Part 1: Monetary Policy and the Economic OutlookMonetary Policy Report submitted to the Congress on July 18, 2007, pursuant to section 2B of the Federal Reserve Act
The U.S. economy generally performed well in the first half of 2007. Activity continued to increase moderately, on average, over the period; businesses added jobs at a steady pace; and the unemployment rate remained at 4-1/2 percent. Overall inflation, however, picked up as a result of sizable increases in energy and food prices. At the same time, core inflation (which excludes the direct effects of movements in energy and food prices) held at about the same rate as in 2006; this measure smoothes through some of the volatility in the high-frequency data and thus is generally a better gauge of underlying inflation trends.
Although real gross domestic product appears to have expanded at about the same average rate thus far this year as it did in the second half of 2006, the pace of expansion has been uneven. In the first quarter, consumer expenditures and business fixed investment, taken together, posted a solid gain. However, homebuilding continued to contract, and manufacturing firms adjusted production to address stock imbalances in that sector that had emerged over the course of 2006. In the second quarter, housing activity declined further in response to the continued softness in home sales and still-elevated inventories of unsold new homes; personal consumption expenditures (PCE) also slowed. Even so, the available data point to solid gains overall in other components of final sales, and with manufacturing inventory imbalances significantly reduced, growth in real GDP apparently sped up.
Job growth in the first half of 2007 was driven by sizable increases in service-producing industries. In the goods-producing sector, manufacturing employment contracted, especially at firms closely tied to the construction industry and at producers of motor vehicles and parts. Employment in residential construction, which had turned down in mid-2006, decreased only modestly further over the first half of 2007 despite the substantial decline in homebuilding.
Real hourly compensation increased over the year ending in the first quarter, the most recent period for which complete data are available. In the second quarter, however, gains in real compensation were probably curtailed by a steep, energy-driven rise in consumer prices. Employment continued to rise apace in the first half of 2007 in the face of moderate growth in output. As a consequence, growth in labor productivity--which had slowed in 2006 from the rapid rate observed earlier in the decade--appears to have remained modest. The cooling of productivity growth in recent quarters likely reflects cyclical or other temporary factors, but the underlying pace of productivity gains may also have slowed somewhat.
Financial market conditions have continued to be generally supportive of economic expansion thus far in 2007, though there was a notable repricing in the subprime-mortgage sector. In recent weeks, the deterioration in that sector has been particularly marked, and markets for lower-quality corporate credits have also experienced some strains. Nonetheless, spreads on such corporate credits have remained narrow on the whole, and business borrowing has continued to be fairly brisk. On balance, equity markets posted sizable gains through mid-July, in part because of continued robust corporate profits and an upward revision to investors' outlook for the economy. The improved outlook led market participants to mark up their anticipated path for the federal funds rate, and intermediate- and long-term interest rates rose significantly. The foreign exchange value of the dollar has declined moderately this year as the pace of economic activity abroad has strengthened.
Overall consumer price inflation, as measured by the PCE price index, picked up noticeably in the first half of 2007, largely because of a sharp increase in energy prices. After moving down over the second half of 2006, the prices households pay for energy subsequently turned up and by May were 14 percent (not at an annual rate) above their level at the end of last year. Food prices also contributed to the step-up in overall inflation this year. The faster rate of increase in overall prices has had only a modest effect on inflation expectations: Surveys suggest that near-term inflation expectations have risen somewhat in recent months, but measures of long-term inflation expectations have remained within the range of recent years.
The rate of increase in the core PCE price index ticked down from 2.1 percent over the twelve months of 2006 to an annual rate of 2.0 percent over the first five months of 2007, primarily accounted for by more-favorable readings between March and May. Although higher energy prices this year added to the cost of producing a wide variety of goods and services that are included in the core index, these effects were offset by other factors--most notably, a slowdown in the rate of increase in shelter costs from the very high rates seen in 2006.
The U.S. economy seems likely to continue to expand at a moderate pace in the second half of 2007 and in 2008. The current contraction in residential construction will likely restrain overall activity for a while longer, but as stocks of unsold new homes are brought down to more comfortable levels, that restraint should begin to abate. In addition, the inventory correction that damped activity in the manufacturing sector around the turn of the year appears largely to have run its course. Thus, stock adjustment is unlikely to be a drag on production in coming quarters. Consumer spending should also keep moving up. Employment and real wages are on track to rise further, and, although the difficulties in the subprime-mortgage market have created severe financial problems for some individuals and families, the household sector is in good financial shape overall. Businesses are also continuing to enjoy favorable financial conditions, which, along with a further expansion in business output, should support moderate increases in business investment. The positive outlook for economic activity abroad bodes well for U.S. exports.
Core inflation is expected to moderate a bit further over the next year and a half. Longer-run inflation expectations are contained, pressures on resource utilization should ease slightly in an environment of economic expansion at or just below the rate of increase in the nation's potential to produce, and some of the other factors that boosted inflation in recent years have already receded or seem likely to do so. As noted, increases in shelter costs, which helped push up core inflation in 2006, have slowed appreciably this year. In addition, the paths for the prices of energy and other commodities embedded in futures markets suggest that the impetus to core inflation from these influences should diminish. And although unit labor costs in the nonfarm business sector have been rising, the average markup of prices over unit labor costs is still high by historical standards, an indication that firms could potentially absorb higher costs, at least for a time, through a narrowing of profit margins.
Nonetheless, the possibility that the expected moderation in inflation will fail to materialize remains the predominant risk to the economic outlook. The more-favorable readings on core inflation in recent months partly reflect some factors that seem likely to prove transitory. Moreover, the economy appears to be operating at a high level of resource utilization, which has the potential to sustain inflation pressures. In addition, an upward impetus to costs could emanate from other sources, including higher prices for energy and other commodities or a slower rate of increase in structural productivity. Another concern is that high rates of headline inflation, if prolonged, could cause longer-run inflation expectations to rise and could thus become another factor sustaining inflation pressures.
Significant risks also attend the outlook for real economic activity. On the downside, the fall in housing construction could intensify or last longer than expected. In addition, persistent weakness in the housing sector could spill over to other sectors, especially consumption. But upside risks also exist. For example, consumer spending appears to be rising less rapidly of late after a period of large increases that pushed the personal saving rate into negative territory; increases in consumption could return to their earlier pace. Exports could also boost aggregate demand more than anticipated, especially if economic conditions abroad continue to exceed expectations.
The Conduct of Monetary Policy over the First Half of 2007The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) left the stance of monetary policy unchanged over the first half of 2007. At the time of the January meeting, available economic information pointed to a relatively favorable outlook for both economic growth and inflation. While manufacturing activity had softened, the housing sector had shown tentative signs of stabilizing, and consumer spending remained strong. Readings on core inflation had improved some from the elevated levels reached in 2006, and inflation expectations continued to be stable. Nevertheless, the prevailing level of inflation was uncomfortably high, and elevated resource utilization had the potential to sustain inflation pressures. Against this backdrop, the Committee decided to leave its target for the federal funds rate unchanged at 5-1/4 percent and reiterated in its policy statement that some inflation risks remained. The Committee also explained that the extent and timing of any additional firming would depend on the evolution of the outlook for both inflation and economic growth as implied by incoming information.
When the Committee met in March, data suggested that the ongoing weakness in the housing market had not spilled over to consumption spending, and the strains in the subprime-mortgage market did not appear to be affecting the availability of other types of household or business credit. Although investment spending had been soft, it was expected to pick up, primarily because of strong corporate balance sheets, continued high profitability, and generally favorable financial conditions. Nevertheless, sluggish business spending and the deterioration in the subprime-mortgage market suggested that downside risks to growth had increased. At the same time, readings on core inflation had stayed somewhat elevated, and increases in the prices of energy and non-energy commodities had boosted the risk that the expected deceleration in inflation would fail to occur. The FOMC decided to leave its target for the federal funds rate unchanged at 5-1/4 percent and noted in the accompanying statement that its predominant policy concern remained the risk that inflation would fail to moderate as expected. In light of the increased uncertainty about the outlook for both inflation and growth, the statement indicated that future policy adjustments would depend on the evolution of the outlook for both inflation and economic growth as implied by incoming information--a characterization that has been repeated in the two postmeeting FOMC statements since then.
In May, the data in hand indicated that the adjustment in the housing sector was continuing and appeared likely to persist for longer than previously anticipated. Moreover, growth in consumer spending seemed to have slowed in the early spring. Nonetheless, because the problems in the subprime-mortgage market apparently were contained and business spending indicators suggested improving prospects for investment, the economy seemed likely to expand at a moderate pace over coming quarters. Despite more-favorable readings for March, core inflation remained somewhat elevated from a longer perspective. Inflation pressures were expected to moderate over time, but the high level of resource utilization had the potential to sustain those pressures. As a result, the FOMC decided to leave its target for the federal funds rate unchanged at 5-1/4 percent and repeated in the statement that its predominant policy concern remained the risk that inflation would fail to moderate as expected.
At the June meeting, data appeared to confirm that economic growth had strengthened in the second quarter of 2007 despite the ongoing adjustment in the housing sector. Business spending on capital equipment, which had faltered around the turn of the year, firmed somewhat in the spring, and nonresidential construction advanced briskly. In addition, the inventory correction that had held down economic activity late last year and early this year seemed to have mostly run its course. Moreover, defense spending and net exports appeared poised to rebound after sagging in the first quarter. These factors more than offset a slowdown in the growth of consumer spending. Readings on core inflation remained favorable in April and May. Nonetheless, a sustained moderation of inflation pressures had yet to be convincingly demonstrated, and the high level of resource utilization had the potential to sustain those pressures. Under these circumstances, the Committee decided to leave its target for the federal funds rate unchanged at 5-1/4 percent. In its policy statement, the Committee repeated that its predominant policy concern remained the risk that inflation would fail to moderate as expected.
At their meetings over the first half of 2007, FOMC meeting participants continued the discussions they had formally initiated last year regarding their communications with the public. The discussions included a review of the role of the economic projections that are made twice a year by the members of the Board of Governors and the Reserve Bank presidents and which are included in the Board's Monetary Policy Report to the Congress. In addition, participants exchanged views on the possible advantages and disadvantages of specifying a numerical price objective for monetary policy. They also discussed the appropriate role of meeting minutes and policy statements. These discussions remain ongoing, as participants continue to evaluate the best available means for improving communication with the public in furtherance of the Committee's dual mandate for both maximum employment and stable prices.
Economic Projections for 2007 and 2008In conjunction with the FOMC meeting at the end of June, the members of the Board of Governors and the Reserve Bank presidents, all of whom participate in the deliberations of the FOMC, provided economic projections for 2007 and 2008 for this report. The central tendency of the FOMC participants' forecasts for the increase in real GDP is 2-1/4 percent to 2-1/2 percent over the four quarters of 2007 and 2-1/2 percent to 2-3/4 percent in 2008. The civilian unemployment rate is expected to lie between 4-1/2 percent and 4-3/4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2007 and to be at about the top of that range in 2008. As for inflation, FOMC participants expect that the increase in the price index for personal consumption expenditures excluding food and energy (core PCE inflation) will total 2 percent to 2-1/4 percent over the four quarters of 2007 and will drift down to 1-3/4 percent to 2 percent in 2008.
|Federal Reserve Governors and Reserve Bank presidents|
|Change, fourth quarter to fourth quarter 1|
|Nominal GDP||4-1/2 to 5-1/2||4-1/2 to 5|
|Real GDP||2 to 2-3/4||2-1/4 to 2-1/2|
|PCE price index excluding food and energy||2 to 2-1/4||2 to 2-1/4|
|Average level, fourth quarter|
|Civilian unemployment rate||4-1/2 to 4-3/4||4-1/2 to 4-3/4|
|Change, fourth quarter to fourth quarter 1|
|Nominal GDP||4-1/2 to 5-1/2||4-3/4 to 5|
|Real GDP||2-1/2 to 3||2-1/2 to 2-3/4|
|PCE price index excluding food and energy||1-3/4 to 2||1-3/4 to 2|
Average level, fourth quarter
|Civilian unemployment rate||4-1/2 to 5||About 4-3/4|
1.Change from average for fourth quarter of previous year to average for fourth quarter of year indicated. Return to table
Economic activity appears poised to expand at a moderate rate in the second half of 2007, and it should strengthen gradually into 2008. The ongoing correction in the housing market seems likely to continue to weigh on the rate of economic expansion over the near term. But as that process runs its course, the rate of growth of economic activity should move up somewhat. The pace of consumer spending may be restrained in the near term as households continue to adjust to the latest run-up in energy prices and to softer house prices; still, household balance sheets are generally in good shape, and increases in employment and real wages over the next year and a half should be sufficient to sustain further gains in spending. Regarding business investment, solid gains in real outlays on equipment and software seem likely in light of the anticipated expansion in business output, continuing strong profits, and generally favorable financial conditions. Opportunities to realize significant gains in efficiency by investing in high-tech equipment should provide ongoing support to equipment spending as well. Investment in nonresidential buildings also seems to be expanding briskly. In addition, prospects are favorable for continued increases in demand for exports of U.S. goods and services.
FOMC participants generally expect core inflation to edge down a bit further over the next year and a half. In assessing the apparent slowing of core inflation this spring, participants recognized that the monthly price data are volatile and that some of the recent improvement may prove to have been transitory. Nonetheless, they believe that the current environment will be conducive to some further moderation in underlying price pressures. The participants' forecasts for real activity imply a slight easing over the next several quarters of the tightness in labor and product markets. And although core inflation is expected to remain under some upward pressure in the near term from the pass-through of the increases to date in the prices of energy and other commodities, those cost pressures should subsequently wane. Accordingly, with long-run inflation expectations contained, diminished cost pressures should result in some moderation in core inflation.