In addition, the decline in energy prices, along with the leveling out of other commodity prices, will reduce cost pressures on businesses and should feed through in some measure to lower core inflation, especially as slower growth damps pricing power. The drop in energy prices has already restrained inflation expectations a bit. For all these reasons, I’m also a little more comfortable with the forecast of gradually ebbing core inflation.
Nonetheless, I still see significant upside risk to such a path for inflation. In part, this reflects my uncertainty as to the reasons for the rise in inflation this spring and summer. Feed- through of energy and other commodity prices must have contributed to some extent, and we can see evidence of this in the greater price increases for some of the more energy-intensive sectors, such as for airfares. A portion of the pickup is in the rent-of-shelter category, likely from a shift to rental housing as expectations of house-price appreciation have been scaled back. But price increases have picked up in a number of other categories, and although energy costs probably accounted for some of this acceleration, we can’t dismiss the possibility that other forces were at work—for example, more general pressure of demand on potential output. A reduction of those types of pressures is still only a forecast. On the cost side, as many have commented, the compensation and unit labor cost data, while flawed in many respects, could be pointing to a risk that higher labor costs will persist, putting pressure on prices that might only be partially and reluctantly absorbed by profit margins.
In sum, Mr. Chairman, I’m a bit more comfortable with something like the path for the economy and inflation in the Greenbook forecast, but uncertainties are quite high. They might even justify the “higher than usual” description. The downward path for inflation remains at risk, and as others have noted, the costs of exceeding that path could be disproportionate. Thank you.