Helicopter Ben Now In Holding Pattern, Neutral In Tone

The Fed, with Ben Bernanke’s speech:

The annual meeting at Jackson Hole always provides a valuable opportunity to reflect on the economic and financial developments of the preceding year, and recently we have had a great deal on which to reflect. A year ago, in my remarks to this conference, I reviewed the response of the global policy community to the financial crisis.1 On the whole, when the eruption of the Panic of 2008 threatened the very foundations of the global economy, the world rose to the challenge, with a remarkable degree of international cooperation, despite very difficult conditions and compressed time frames. And when last we gathered here, there were strong indications that the sharp contraction of the global economy of late 2008 and early 2009 had ended. Most economies were growing again, and international trade was once again expanding.

Notwithstanding some important steps forward, however, as we return once again to Jackson Hole I think we would all agree that, for much of the world, the task of economic recovery and repair remains far from complete. In many countries, including the United States and most other advanced industrial nations, growth during the past year has been too slow and joblessness remains too high. Financial conditions are generally much improved, but bank credit remains tight; moreover, much of the work of implementing financial reform lies ahead of us. Managing fiscal deficits and debt is a daunting challenge for many countries, and imbalances in global trade and current accounts remain a persistent problem.

This list of concerns makes clear that a return to strong and stable economic growth will require appropriate and effective responses from economic policymakers across a wide spectrum, as well as from leaders in the private sector. Central bankers alone cannot solve the world’s economic problems. That said, monetary policy continues to play a prominent role in promoting the economic recovery and will be the focus of my remarks today. I will begin with an update on the economic outlook in the United States and then review the measures that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has taken to support the economic recovery and maintain price stability. I will conclude by discussing and evaluating some policy options that the FOMC has at its disposal, should further action become necessary.

The Economic Outlook
As I noted at the outset, when we last gathered here, the deep economic contraction had ended, and we were seeing broad stabilization in global economic activity and the beginnings of a recovery. Concerted government efforts to restore confidence in the financial system, including the aggressive provision of liquidity by central banks, were essential in achieving that outcome. Monetary policies in many countries had been eased aggressively. Fiscal policy–including stimulus packages, expansions of the social safety net, and the countercyclical spending and tax policies known collectively as automatic stabilizers–also helped to arrest the global decline. Once demand began to stabilize, firms gained sufficient confidence to increase production and slow the rapid liquidation of inventories that they had begun during the contraction. Expansionary fiscal policies and a powerful inventory cycle, helped by a recovery in international trade and improved financial conditions, fueled a significant pickup in growth.

At best, though, fiscal impetus and the inventory cycle can drive recovery only temporarily. For a sustained expansion to take hold, growth in private final demand–notably, consumer spending and business fixed investment–must ultimately take the lead. On the whole, in the United States, that critical handoff appears to be under way.

However, although private final demand, output, and employment have indeed been growing for more than a year, the pace of that growth recently appears somewhat less vigorous than we expected. Notably, since stabilizing in mid-2009, real household spending in the United States has grown in the range of 1 to 2 percent at annual rates, a relatively modest pace. Households’ caution is understandable. Importantly, the painfully slow recovery in the labor market has restrained growth in labor income, raised uncertainty about job security and prospects, and damped confidence. Also, although consumer credit shows some signs of thawing, responses to our Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey on Bank Lending Practices suggest that lending standards to households generally remain tight.2

The prospects for household spending depend to a significant extent on how the jobs situation evolves. But the pace of spending will also depend on the progress that households make in repairing their financial positions. Among the most notable results to emerge from the recent revision of the U.S. national income data is that, in recent quarters, household saving has been higher than we thought–averaging near 6 percent of disposable income rather than 4 percent, as the earlier data showed.3 On the one hand, this finding suggests that households, collectively, are even more cautious about the economic outlook and their own prospects than we previously believed. But on the other hand, the upward revision to the saving rate also implies greater progress in the repair of household balance sheets. Stronger balance sheets should in turn allow households to increase their spending more rapidly as credit conditions ease and the overall economy improves.

Household finances and attitudes also bear heavily on the housing market, which has generally remained depressed. In particular, home sales dropped sharply following the recent expiration of the homebuyers’ tax credit. Going forward, improved affordability–the result of lower house prices and record-low mortgage rates–should boost the demand for housing. However, the overhang of foreclosed-upon and vacant housing and the difficulties of many households in obtaining mortgage financing are likely to continue to weigh on the pace of residential investment for some time yet.

In the business sector, real investment in equipment and software rose at an annual rate of more than 20 percent over the first half of the year. Some of these gains no doubt reflected spending that had been deferred during the crisis, including investments to replace or update existing equipment. Consequently, investment in equipment and software will almost certainly increase more slowly over the remainder of this year, though it should continue to advance at a solid pace. In contrast, outside of a few areas such as drilling and mining, business investment in structures has continued to contract, although the rate of contraction appears to be slowing.

Although most firms faced problems obtaining credit during the depths of the crisis, over the past year or so a divide has opened between large firms that are able to tap public securities markets and small firms that largely depend on banks. Generally speaking, large firms in good financial condition can obtain credit easily and on favorable terms; moreover, many large firms are holding exceptionally large amounts of cash on their balance sheets. For these firms, willingness to expand–and, in particular, to add permanent employees–depends primarily on expected increases in demand for their products, not on financing costs. Bank-dependent smaller firms, by contrast, have faced significantly greater problems obtaining credit, according to surveys and anecdotes. The Federal Reserve, together with other regulators, has been engaged in significant efforts to improve the credit environment for small businesses. For example, through the provision of specific guidance and extensive examiner training, we are working to help banks strike a good balance between appropriate prudence and reasonable willingness to make loans to creditworthy borrowers. We have also engaged in extensive outreach efforts to banks and small businesses. There is some hopeful news on this front: For the most part, bank lending terms and conditions appear to be stabilizing and are even beginning to ease in some cases, and banks reportedly have become more proactive in seeking out creditworthy borrowers.

Incoming data on the labor market have remained disappointing. Private-sector employment has grown only sluggishly, the small decline in the unemployment rate is attributable more to reduced labor force participation than to job creation, and initial claims for unemployment insurance remain high. Firms are reluctant to add permanent employees, citing slow growth of sales and elevated economic and regulatory uncertainty. In lieu of adding permanent workers, some firms have increased labor input by increasing workweeks, offering full-time work to part-time workers, and making extensive use of temporary workers.

Pete Davis:

After a detailed review of recent subpar U.S. economic performance, he discussed the pros and cons of more quantitative easing.   Rarely have other Fed chairs offered such insight into their thinking, but, based upon his extensive study of the Depression, Mr. Bernanke strongly believes that Fed transparency is essential to reviving markets.   So the Federal Open Market Committee stands ready to provide more quantitative easing at its September 21 meeting, if not before, if the economy continues to falter.   We are fortunate to have Mr. Bernanke’s leadership in this crisis.

Gavyn Davies at Financial Times:

The much awaited speech by Ben Bernanke at Jackson Hole was largely a holding operation. He did not deviate much, if at all, from the tone of the statement issued after the August meeting of the FOMC, which is understandable given that his policy committee contains several members who do not want the Fed chairman to offer any strong hints about further policy easing at this stage. More evidence of a weakening US economy, and much more discussion within the committee, will be needed before this can happen.

Mr Bernanke’s description of the current and future prospects for the economy was a little more up-beat than the current consensus of opinion among market economists, and more optimistic than my own assessment. Picking over the details of what he said, he suggested that GDP growth would be moderate in the remainder of 2010, and would rise next year, with unemployment and capacity utilisation falling slightly in 2011. This implies that he expects GDP growth in 2011 to be somewhere around 2.5 per cent, just fractionally above the long term trend; and that in turn might imply a growth rate of around 1.5 to 2 per cent in the second half of 2010. This would be roughly the same as the GDP growth rate in Q2, which has just been revised downwards to 1.6 per cent.

Importantly, there was no hint that the Fed expects a double dip in the economy, and there was an explicit statement to the effect that the risks of falling into deflation are very low. However, the chairman said that the inflation rate was already a little below the rate which the Fed considers optimal, and he gave a fairly clear commitment that the FOMC would “certainly use its tools as needed to maintain price stability – avoiding excessive inflation or further disinflation.” The last two words might be read as slightly dovish, since he clearly wants to avoid any further drop in core inflation from its current 1 per cent rate, and therefore will not wait until there is a serious threat of outright deflation (falling prices) before taking further action.

Clive Crook:

I would have been astonished if he had outright promised more QE or other steps: this was not the occasion. Even so, the neutral tone was a bit more neutral — a bit less friendly to renewed action — than I had expected. He said that the current risk of falling into deflation is not “significant”, partly because the public trusts him and the Fed to get it right. That seems just a little complacent. Of course, he says he is attentive and ready to change his mind, but still…

Justin Fox at Ezra Klein’s place:

The Fed chairman’s basic message was the same thing he’s been saying for more than a year: There are downside risks, but we have the tools to combat them. And we know that at some point we’ll have vacuum up most of this money we’ve printed. But that point is still far (recedingly far) in the distance.

One passage of the speech that did get my attention was this, as Bernanke explained the Federal Open Market Committee’s recent decision to reinvest the proceeds of maturing mortgage securities (they’re maturing faster than expected because so many people have been refinancing their mortgages to take advantage of ultra-low rates):

We decided to reinvest in Treasury securities rather than agency securities because the Federal Reserve already owns a very large share of available agency securities, suggesting that reinvestment in Treasury securities might be more effective in reducing longer-term interest rates and improving financial conditions with less chance of adverse effects on market functioning.

In other words, we already own everybody’s mortgages, so no point in buying more. Our nation’s mortgage-finance industry is for the time being a wholly owned subsidiary of the Federal Reserve System. Now that’s what I call really existing socialism.

Paul Krugman:

Bernanke more or less admitted that the economic situation has developed not necessarily to America’s advantage, nothing like the growth he was predicting six months ago. But he argued that 2011 will be better, because … well, it was hard to see exactly why. He offered no major drivers of growth, just a general argument that businesses will invest more despite huge excess capacity, and consumers spend more despite still-huge debts and home prices that are likely to resume their decline.

Oh, and sure enough, he declared that inflation expectations are well-anchored, although the market says otherwise.

So: I guess this speech marked a small step toward QE2 and all that. But mainly the message was that just around the corner, there’s a rainbow in the sky.

So I’m going to have another cup of coffee, but skip the pie (in the sky).

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