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Monetary Policy and the Economic Outlook

The U.S. economy turned in another solid performance in 2006, although the pattern of growth was uneven. After rebounding in the early part of the year from hurricane-related disruptions in the autumn of 2005, the pace of expansion during the remaining three quarters averaged somewhat below that of the preceding two years, responding in part to the removal of monetary policy accommodation since 2004. The housing market cooled substantially, and, in the latter part of 2006, the production of light motor vehicles also stepped down. Elsewhere in the economy, activity remained strong. Consumer spending increased vigorously in 2006 as households' real income made strong gains. Business investment rose at a solid rate for the year as a whole, although it decelerated late in the year in part because of some softening in purchases of equipment related to construction and motor vehicle manufacturing. Demand for U.S. exports rose at a robust pace in 2006, supported by strong economic activity abroad. Against this backdrop, businesses continued to add jobs at a steady rate, and the unemployment rate decreased further.

Total consumer price inflation declined in 2006 from its elevated pace in 2005, as energy prices fell, on net, after rising rapidly over the preceding couple of years. Crude oil prices rose during the first half of 2006 but turned down sharply later in the year. As a result, consumer price inflation climbed in the first half of the year before slowing in the second half. The sharp movements in prices of crude oil appear to have affected not only prices of gasoline and other petroleum-based types of energy but also prices of a broader range of goods and services that use petroleum-based inputs. Partly as a result, consumer price inflation excluding food and energy--so-called core consumer price inflation--moved up during the first half of the year but eased subsequently. On balance, core inflation was a bit higher over the four quarters of 2006 than in 2005. Measures of long-term inflation expectations, however, remained well anchored.

The monetary policy decisions of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) in 2006 were intended to foster sustainable economic expansion and to promote a return to low and stable inflation. In that regard, the economic outlook for this year and next appears favorable. Although the contraction in homebuilding has been a drag on growth, that restraint seems likely to diminish over 2007. Further gains in real wages as well as ongoing increases in employment should support a solid rise in consumer spending. In addition, at the beginning of 2007, households' balance sheets appeared to be in good shape. Whereas gains in home prices slowed last year, household net worth increased moderately as stock market wealth grew and households lessened their accumulation of debt. Delinquency rates on consumer loans and on most types of mortgages remained low, although they increased markedly for subprime mortgages with variable interest rates. As for businesses, balance sheets are quite liquid, credit quality is good, and most firms enjoy ready access to funds. These favorable financial conditions, along with further expansion in business output, user costs of capital equipment that remain attractive, and the potential for further gains in efficiency, should continue to spur business investment. In addition, sustained expansion in foreign economies ought to maintain demand for U.S. exports. On balance, growth of real gross domestic product in the United States appears likely to run slightly below that of the economy's potential over the next few quarters and then to rise to a pace around that of the economy's long-run trend.

Regarding inflation, increases in core consumer prices are expected to moderate, on balance, over the next two years. Along with inflation expectations that are well anchored, some of the factors that boosted inflation in recent years seem likely to lessen. In particular, the paths for prices of energy and other commodities embedded in futures markets suggest that the impetus to core inflation from these influences will diminish further. In addition, the outsized increases in shelter costs that boosted core inflation last year are not expected to persist. Although unit labor costs in the nonfarm business sector have been rising, the average markup of prices over such costs is high by historical standards. The relatively high markup suggests that further increases in costs could be absorbed, at least to some extent, by a narrowing of firms' profit margins rather than by passing on the costs in the form of higher consumer prices, especially if pressures on resources ease modestly as anticipated.

The outlook for real economic activity is uncertain. An upside risk is that consumer spending, which has been especially buoyant in recent months, may continue to expand at a pace that would ultimately lead to an escalation of pressures on resources and prices. Alternatively, prospects for residential construction, which are difficult to assess, may pose some downside risks. Although residential real estate markets have shown some recent signs of stabilizing, homebuilders' inventories of unsold homes remain elevated. Further cutbacks in construction to reduce inventories toward more-comfortable levels could become steeper and more persistent than currently anticipated. Moreover, if home values were to depreciate sharply, the resulting erosion of household wealth could impose appreciable restraint on consumer spending.

Whether inflation will moderate gradually as expected is also uncertain. On the one hand, the nation's potential to produce could increase more rapidly than anticipated, or product and input markets could work efficiently at higher rates of utilization, either of which could lead to a lower trajectory for inflation than currently forecast. On the other hand, expanding global demand and threats to supply from actual and potential disruptions pose upside risks for energy prices. In addition, brisk world demand for non-energy materials and commodities could lead to further upward pressures on business costs. Also, if inflation were to persist around the elevated average level of the past three years, longer-run inflation expectations could deteriorate, particularly if pressures on resources were to intensify. At recent meetings, the FOMC indicated that the risk that inflation will fail to moderate as expected is its predominant policy concern.

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Monetary Policy, Financial Markets, and the Economy in 2006 and Early 2007

The FOMC firmed the stance of monetary policy 25 basis points at each of its four meetings over the first half of 2006. The Committee raised its target for the federal funds rate at its January and March meetings as available information pointed to accumulating pressures on inflation and solid economic growth. Although readings on core inflation had remained favorable, increases in energy prices and the relatively high level of resource utilization threatened to add to existing inflation pressures. Meanwhile, underlying aggregate demand, supported by robust consumer spending and accelerating business investment, appeared to be growing at a solid rate. By the time of the May and June meetings, data pointed to a moderation in the growth of consumer spending and a further cooling in the housing market. However, core consumer prices had risen more rapidly. Although the Committee judged inflation expectations still to be contained, it was mindful that the rising prices of energy and other commodities could impart greater inflationary momentum. Against this backdrop, the FOMC voted to increase the policy rate a further 25 basis points at both the May and June meetings, bringing the federal funds rate to 5-1/4 percent. In the statement accompanying its June decision, the FOMC indicated that it believed that the moderation in economic activity would help to limit inflationary pressures over time but also noted that some upside inflation risks remained. As it had in its May statement, the FOMC made clear in June that the extent and timing of additional firming would depend on the evolution of the outlook for both inflation and economic growth as implied by incoming information.

Selected Interest Rates, 2004-2007

In the second half of the year, a further slowdown in residential construction activity and a contraction in motor vehicle production created a significant drag on economic activity. However, consumer spending held up, and employment rose at a solid pace. Meanwhile, energy prices reversed much of their increases of the first half of the year, sending headline inflation lower. Core inflation also eased somewhat, albeit to a rate above its year-earlier level. Against this backdrop, the FOMC left the stance of policy unchanged at its final four meetings of 2006. Committee discussions in those meetings focused in part on developments in the housing market and their implications for the broader economy. Although the housing market was weakening throughout this period, the Committee judged that the downturn had not spilled over significantly to consumer spending. The economy was expected to expand over coming quarters at a rate close to or a little below its long-run sustainable pace. At the same time, FOMC members noted that, even though core inflation had slowed from the very rapid rates of the spring and summer, current rates remained undesirably high. Most members expected core inflation to moderate gradually, but they were uncertain about the likely pace and extent of that moderation. Thus, in statements accompanying each rate announcement over this period, the FOMC reiterated that inflation risks remained and that the extent and timing of any additional policy firming would depend on the outlook for both inflation and economic growth implied by incoming information.

Over the period between the December 2006 and January 2007 FOMC meetings, incoming data on inflation and economic activity were generally more favorable. Core inflation receded further from the elevated levels reached in early 2006, and some indicators suggested that the demand for housing might be stabilizing. Business investment had softened in the fourth quarter, and industrial production decelerated sharply in the fall, but consumer spending posted robust gains in the final months of 2006. At its January 2007 meeting, the Committee again decided to leave its target for the federal funds rate unchanged, reiterated concern about inflation risks, and again cited the role of incoming data in determining the extent and timing of any additional firming.

In recent years, the FOMC has worked to improve the transparency of its decisionmaking process, and the Committee continues to examine whether further changes would improve its communications with the public. In spring 2006, the Chairman appointed a subcommittee to help the FOMC organize the discussion of a broad range of communication issues. The FOMC began its consideration of these issues at its August meeting and has discussed them at several meetings since then.

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Economic Projections for 2007 and 2008

In conjunction with the FOMC meeting in January, the members of the Board of Governors and the Federal Reserve Bank presidents, all of whom participate in the deliberations of the FOMC, provided economic projections for 2007 and 2008. The projections indicate that the participants expect sustainable expansion of real economic activity during the next two years, assuming an appropriate course for monetary policy. The central tendency of the FOMC participants' forecasts for the increase in real GDP is 2-1/2 percent to 3 percent over the four quarters of 2007 and 2-3/4 percent to 3 percent over the four quarters of 2008. The central tendency of their forecasts for the civilian unemployment rate is 4-1/2 percent to 4-3/4 percent in the fourth quarter both of this year and of 2008. For inflation, the central tendency of the forecasts anticipates an increase in the price index for personal consumption expenditures excluding food and energy--the so-called core PCE price index--of 2 percent to 2-1/4 percent over the four quarters of 2007 and 1-3/4 percent to 2 percent over the four quarters of 2008.

The economy is projected to expand at a moderate rate. Although the cooling of the housing market continues to damp economic activity, the drag on economic growth from declining construction activity is expected to diminish later this year. Household spending for goods and services should rise at a solid pace, in part as a result of ongoing gains in real wages and employment and of generally strong household balance sheets. Business outlays for new equipment and software are expected to increase at a rate consistent with a moderate expansion in business output and to be supported by continuing declines in the user cost of high-technology capital equipment and by favorable financial conditions. In addition, the solid expansion of economic activity abroad should maintain the rising demand for U.S. exports of goods and services.

Decreased pressures from the costs of energy and other commodities, in an environment of moderate economic expansion and well-anchored longer-run inflation expectations, are expected to contribute to further easing in inflation. In addition, increases in productivity should help to limit cost pressures.

Economic Projections of Federal Reserve Governors and Reserve Bank Presidents for 2007 and 2008
Indicator Memo:
2006 actual
2007 2008
Range Central
Range Central
Change, fourth quarter to fourth quarter 1  
Nominal GDP 5.9 4-3/4-5-1/2 5-5-1/2 4-3/4-5-1/2 4-3/4-5-1/4
Real GDP 3.4 2-1/4-3-1/4 2-1/2-3 2-1/2-3-1/4 2-3/4-3
PCE price index excluding food and energy 2.3 2-2-1/4 2-2-1/4 1-1/2-2-1/4 1-3/4-2
Average level, fourth quarter  
Civilian unemployment rate 4.5 4-1/2-4-3/4 4-1/2-4-3/4 4-1/2-5 4-1/2-4-3/4

1. Change from average for fourth quarter of previous year to average for fourth quarter of year indicated. Return to table

Note: The discussion here and in the next chapter consists of the text, tables, and selected charts from the Monetary Policy Report submitted to the Congress on February 14, 2007, pursuant to section 2B of the Federal Reserve Act; the complete set of charts is available on the Board's web site, at .

Other materials in this annual report related to the conduct of monetary policy include the minutes of the 2006 meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee (see the "Records" section) and statistical tables 1-4 (at the back of this report).

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