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A View on the Economy
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave a speech in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on Aug. 31, 2012, that was highly anticipated. Alas, there were no new policy pronouncements, but I did think his summation on the economy was pretty good so as this is a Wall Street history column, it only seems appropriate to note the chairman’s thoughts at this particular point in time.
The accommodative monetary policies I have reviewed today, both traditional and nontraditional, have provided important support to the economic recovery while helping to maintain price stability. As of July, the unemployment rate had fallen to 8.3 percent from its cyclical peak of 10 percent and payrolls had risen by 4 million jobs from their low point. And despite periodic concerns about deflation risks, on the one hand, and repeated warnings that excessive policy accommodation would ignite inflation, on the other hand, inflation (except for temporary deviations caused primarily by swings in commodity prices) has remained near the Committee’s 2 percent objective and inflation expectations have remained stable. Key sectors such as manufacturing, housing, and international trade have strengthened, firms’ investment in equipment and software has rebounded, and conditions in financial and credit markets have improved.
Notwithstanding these positive signs, the economic situation is obviously far from satisfactory. The unemployment rate remains more than 2 percentage points above what most FOMC [Federal Open Market Committee] participants see as its longer-run normal value, and other indicators – such as the labor force participation rate and the number of people working part time for economic reasons – confirm that labor force utilization remains at very low levels. Further, the rate of improvement in the labor market has been painfully slow. I have noted on other occasions that the declines in unemployment we have seen would likely continue only if economic growth picked up to a rate above its longer-term trend. In fact, growth in recent quarters has been tepid, and so, not surprisingly, we have seen no net improvement in the unemployment rate since January. Unless the economy begins to grow more quickly than it has recently, the unemployment rate is likely to remain far above levels consistent with maximum employment for some time.
In light of the policy actions the FOMC has taken to date, as well as the economy’s natural recovery mechanisms, we might have hoped for greater progress by now in returning to maximum employment. Some have taken the lack of progress as evidence that the financial crisis caused structural damage to the economy, rendering the current levels of unemployment impervious to additional monetary accommodation. The literature on this issue is extensive, and I cannot fully review it today. However, following every previous U.S. recession since World War II, the unemployment rate has returned close to its pre-recession level, and, although the recent recession was unusually deep, I see little evidence of substantial structural change in recent years.
Rather than attributing the slow recovery to longer-term structural factors, I see growth being held back currently by a number of headwinds. First, although the housing sector has shown signs of improvement, housing activity remains at low levels and is contributing much less to the recovery than would normally be expected at this stage of the cycle.
Second, fiscal policy, at both the federal and state and local levels, has become an important headwind for the pace of economic growth. Notwithstanding some recent improvement in tax revenues, state and local governments still face tight budget situations and continue to cut real spending and employment. Real purchases are also declining at the federal level. Uncertainties about fiscal policy, notably about the resolution of the so-called fiscal cliff and the lifting of the debt ceiling, are probably also restraining activity, although the magnitudes of these effects are hard to judge. It is critical that fiscal policymakers put in place a credible plan that sets the federal budget on a sustainable trajectory in the medium and longer runs. However, policymakers should take care to avoid a sharp near-term fiscal contraction that could endanger the recovery.
Third, stresses in credit and financial markets continue to restrain the economy. Earlier in the recovery, limited credit availability was an important factor holding back growth, and tight borrowing conditions for some potential homebuyers and small businesses remain a problem today. More recently, however, a major source of financial strains has been uncertainty about developments in Europe. These strains are most problematic for the Europeans, of course, but through global trade and financial linkages, the effects of the European situation on the U.S. economy are significant as well. Some recent policy proposals in Europe have been quite constructive, in my view, and I urge our European colleagues to press ahead with policy initiatives to resolve the crisis.
Early in my tenure as a member of the Board of Governors, I gave a speech that considered options for monetary policy when the short-term policy interest rate is close to its effective lower bound. I was reacting to common assertions at the time that monetary policymakers would be “out of ammunition” as the federal funds rate came closer to zero. I argued that, to the contrary, policy could still be effective near the lower bound. Now, with several years of experience with nontraditional policies both in the United States and in other advanced economies, we know more about how such policies work. It seems clear, based on this experience, that such policies can be effective, and that, in their absence, the 2007-09 recession would have been deeper and the current recovery would have been slower than has actually occurred.
As I have discussed today, it is also true that nontraditional polices are relatively more difficult to apply, at least given the present state of our knowledge. Estimates of the effects of nontraditional polices on economic activity and inflation are uncertain, and the use of nontraditional policies involves costs beyond those generally associated with more-standard policies. Consequently, the bar for the use of nontraditional policies share the limitations of monetary policy more generally: Monetary policy cannot achieve by itself what a broader and more balanced set of economic policies might achieve; in particular, it cannot neutralize the fiscal and financial risks that the country faces. It certainly cannot fine-tune economic outcomes.
As we assess the benefits and costs of alternative policy approaches, though, we must not lose sight of the daunting economic challenges that confront our nation. The stagnation of the labor market in particular is a grave concern not only because of the enormous suffering and waste of human talent it entails, but also because persistently high levels of unemployment will wreak structural damage on our economy that could last for many years.
Over the past five years, the Federal Reserve has acted to support economic growth and foster job creation, and it is important to achieve further progress, particularly in the labor market. Taking due account of the uncertainties and limits of its policy tools, the Federal Reserve will provide additional policy accommodation as needed to promote a stronger economic recovery and sustained improvement in labor market conditions in a context of price stability.
Wall Street History will return in two weeks.