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Monday, August 02, 2010

Bernanke: Challenges for the Economy and State Governments

by Calculated Risk on 8/02/2010 10:18:00 AM

From Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke: Challenges for the Economy and State Governments

On the economy:

While the support to economic activity from stimulative fiscal policies and firms' restocking of their inventories will diminish over time, rising demand from households and businesses should help sustain growth. In particular, in the household sector, growth in real consumer spending seems likely to pick up in coming quarters from its recent modest pace, supported by gains in income and improving credit conditions. In the business sector, investment in equipment and software has been increasing rapidly, in part as a result of the deferral of capital outlays during the downturn and the need of many businesses to replace aging equipment. At the same time, rising U.S. exports, reflecting the expansion of the global economy and the recovery of world trade, have helped foster growth in the U.S. manufacturing sector.

To be sure, notable restraints on the recovery persist. The housing market has remained weak, with the overhang of vacant or foreclosed houses weighing on home prices and new construction. Similarly, poor economic fundamentals and tight credit are holding back investment in nonresidential structures, such as office buildings, hotels, and shopping malls.

Importantly, the slow recovery in the labor market and the attendant uncertainty about job prospects are weighing on household confidence and spending. After two years of job losses, private payrolls expanded at an average of about 100,000 per month during the first half of this year, an improvement but still a pace insufficient to reduce the unemployment rate materially. In all likelihood, significant time will be required to restore the nearly 8-1/2 million jobs that were lost over 2008 and 2009. Moreover, nearly half of the unemployed have been out of work for longer than six months.
On state and local governments:
Cuts in state and local programs and employment are also weighing on economic activity. These cuts principally reflect the historically large decreases in state tax revenues during the recession. Sales tax revenues have declined with household and business spending, and income tax revenues have been hit by drops in wages and salaries, capital gains, and corporate profits. In contrast, property tax revenues collected by local governments generally held up well through the beginning of this year, although reappraisals of the values of homes and commercial properties may affect those collections in the future.
With revenues down and Medicaid spending up, other categories of spending by state governments have been tightly squeezed. Over the past year, numerous state governments have laid off or furloughed employees, decreased capital spending, and reduced aid to local governments. Indeed, state and local payrolls have fallen by more than 200,000 jobs from their peak near the end of 2008. Some states have also raised taxes, but the weak economy has made it difficult to find significant new revenues.

Assistance from the federal government, especially through the fiscal stimulus package, has eased, but certainly not eliminated, the budget difficulties faced by states. Although states and localities will continue to receive significant aid this year, that source of help will be winding down next year.

On a more positive note, state and local tax revenues seem set to increase as economic activity expands.
This is a fairly positive outlook for the overall economy, but less so for local governments.