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Monday, March 22, 2010

Fed's Lockhart: The U.S. Economy and Emerging Risks

by Calculated Risk on 3/22/2010 05:32:00 PM

From Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart: The U.S. Economy and Emerging Risks. Lockhart reviews his general forecast for a modest U.S. recovery and then discusses risks from Greece (sovereign debt) and fiscal uncertainty - especially for U.S. states and local government:

There are other plausible emerging scenarios that are not factored into my formal outlook. I monitor these for evidence that they're materializing—becoming real—and need to be more formally considered. One such concern is what might be called "fiscal uncertainty."

You've all been reading about Greece and the European Union's handling of the Greek fiscal crisis. At the moment a nexus of fiscal uncertainty is the situation playing out in Greece.

Last October, the government of Greece revised its 2009 fiscal deficit sharply higher to more than 12 percent of GDP. Consequently, the ratio of public debt to GDP was revised up by 17 percentage points this year to 125 percent of GDP.

Investors around the world are concerned about Greece's deficit and rising debt. Market pressures, along with European Monetary Union mandates, have forced the government to present a credible plan to tame its deficit. As of today, how this will play out is not clear.

It's worth considering whether this is just a distant development or one with relevance to us here in the United States. What do fiscal problems in Greece have to do with my economic outlook for the United States?

I see three ways the Greek crisis might directly affect the U.S. economy. First, adjustment across the EU to fiscal problems could dampen euro area growth and constrain U.S. exports to that region. The European Union as a whole is this nation's largest export market. Second, related to this, safe haven currency flows from the euro into dollar assets could cause appreciation of the dollar and hurt U.S. export competitiveness. Third is the possibility that the Greek fiscal crisis could lead to a broad shock to financial markets. This could play out in the banking system or in the form of a general retreat from sovereign debt.

At this point, these possibilities are not factored into my outlook in any way. But developments around the Greek situation deserve rapt attention.

We have our own set of fiscal uncertainties in this country—at all levels of government. The National League of Cities projects that municipal governments will face a shortfall of $56 billion to $83 billion from 2010 to 2012. Local governments in this country are pressured by lower sales tax revenues and shrinking property tax digests along with other demands.

On average, state-level governments began fiscal year 2010 with a revenue-expenditure gap of 17 percent. Three states had expected budget gaps in excess of 40 percent. ...

Across the country, state governments have responded to these strains by drawing down rainy day funds, raising taxes, cutting budgets, and furloughing employees.

To date, some amount of spending cuts and tax increases at the state level have been avoided thanks to the federal stimulus package, but that infusion of money is temporary. It appears state budgets next year will need to shrink considerably to get to balance.

I'm sure you're familiar generally with the situation at the federal level. According to the Congressional Budget Office, under current law federal budget deficits rose from an average of about 2.4 percent of GDP in the period from 1970 to 2008 to 10 percent in 2009. No budget path currently under consideration would keep the public debt from growing relative to gross domestic product. Clearly, an ever-rising debt-to-GDP ratio is unsustainable and a matter of great concern.

Government finances are severely strained at all levels. All of these fiscal pressures represent another downside risk for the broad economy.
emphasis added
Earlier in his speech, Lockhart notes that "stabilization of the housing sector—especially house prices—is likely a precondition for sustained economic recovery". Housing is probably the major risk to Lockhart's view of a modest recovery.