Monetary Policy Report submitted to the Congress on July 20, 2004, pursuant to section 2B of the Federal Reserve Act
MONETARY POLICY AND THE ECONOMIC OUTLOOK
The economic expansion in the United States became increasingly well established in the first half of 2004, but the pace of inflation picked up from its very low rate in 2003. At the time of the February Monetary Policy Report to the Congress, considerable evidence was already in hand indicating that the U.S. economy had made the transition from a period of subpar growth to one of more-vigorous expansion. Nevertheless, job creation remained limited, and gains in investment, although sizable, still seemed restrained by a lingering caution on the part of some businesses. In the event, businesses stepped up their hiring in the spring, and capital spending seems to have continued apace.
Over the first half of this year, energy prices soared; moreover, inflation in core consumer prices--as measured by the price index for personal consumption expenditures excluding the direct effects of movements in food and energy prices--increased from an exceptionally low rate of 1 percent over the four quarters of 2003 to an annual rate of a little more than 2 percent. To some extent, the upturn in core inflation reflected the indirect effects of higher energy prices, but other forces also played a role. Strengthening aggregate demand both at home and abroad induced a surge in the prices of many primary commodities and industrial materials. In addition, the decline in the foreign exchange value of the dollar in 2003 put upward pressure on the prices of imported goods and services. With strong demand in the United States and increased utilization of the productive capacity of the economy, firms were better able to pass on the higher costs of imports, raise the prices of domestically produced items that compete with imports, and in many cases boost their profit margins. Likely in response to the faster rate of price increases experienced this year, surveys suggest that near-term inflation expectations have moved up somewhat; still, expectations for price inflation over the longer term have remained in their recent range.
Monetary policy was very accommodative at the start of 2004 as the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) sought to provide continuing support to an economic expansion that had yet to produce a sustained improvement in the labor market and to ensure that the previous year's threat of an unwelcome disinflation would continue to recede. Although real GDP had accelerated sharply in the second half of 2003, the incoming data through the time of the March meeting suggested that employment was growing only slowly, as employers were relying on increased production efficiencies to satisfy considerable gains in aggregate demand. Surging oil prices were boosting overall inflation, while core inflation--though no longer declining--was still low. With subsequent labor market reports suggesting that hiring was on a stronger track, growth in output continuing at a solid pace, and core consumer price inflation possibly running higher, the FOMC announced in May that it saw the risks to the goal of price stability as having moved into balance. Even so, the Committee stated that it believed that the monetary policy accommodation then in place could be "removed at a pace that is likely to be measured." Indeed, at its June meeting, the FOMC decided that sufficient evidence was in hand to begin moving the federal funds rate back toward a more neutral setting and raised the federal funds rate 1/4 percentage point to 1-1/4 percent, a decision that was widely anticipated by market participants.
Although some of the recent data have been on the soft side, the available information on the outlook for the U.S. economy is, on balance, positive. Households are enjoying a generally improving job market, rising real incomes, and greater wealth, all of which are providing them with the confidence and wherewithal to spend. In the business sector, capital spending apparently is continuing to increase briskly, bolstered by expectations of strong sales as well as by booming profits and supportive financial conditions; investment should also continue to be buoyed by firms' adoption of productivity-enhancing technologies. Moreover, inventories appear to be lean relative to sales even after taking account of the substantial improvements firms have made in managing their stocks, suggesting that stock building may provide some impetus to production in the near term. The brightening outlook for economic activity abroad suggests that demand for U.S. exports should grow and provide a further lift to domestic production.
The prospects also seem favorable for inflation to remain contained in the period ahead. For one reason, some of the forces that contributed to the upturn in core inflation in the first half of 2004 are likely to prove transitory. In particular, the upward impetus from the rise in energy and commodity prices is likely to lessen in coming quarters. For another reason, the evidence suggests that the productive capacity of the economy is still not being fully used and that the attendant slack is probably exerting some downward pressure on inflation. If--as seems likely--the economy approaches full utilization of its productive capacity only gradually, that downward pressure should persist for a time. Moreover, productivity remains on a solid uptrend and should continue to restrain costs. To date, the gains in productivity have helped to boost profit margins. As firms compete to take advantage of profit opportunities, they may eventually be forced to absorb a portion of any increases in labor and other costs that occur. But history suggests that the absorption of costs has limits. Indeed, unit labor costs have turned up of late, as productivity growth has slowed below the rate of increase in hourly compensation. If increases in those costs were to develop any upward momentum, the well-behaved nature of inflation in recent years could be jeopardized.
Monetary Policy, Financial Markets, and the Economy over the First Half of 2004
At the beginning of 2004, the FOMC was growing more confident that the economic expansion was likely to be self-sustaining, particularly in light of the significant firming of business outlays and the continued strength in household spending. Moreover, stimulative fiscal and monetary policies, in conjunction with receptive financial markets, appeared likely to provide substantial support to economic activity and to ward off any further disinflation. However, the Committee remained concerned about the persistent weakness in the labor market. At its January meeting, the FOMC left the target for the federal funds rate at 1 percent. The Committee generally felt that the apparent slack in labor and product markets and continued strong productivity growth were likely to keep the underlying trend in inflation subdued, but it nevertheless was cognizant that a highly accommodative stance for monetary policy could not be maintained indefinitely. Given these considerations, the Committee modified the language of its policy statement to gain greater flexibility to firm policy should circumstances warrant. The Committee achieved this added flexibility by removing its assessment that monetary policy would be accommodative for "a considerable period" and instead saying that the Committee could be "patient" in removing its policy accommodation.
At the time of the March FOMC meeting, the Committee believed that conditions were mostly in place for further solid economic growth. Industrial production had picked up broadly, and consumer and business spending continued to expand briskly. However, the employment reports for January and February still painted a picture of subdued hiring. With financial markets quite accommodative, the Committee recognized that maintaining the current stance of policy could fuel inflation pressures and perhaps encourage excessive risk-taking by financial market participants. The Committee concluded that the low level of core consumer price inflation and continued evidence of weak hiring argued for the retention of both its 1 percent target for the federal funds rate and the wording in its statement that the Committee could be "patient" with respect to changes in monetary policy.
At the May FOMC meeting, members noted a distinct improvement in the economic outlook. The labor market figures reported for March had proved to be strong, and the reports for the two previous months had been revised upward significantly. Consumer price inflation in the first quarter of the year was faster than it had been in the previous quarter. Although much of this rise was due to escalating energy costs, core inflation also stepped up, and survey-based measures of near-term inflation expectations had edged higher. In response to the indications of rising aggregate demand and a strengthening job market, yields on Treasury securities had risen appreciably. Accordingly, the Committee was of the view that the expansion would be vigorous and believed that the odds of any further disinflation had been substantially reduced. On the basis of the evolving outlook for economic activity and prices, the Committee revised its assessment of risks to indicate that the upside and downside risks for inflation had moved into balance. To underscore its belief that policy would probably soon need to move toward a more neutral stance while emphasizing that this process was not expected to be rapid, the Committee stated its judgment that monetary policy accommodation "can be removed at a pace that is likely to be measured."
At the time of the June FOMC meeting, incoming information tended to confirm that the economy was expanding at a solid pace but also indicated that inflation was higher than had been anticipated. Quotes on near-term money market futures and options suggested that market participants were nearly certain of an increase of 25 basis points in the target for the federal funds rate at that meeting and had priced in a cumulative increase of about 2-1/4 percentage points in the federal funds rate over the next year. The Committee agreed that the current substantial degree of policy accommodation was no longer warranted and decided to increase its target for the federal funds rate 25 basis points. The Committee noted that it considered the risks to both sustainable economic growth and stable prices to be roughly balanced and maintained its appraisal that policy accommodation "can be removed at a pace that is likely to be measured" but also emphasized that it will "respond to changes in economic prospects as needed to fulfill its obligation to maintain price stability."
Economic Projections for 2004 and 2005
In conjunction with the FOMC meeting at the end of June, the
members of the Board of Governors and the Federal Reserve
Bank presidents, all of whom participate in the
deliberations of the FOMC, were asked to provide economic
projections for 2004 and 2005. The central tendency of the
FOMC participants' forecasts for the increase in real GDP is
Starting with this report, the Federal Reserve will provide projections for the price index for personal consumption expenditures excluding food and energy (core PCE), which the Committee believes is better as an indicator of underlying inflation trends than is the overall PCE price measure previously featured. Core PCE inflation appears to have run a little above an annual rate of 2 percent in the first half of 2004; for 2004 as a whole, most FOMC participants expect it to lie between 1-3/4 percent and 2 percent. For 2005, the central tendency of the projections for core PCE inflation is 1-1/2 percent to 2 percent.
1. Change from average for fourth quarter of previous year to average for fourth quarter
of year indicated.
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