Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fed's Yellen: The Uncertain Economic Outlook

by Bill McBride on 3/25/2009 01:11:00 PM

From San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellen: The Uncertain Economic Outlook and the Policy Responses.

Dr. Yellen does an excellent job of describing the economy (pretty grim comments!), but I'd like to focus on just a short section:

With the caveat that my forecast is subject to exceptional uncertainty in the present environment, my best guess is similar to that of most forecasters, who expect to see moderately positive real GDP growth rates beginning later this year or early in 2010, followed by a gradual recovery.

However, I am well aware that my views are strikingly more optimistic than those I hear from the vast majority of my business contacts. They tend to see conditions as dire and getting worse. In fact, many of them can’t believe I would even suggest what they see as such a patently rosy scenario! So why is it that so many of us who prepare forecasts seem to be more optimistic than many others? I think there are several reasons. First, as forecasters, we distinguish between growth rates and levels. It’s true that the Blue Chip consensus shows moderate positive growth rates in output in the second half of this year. But even so, the level of the unemployment rate would still rise throughout 2009 and into 2010. So, in this sense, the worst of the recession is not expected to occur until next year. And, even by the end of 2011, I would expect the unemployment rate to be above its full-employment level. So I wouldn’t call this a particularly rosy scenario.

Second, it takes less than many people think for real GDP growth rates to turn positive. Just the elimination of drags on growth can do it. For example, residential construction has been declining for several years, subtracting about 1 percentage point from real GDP growth. Even if this spending were only to stabilize at today’s very low levels—not a robust performance at all—a 1 percentage point subtraction from growth would convert into a zero, boosting overall growth by 1 percentage point. A decline in the pace of inventory liquidation is another factor that could contribute to a pickup in growth. Inventory liquidation over the last few months has been unusually severe, especially in motor vehicles—a typical recession pattern. All it would take is a reduction in the pace of liquidation—not outright inventory building—to raise the GDP growth rate. In addition, pent-up demand for autos, durable goods, or even housing could emerge and boost demand for these items once their stocks have declined to low enough levels.
emphasis added
This is a very important point for forecasters - to distinguish between growth rates and levels. Even if the economy "bottoms" in the 2nd half of this year, it will be at a very low level compared to the last few years, and the recovery will probably be very sluggish. This means unemployment will continue to rise in 2010 - and it will still feel like a recession to many people.