Bernanke: Current Economic and Financial Conditions and the Federal Budget

A simulated interview based upon the speech Current economic and financial conditions and the federal budget, by Ben Bernanke, Chair, FRB (lightly edited – deletions only).

Thanks for agreeing to this, I didn’t think you would. Before turning to financial market conditions and the effects of the federal budget, the main topic today, let’s start by getting your assessment and overview of the economy:

The U.S. economy has contracted sharply since last fall, with real gross domestic product (GDP) having dropped at an average annual rate of about 6 percent during the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of this year. Among the enormous costs of the downturn is the loss of nearly 6 million jobs since the beginning of 2008. The most recent information on the labor market–the number of new and continuing claims for unemployment insurance through late May–suggests that sizable job losses and further increases in unemployment are likely over the next few months.

What about the “green shoots” you talked about not to long ago? Are they withering or growing?

Recent data suggest that the pace of economic contraction may be slowing. Notably, consumer spending, which dropped sharply in the second half of last year, has been roughly flat since the turn of the year, and consumer sentiment has improved. In coming months, households’ spending power will be boosted by the fiscal stimulus program.

So does that mean household consumption is likely to improve soon?

A number of factors are likely to continue to weigh on consumer spending, among them the weak labor market, the declines in equity and housing wealth that households have experienced over the past two years, and still-tight credit conditions.

What about housing, how do you see things there?

Activity in the housing market, after a long period of decline, has also shown some signs of bottoming. Sales of existing homes have been fairly stable since late last year, and sales of new homes seem to have flattened out in the past couple of monthly readings, though both remain at depressed levels. Meanwhile, construction of new homes has been sufficiently restrained to allow the backlog of unsold new homes to decline–a precondition for any recovery in homebuilding.

And business investment?

Businesses remain very cautious and continue to reduce their workforces and capital investments. On a more positive note, firms are making progress in shedding the unwanted inventories that they accumulated following last fall’s sharp downturn in sales. The Commerce Department estimates that the pace of inventory liquidation quickened in the first quarter, accounting for a sizable portion of the reported decline in real GDP in that period. As inventory stocks move into better alignment with sales, firms should become more willing to increase production.

So what do you make of all of this? Do the signs of recovery later this year outweigh those indicating troubles persisting beyond that time?

We continue to expect overall economic activity to bottom out, and then to turn up later this year. Our assessments that consumer spending and housing demand will stabilize and that the pace of inventory liquidation will slow are key building blocks of that forecast. Final demand should also be supported by fiscal and monetary stimulus, and U.S. exports may benefit if recent signs of stabilization in foreign economic activity prove accurate.

Any qualifications you’d like to make?

An important caveat is that our forecast also assumes continuing gradual repair of the financial system and an associated improvement in credit conditions; a relapse in the financial sector would be a significant drag on economic activity and could cause the incipient recovery to stall.

Let’s come back to financial markets momentarily. But first, when you say recovery, what do you mean? What will the economy look like as it comes out of the slump?

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, and the unemployment rate is likely to rise for a time, even after economic growth resumes.

And inflation, the thing many people are so worried about, what do you see there?

In this environment, we anticipate that inflation will remain low. The slack in resource utilization remains sizable, and, notwithstanding recent increases in the prices of oil and other commodities, cost pressures generally remain subdued. As a consequence, inflation is likely to move down some over the next year relative to its pace in 2008. That said, improving economic conditions and stable inflation expectations should limit further declines in inflation.

I ask about inflation, you talk about the risk of deflation. I suppose that answers the question. Let’s move on to financial markets. In general, how are financial markets faring right now?

Conditions in a number of financial markets have improved since earlier this year, likely reflecting both policy actions taken by the Federal Reserve and other agencies as well as the somewhat better economic outlook. Nevertheless, financial markets and financial institutions remain under stress, and low asset prices and tight credit conditions continue to restrain economic activity.

Where are the improvements?

Among the markets where functioning has improved recently are those for short-term funding, including the interbank lending markets and the commercial paper market. Risk spreads in those markets appear to have moderated, and more lending is taking place at longer maturities. The better performance of short-term funding markets in part reflects the support afforded by Federal Reserve lending programs.

Is most of the improvement in short-term rather than long-term markets?

In markets for longer-term credit, bond issuance by nonfinancial firms has been relatively strong recently, and spreads between Treasury yields and rates paid by corporate borrowers have narrowed some, though they remain wide. Mortgage rates and spreads have also been reduced by the Federal Reserve’s program of purchasing agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities. However, in recent weeks, yields on longer-term Treasury securities and fixed-rate mortgages have risen. These increases appear to reflect concerns about large federal deficits but also other causes, including greater optimism about the economic outlook, a reversal of flight-to-quality flows, and technical factors related to the hedging of mortgage holdings.

What about the health of the large financial institutions? What do you learn from the SCAP program, better known as stress tests?

As you know, last month, the federal bank regulatory agencies released the results of the Supervisory Capital Assessment Program (SCAP). According to the findings of the SCAP exercise, under the more adverse economic outlook, losses at the 19 bank holding companies would total an estimated $600 billion during 2009 and 2010. After taking account of potential resources to absorb those losses, including expected revenues, reserves, and existing capital cushions, we determined that 10 of the 19 institutions should raise, collectively, additional common equity of $75 billion.

The substantial progress these firms have made in meeting their required capital buffers, and their success in raising private capital, suggests that investors are gaining greater confidence in the banking system.

Okay, let’s turn to potential costs and benefits of recent fiscal policy. First, on the benefits, is the stimulus working?

Predicting the effects of these fiscal actions on economic activity is difficult, especially in light of the unusual economic circumstances that we face. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has constructed a range of estimates of the effects of the stimulus package on real GDP and employment that appropriately reflects these uncertainties. According to the CBO’s estimates, by the end of 2010, the stimulus package could boost the level of real GDP between about 1 percent and a little more than 3 percent and the level of employment by between roughly 1 million and 3-1/2 million jobs.

Sounds like most of the benefits are yet to come in your assessment, but they will come. What about the cost of the stimulus package?

The increases in spending and reductions in taxes associated with the fiscal package and the financial stabilization program, along with the losses in revenues and increases in income-support payments associated with the weak economy, will widen the federal budget deficit substantially this year. The Administration recently submitted a proposed budget that projects the ratio of federal debt held by the public to nominal GDP is likely to move up from about 40 percent before the onset of the financial crisis to about 70 percent in 2011. These developments would leave the debt-to-GDP ratio at its highest level since the early 1950s, the years following the massive debt buildup during World War II.

How worried are you about the deficit?

Certainly, our economy and financial markets face extraordinary near-term challenges, and strong and timely actions to respond to those challenges are necessary and appropriate. Nevertheless, maintaining the confidence of the financial markets requires that we, as a nation, begin planning now for the restoration of fiscal balance. Prompt attention to questions of fiscal sustainability is particularly critical because of the coming budgetary and economic challenges associated with the retirement of the baby-boom generation and continued increases in medical costs. With the ratio of debt to GDP already elevated, we will not be able to continue borrowing indefinitely to meet these demands.

What’s the answer?

Addressing the country’s fiscal problems will require a willingness to make difficult choices. In the end, the fundamental decision that the Congress, the Administration, and the American people must confront is how large a share of the nation’s economic resources to devote to federal government programs, including entitlement programs. Crucially, whatever size of government is chosen, tax rates must ultimately be set at a level sufficient to achieve an appropriate balance of spending and revenues in the long run. In particular, over the longer term, achieving fiscal sustainability–defined, for example, as a situation in which the ratios of government debt and interest payments to GDP are stable or declining, and tax rates are not so high as to impede economic growth–requires that spending and budget deficits be well controlled.

I have been critical of Greenspan for injecting his own political views into the debate over the budget deficit. I thought he had every right to comment on how deficits affect monetary policy through the government budget constraint, the effect on interest rates, etc., but he seemed to step beyond that limited role and inject his own political philosophy into the debate over budget deficits. So I have to express some disappointment that you would define fiscal sustainability in terms of growth rates, and implicitly warn that any decline in growth is unacceptable. If we could provide health care and retirement security for everyone in return for, say, 0.1% lower growth – say from 3.0% to 2.9% – is that a reasonable tradeoff? It seems to me that is not something the Fed should be choosing for us. It’s fine to talk about the costs and benefits of policy and what it means for monetary policy, but I don’t see why the Fed should be advocating for or against such a tradeoff if that is what people want to do. You can tell us what each scenario means to the Fed, but leave the politics at home.

But enough of the soapbox, any comment?

Clearly, the Congress and the Administration face formidable near-term challenges that must be addressed. But those near-term challenges must not be allowed to hinder timely consideration of the steps needed to address fiscal imbalances. Unless we demonstrate a strong commitment to fiscal sustainability in the longer term, we will have neither financial stability nor healthy economic growth.

And, I can tell that after my comment, this interview is over. Thank you.

About Mark Thoma 243 Articles

Affiliation: University of Oregon

Mark Thoma is a member of the Economics Department at the University of Oregon. He joined the UO faculty in 1987 and served as head of the Economics Department for five years. His research examines the effects that changes in monetary policy have on inflation, output, unemployment, interest rates and other macroeconomic variables with a focus on asymmetries in the response of these variables to policy changes, and on changes in the relationship between policy and the economy over time. He has also conducted research in other areas such as the relationship between the political party in power, and macroeconomic outcomes and using macroeconomic tools to predict transportation flows. He received his doctorate from Washington State University.

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