May 6, 2009
In a testimony delivered before the Joint Economic Committee, U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C., Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke offered his views on recent economic developments, the outlook for the economy and current condition in financial markets- most notably pointing to the evidence that the economy may be bottoming out and is likely to turn upward later this year.
The U.S. economy has contracted sharply since last autumn, with real gross domestic product (GDP) having dropped at an annual rate of more than 6% in the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of this year. Among the enormous costs of the downturn is the loss of some 5 million payroll jobs over the past 15 months. The most recent information on the labor market-the number of new and continuing claims for unemployment insurance through late April-suggests that we are likely to see further sizable job losses and increased unemployment in coming months.
However, the recent data also suggest that the pace of contraction may be slowing, and they include some tentative signs that final demand, especially demand by households, may be stabilizing. Consumer spending, which dropped sharply in the second half of last year, grew in the first quarter. In coming months, households’ spending power will be boosted by the fiscal stimulus program, and we have seen some improvement in consumer sentiment. Nonetheless, a number of factors are likely to continue to weigh on consumer spending, among them the weak labor market and the declines in equity and housing wealth that households have experienced over the past two years. In addition, credit conditions for consumers remain tight.
The housing market, which has been in decline for three years, has also shown some signs of bottoming. Sales of existing homes have been fairly stable since late last year, and sales of new homes have firmed a bit recently, though both remain at depressed levels. Although some of the boost to sales in the market for existing homes is likely coming from foreclosure-related transactions, the increased affordability of homes appears to be contributing more broadly to the steadying in the demand for housing. In particular, the average interest rate on conforming 30-year fixed-rate mortgages has dropped almost 1-3/4 percentage points since August, to about 4.8%. With sales of new homes up a bit and starts of single-family homes little changed from January through March, builders are seeing the backlog of unsold new homes decline-a precondition for any recovery in homebuilding.
We continue to expect economic activity to bottom out, then to turn up later this year. Key elements of this forecast are our assessments that the housing market is beginning to stabilize and that the sharp inventory liquidation that has been in progress will slow over the next few quarters. Final demand should also be supported by fiscal and monetary stimulus. An important caveat is that our forecast assumes continuing gradual repair of the financial system; a relapse in financial conditions would be a significant drag on economic activity and could cause the incipient recovery to stall.
Even after a recovery gets under way, the rate of growth of real economic activity is likely to remain below its longer-run potential for a while, implying that the current slack in resource utilization will increase further. We expect that the recovery will only gradually gain momentum and that economic slack will diminish slowly. In particular, businesses are likely to be cautious about hiring, implying that the unemployment rate could remain high for a time, even after economic growth resumes.
In this environment, we anticipate that inflation will remain low. Indeed, given the sizable margin of slack in resource utilization and diminished cost pressures from oil and other commodities, inflation is likely to move down some over the next year relative to its pace in 2008. However, inflation expectations, as measured by various household and business surveys, appear to have remained relatively stable, which should limit further declines in inflation.