Bernanke’s speech to Jackson Hole conference

WASHINGTON (BestGrowthStock) – Following is the full text of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s “The Economic Outlook and Monetary Policy” speech issued in Washington Friday and delivered before the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s Economic Symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyo.:

“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 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. 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.

Besides consumption spending and business fixed investment, net exports are a third source of demand for domestic production. The substantial recovery in international trade is a very positive development for the global economy; for the United States, improving export markets are an important reason that manufacturing has been a leading sector in the recovery. Like others, we were surprised by the sharp deterioration in the U.S. trade balance in the second quarter. However, that deterioration seems to have reflected a number of temporary and special factors. Generally, the arithmetic contribution of net exports to growth in the gross domestic product tends to be much closer to zero, and that is likely to be the case in coming quarters.

Overall, the incoming data suggest that the recovery of output and employment in the United States has slowed in recent months, to a pace somewhat weaker than most FOMC participants projected earlier this year. Much of the unexpected slowing is attributable to the household sector, where consumer spending and the demand for housing have both grown less quickly than was anticipated. Consumer spending may continue to grow relatively slowly in the near term as households focus on repairing their balance sheets. I expect the economy to continue to expand in the second half of this year, albeit at a relatively modest pace.

Despite the weaker data seen recently, the preconditions for a pickup in growth in 2011 appear to remain in place. Monetary policy remains very accommodative, and financial conditions have become more supportive of growth, in part because a concerted effort by policymakers in Europe has reduced fears related to sovereign debts and the banking system there. Banks are improving their balance sheets and appear more willing to lend. Consumers are reducing their debt and building savings, returning household wealth-to-income ratios near to longer-term historical norms. Stronger household finances, rising incomes, and some easing of credit conditions will provide the basis for more-rapid growth in household spending next year.

Businesses’ investment in equipment and software should continue to grow at a healthy pace in the coming year, driven by rising demand for products and services, the continuing need to replace or update existing equipment, strong corporate balance sheets, and the low cost of financing, at least for those firms with access to public capital markets. Rising sales and increased business confidence should also lead firms to expand payrolls. However, investment in structures will likely remain weak. On the fiscal front, state and local governments continue to be under pressure; but with tax receipts showing signs of recovery, their spending should decline less rapidly than it has in the past few years. Federal fiscal stimulus seems set to continue to fade but likely not so quickly as to derail growth in coming quarters.

Although output growth should be stronger next year, resource slack and unemployment seem likely to decline only slowly. The prospect of high unemployment for a long period of time remains a central concern of policy. Not only does high unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, impose heavy costs on the unemployed and their families and on society, but it also poses risks to the sustainability of the recovery itself through its effects on households’ incomes and confidence.

Maintaining price stability is also a central concern of policy. Recently, inflation has declined to a level that is slightly below that which FOMC participants view as most conducive to a healthy economy in the long run. With inflation expectations reasonably stable and the economy growing, inflation should remain near current readings for some time before rising slowly toward levels more consistent with the Committee’s objectives. At this juncture, the risk of either an undesirable rise in inflation or of significant further disinflation seems low. Of course, the Federal Reserve will monitor price developments closely.

In the remainder of my remarks I will discuss the policies the Federal Reserve is currently using to support economic recovery and price stability. I will also discuss some additional policy options that we could consider, especially if the economic outlook were to deteriorate further.

Federal Reserve Policy

In 2008 and 2009, the Federal Reserve, along with policymakers around the world, took extraordinary actions to arrest the financial crisis and help restore normal functioning in key financial markets, a precondition for economic stabilization. To provide further support for the economic recovery while maintaining price stability, the Fed has also taken extraordinary measures to ease monetary and financial conditions.

Notably, since December 2008, the FOMC has held its target for the federal funds rate in a range of 0 to 25 basis points. Moreover, since March 2009, the Committee has consistently stated its expectation that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low policy rates for an extended period. Partially in response to FOMC communications, futures markets quotes suggest that investors are not anticipating significant policy tightening by the Federal Reserve for quite some time. Market expectations for continued accommodative policy have in turn helped reduce interest rates on a range of short- and medium-term financial instruments to quite low levels, indeed not far above the zero lower bound on nominal interest rates in many cases.

The FOMC has also acted to improve market functioning and to push longer-term interest rates lower through its large-scale purchases of agency debt, agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS), and longer-term Treasury securities, of which the Federal Reserve currently holds more than $2 trillion. The channels through which the Fed’s purchases affect longer-term interest rates and financial conditions more generally have been subject to debate. I see the evidence as most favorable to the view that such purchases work primarily through the so-called portfolio balance channel, which holds that once short-term interest rates have reached zero, the Federal Reserve’s purchases of longer-term securities affect financial conditions by changing the quantity and mix of financial assets held by the public. Specifically, the Fed’s strategy relies on the presumption that different financial assets are not perfect substitutes in investors’ portfolios, so that changes in the net supply of an asset available to investors affect its yield and those of broadly similar assets. Thus, our purchases of Treasury, agency debt, and agency MBS likely both reduced the yields on those securities and also pushed investors into holding other assets with similar characteristics, such as credit risk and duration. For example, some investors who sold MBS to the Fed may have replaced them in their portfolios with longer-term, high-quality corporate bonds, depressing the yields on those assets as well.

The logic of the portfolio balance channel implies that the degree of accommodation delivered by the Federal Reserve’s securities purchase program is determined primarily by the quantity and mix of securities the central bank holds or is anticipated to hold at a point in time (the “stock view”), rather than by the current pace of new purchases (the “flow view”). In support of the stock view, the cessation of the Federal Reserve’s purchases of agency securities at the end of the first quarter of this year seems to have had only negligible effects on longer-term rates and spreads.

The Federal Reserve did not hold the size of its securities portfolio precisely constant after it ended its agency purchase program earlier this year. Instead, consistent with the Committee’s goal of ultimately returning the portfolio to one consisting primarily of Treasury securities, we adopted a policy of re-investing maturing Treasuries in similar securities while allowing agency securities to run off as payments of principal were received. To date, we have realized about $140 billion of repayments of principal on our holdings of agency debt and MBS, most of it prior to the end of the purchase program. Continued repayments at this pace, together with the policy of not re-investing the proceeds, were expected to lead to a slight reduction in policy accommodation over time.

However, more recently, as the pace of economic growth has slowed somewhat, longer-term interest rates have fallen and mortgage refinancing activity has picked up. Increased refinancing has in turn led the Fed’s holding of agency MBS to run off more quickly than previously anticipated. Although mortgage prepayment rates are difficult to predict, under the assumption that mortgage rates remain near current levels, we estimated that an additional $400 billion or so of MBS and agency debt currently in the Fed’s portfolio could be repaid by the end of 2011.

At their most recent meeting, FOMC participants observed that allowing the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet to shrink in this way at a time when the outlook had weakened somewhat was inconsistent with the Committee’s intention to provide the monetary accommodation necessary to support the recovery. Moreover, a bad dynamic could come into at play: Any further weakening of the economy that resulted in lower longer-term interest rates and a still-faster pace of mortgage refinancing would likely lead in turn to an even more-rapid runoff of MBS from the Fed’s balance sheet. Thus, a weakening of the economy might act indirectly to increase the pace of passive policy tightening–a perverse outcome. In response to these concerns, the FOMC agreed to stabilize the quantity of securities held by the Federal Reserve by re-investing payments of principal on agency securities into

Bernanke’s speech to Jackson Hole conference