Fed Chair Bernanke Testifies Before Congress on Economic Outlook

Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke testified today before the Joint Economic Committee, U.S. Congress, Washington, D.C. Here are a few excerpts from his prepared testimony:

From the Fed: 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 percent 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 percent. 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.

In contrast to the somewhat better news in the household sector, the available indicators of business investment remain extremely weak. Spending for equipment and software fell at an annual rate of about 30 percent in both the fourth and first quarters, and the level of new orders remains below the level of shipments, suggesting further near-term softness in business equipment spending. Recent business surveys have been a bit more positive, but surveyed firms are still reporting net declines in new orders and restrained capital spending plans. Our recent survey of bank loan officers reported further weakening of demand for commercial and industrial loans. The survey also showed that the net fraction of banks that tightened their business lending policies stayed elevated, although it has come down in the past two surveys.

Conditions in the commercial real estate sector are poor. Vacancy rates for existing office, industrial, and retail properties have been rising, prices of these properties have been falling, and, consequently, the number of new projects in the pipeline has been shrinking. Credit conditions in the commercial real estate sector are still severely strained, with no commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) having been issued in almost a year.

The Economic Outlook

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. I will provide a brief update on financial markets in a moment.

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.

emphasis added

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