Monday, September 14, 2009

Fed's Yellen: The Outlook for Recovery

by Bill McBride on 9/14/2009 05:28:00 PM

This is a long excerpt, but worth reading ...

From San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellen: The Outlook for Recovery in the U.S. Economy

I am hugely relieved that our financial system appears to have survived this near-death experience. And, as painful as this recession has been, I believe that we succeeded in avoiding the second Great Depression that seemed to be a real possibility. Much of the recent economic data suggest that the economy has bottomed out and that the worst risks are behind us. The economy seems to be brushing itself off and beginning its climb out of the deep hole it’s been in.

That’s the good news. But I regret to say that I expect the recovery to be tepid. What’s more, the gradual expansion gathering steam will remain vulnerable to shocks. The financial system has improved but is not yet back to normal. It still holds hazards that could derail a fragile recovery. Even if the economy grows as I expect, things won’t feel very good for some time to come. In particular, the unemployment rate will remain elevated for a few more years, meaning hardship for millions of workers. Moreover, the slack in the economy, demonstrated by high unemployment and low utilization of industrial capacity, threatens to push inflation lower at a time when it is already below the level that, in the view of most members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) best promotes the Fed’s dual mandate for full employment and price stability. ...

I’m happy to report that the downturn has probably now run its course. This summer likely marked the end of the recession and the economy should expand in the second half of this year. A wide array of data supports this view. However, payrolls are still shrinking at a rapid pace, even though the momentum of job losses has slowed in the past few months. The housing sector finally seems to be improving. Home sales and starts are once again rising from very low levels, and home prices appear to be stabilizing, even rising in recent months according to some national measures. Meanwhile, manufacturing is also beginning to show signs of life, helped particularly by a rebound in motor vehicle production. Importantly, consumer spending finally is bottoming out.

A particularly hopeful sign is that inventories, which have been shrinking rapidly, now seem to be in better alignment with sales. That’s occurred because firms slashed production rapidly and dramatically in the face of slumping sales. Recent data suggest that this correction may be near an end and firms are now poised to step up production to match sales. In fact, I expect the biggest source of expansion in the second half of this year to come from a diminished pace of inventory liquidation by manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers. Such a pattern is typical of business cycles. Inventory investment often is the catalyst for economic recoveries. True, the boost is usually fairly short-lived, but it can be quite important in getting things going. ...

The normal dynamics of the business cycle have also turned more favorable. Some economic sectors are growing again simply because they sank so low. The inventory adjustment I just discussed is one factor, although the biggest part of those benefits usually is only felt for a few quarters. But other business cycle patterns can be longer lasting. Demand for houses, durable goods such as autos, and business equipment is beginning to revive as households and firms replace or upgrade needed equipment and structures.
...
This time though rapid growth does not seem to be in store. My own forecast envisions a far less robust recovery, one that would look more like the letter U than V. ... A large body of evidence supports this guarded outlook. It is consistent with experiences around the world following recessions caused by financial crises. That seems to be because it takes quite a while for financial systems to heal to the point that normal credit flows are restored. That is what I expect this time. ...

Unfortunately, more credit losses are in store even as the economy improves and overall financial conditions ease. Certainly, households remain stressed. In the face of high and rising unemployment, delinquencies and foreclosures are showing no sign of turning around. The delinquency rate on adjustable-rate mortgages is now up to about 18 percent, and, on fixed-rate loans, it’s about 6 percent. Delinquencies on both types of loans have increased sharply over the past year and are still rising. ...

The chances are slim for a robust rebound in consumer spending, which represents around 70 percent of economic activity. Of course, consumers are getting a boost from the fiscal stimulus package. But this program is temporary. Over the long term, consumers face daunting issues of their own. In fact, it’s easy to draw a comparison between the financial state of households and that of financial institutions. For years prior to the recession, households went on a spending spree. This occurred during a period that economists call the “Great Moderation,” about two decades when recessions were infrequent and mild, and inflation was low and stable. Credit became ever easier to get and consumers took advantage of this to borrow and buy. Stock and home prices rose year after year, giving households additional wherewithal to keep spending. In this culture of consumption, the personal saving rate fell from around 10 percent in the mid-1980s to 1½ percent or lower in recent years. At the same time, households took on larger proportions of debt. From 1960 to the mid-1980s, debt represented a manageable 65 percent of disposable income. Since then, it has risen steadily, with a notable acceleration in the last economic expansion. By 2008, it had doubled to about 130 percent of income.

It may well be that we are witnessing the start of a new era for consumers following the traumatic financial blows they have endured. The destruction of their nest eggs caused by falling house and stock prices is prompting them to rebuild savings. The personal saving rate is finally on the rise, averaging almost 4½ percent so far this year. While certainly sensible from the standpoint of individual households, this retreat from debt-fueled consumption could reduce the growth rate of consumer spending for years. An increase in saving should ultimately support the economy’s capacity to produce and grow by channeling resources from consumption to investment. And higher investment is the key to greater productivity and faster growth in living standards. But the transition could be painful if subpar growth in consumer spending holds back the pace of economic recovery.

Weakness in the labor market is another factor that may keep the recovery in low gear for a while. ... While the August employment report offered more evidence that the pace of the decline has slowed, unemployment now stands at its highest level since 1983. My business contacts indicate that they will be very reluctant to hire again until they see clear evidence of a sustained recovery, and that suggests we could see another so-called jobless recovery in which employment growth lags the improvement in overall output. What’s more, wage growth has slowed sharply. Over the first half of this year, the employment cost index for private-industry workers has risen by a meager three-quarters of one percent. Unemployment, job insecurity, and low growth in incomes will undoubtedly take a toll on consumption. When the array of problems facing consumers is considered, it is hard to see how we can avoid sluggish spending growth.

Putting the whole puzzle together, the main impetus to growth in the second half of this year will be inventory investment. The boost it provides will be a big help for a while, but we will need to look to other sectors to sustain growth. The fact that the largest sector of the economy—consumer spending—is likely to be lackluster implies a less-than-robust expansion. Even the gradual recovery we expect will be vulnerable to shocks, especially from the financial sector. As I said, financial conditions are better, but not back to normal. And the likelihood of continuing losses by financial institutions will add new fuel to the credit crunch. In particular, small and medium-size banks could experience damaging losses on commercial real estate loans. Thus far, the largest losses have been on loans for construction and land development. Going forward, however, rising loan losses on other commercial real estate lending is likely because property values are falling, office vacancy rates are rising, and credit remains tight or nonexistent for those many property owners that will need to refinance mortgages over the next few years. Financial contagion from this sector is one of the most important threats to recovery.

The slow recovery I expect means that it could still take several years to return to full employment. The same is true for capacity utilization in manufacturing. It will take a long time before these human and capital resources are put to full use.

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