Tuesday, June 30, 2009

SF Fed President Yellen on the Economy

by Bill McBride on 6/30/2009 09:05:00 PM

San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellen has been rumored to be one of the front runners to replace Chairman Ben Bernanke (although most consider Larry Summers the front runner, assuming Bernanke isn't reappointed).

Tonight Dr. Yellen spoke in San Francisco: A View of the Economic Crisis and the Federal Reserve’s Response. Here are some excerpts on her views going forward:

I expect the recession will end sometime later this year. That would make it the longest and probably deepest downturn since the Great Depression. ...

I don’t like taking the wind out of the sails of our economic expansion, but a few cautionary points should be considered. I expect the pace of the recovery will be frustratingly slow. It’s often the case that growth in the first year after a recession is very rapid. That’s what happened as we came out of a very deep downturn in the early 1980s. Although I sincerely wish we would repeat that performance, I don’t think we will. In past deep recessions, the Fed was able to step on the accelerator by cutting the federal funds rate sharply, causing the economy to shoot ahead. This time, we already have our foot planted firmly on the floor. We can’t take the federal funds rate any lower than zero. I believe that the Fed’s novel programs are stimulating the flow of credit, but they simply aren’t as powerful levers as large rate cuts, so this time monetary policy alone can’t power a rapid recovery.

History also teaches us that it often takes a long time to recover from downturns caused by financial crises. In particular, financial institutions and markets won’t heal overnight. Our major banks have made excellent progress in establishing the capital buffers needed to continue lending even through a downturn that is more serious than we anticipate. But they are still nursing their wounds and credit will remain tight for some time to come.

I also think that a massive shift in consumer behavior is under way—one that will produce great benefits in the long run but slow our recovery in the short term. American households entered this recession stretched to the limit with mortgage and other debt. The personal saving rate fell from around 8 percent of disposable income two decades ago to almost zero. Households financed their lifestyles by drawing on increasing stock market and housing wealth, and taking on higher levels of debt. But falling house and stock prices have destroyed trillions of dollars in wealth, cutting off those ready sources of cash. What’s more, the stark realities of this recession have scared many households straight, convincing them that they need to save larger fractions of their incomes. In the long run, higher saving promises to channel resources from consumption to investment, making capital more readily available to retool industry and fix our infrastructure. But, in the here and now, such a rediscovery of thrift means fewer sales at the mall, and fewer jobs on assembly lines and store counters.

A fourth factor that could slow recovery is the unprecedented global nature of the recession. Neither we nor our trading partners can count on a boost from strong foreign demand. Finally, developments in the labor market suggest it could take several years to return to full employment. During this recession, an unusually high proportion of layoffs have been permanent as opposed to temporary, meaning workers won’t get called back when conditions improve. Also, we’ve seen an unprecedented level of involuntary part-time work, such as state workers on furlough a few days per month. Those workers are likely to return to full-time status before new workers are hired. To summarize, I expect that we will turn the growth corner sometime later this year, but I am not optimistic that the economy will spring back to normal anytime soon. What’s more, I expect the unemployment rate to remain painfully high for several more years.

That’s a dreary prediction, but there is also some risk that things could turn out worse. High on my worry list is the possibility of another shock to the still-fragile financial system. Commercial real estate is a particular danger zone. Property prices are falling and vacancy rates are rising in many parts of the country. Given the weak economy, prices could fall more rapidly and developers could face tough times rolling over their loans. Many banks are heavily exposed to commercial real estate loans. An increase in defaults could add to their financial stress, prompting them to tighten credit. The Fed and Treasury are providing loans to investors in securitized commercial mortgages, which should be a big help. But a risk remains of a severe shakeout in this sector.
emphasis added
Yellen also discusses Fed policy, the Fed balance sheet, the fiscal deficit and inflation: "I think the predominant risk is that inflation will be too low, not too high, over the next several years."