Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fed's Lockhart sees "catalysts for the start of modest recovery"

by Bill McBride on 2/19/2009 01:23:00 PM

Excerpts from a speech by Altanta Fed President Dennis (edit) Lockhart today:

[T]he economic outlook is not indefinitely bad. Most forecasts, my own included, see catalysts for the start of modest recovery in the second half of the year.
I think almost everyone agrees with the "not indefinitely bad" comment. But I'm interested in what Lockhart sees as "catalysts for recovery":
With production falling—and expected to decline significantly more this quarter—I expect some reduction of excess business inventories, putting producers in a position to expand output as spending returns.
Right now it appears inventory levels are too high. In the Philly Fed economic outlook report today, they asked a special question about inventory levels:
In special questions this month, firms were asked about their current inventory situation. Nearly 44 percent of the firms indicated that their inventories were too high and were expected to decrease during the first quarter; 67 percent said their customers' inventory plans had also decreased.
So Lockhart might be correct, but it is too early to tell if producers will reduce inventory enough in the first half of 2009 to expand output in the second half of the year.
There are signs lower mortgage interest rates are helping housing markets on the margin. The January pending sales number was up, and there has been a spurt in refinancing activity. If historically low mortgage rates can be sustained over the coming months, I expect more buyers will be drawn into the market.
Actually the most recent pending home sales number was for December and the reason it showed an increase was because of more activity in areas with significant foreclosures.
Several factors should lift consumer spending as the year progresses. These factors include the dramatic fall in energy prices, greater stability in the housing market, and improving consumer confidence.
This is very possible, but I don't see evidence of this yet.
I should mention that last week the U.S. Census Bureau reported an unexpected increase in retail sales during January. I would like to see further confirmation of the underlying strength hinted at in this report, but on its face, the pickup in consumer spending is encouraging.
This is just one month of data and could be related to gift cards, so I wouldn't read much into that small increase.
Also contributing to the upturn seen in the consensus outlook are the large and targeted fiscal, credit, and monetary policies of the government and the Federal Reserve ... The intent of these aggressive and unprecedented policy actions is to support spending and fix the dysfunction in credit markets that has so severely constrained the economy’s natural forces of growth.

Indeed, we have seen modest, but hopeful, signs that financial markets are improving. A key element in the improved economic environment expected in the latter half of the year is that financial institutions will find more stable footing and begin to provide greater support to business expansion and consumer spending.
I think we can start looking for some rays of sunshine, but I don't see anything yet.