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Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Fed's Williams: Downside Risks and Temporary Factors

by Calculated Risk on 9/07/2011 04:25:00 PM

Today San Francisco Fed President John Williams outlined some of the downside risks and temporary factors for the economic outlook: The Outlook for the U.S. Economy and Role for Monetary Policy. Here are some excerpts:

Temporary factors:

The recent slowdown was due in part to temporary factors. The weather was unusually bad in many parts of the country this past winter, the Japanese earthquake disrupted global supply chains, and, perhaps most importantly for U.S. economic growth, oil and other commodity prices surged. Higher prices at the pump staggered Americans and took a sizable bite out of consumer spending at a particularly sensitive moment for the economy.

The effects of these temporary brakes on growth have largely faded.
[W]e are vulnerable to negative shocks that could put the recovery at risk. That’s why events in Europe are such a cause for concern. Fears that some nations in the euro zone will not be able to make payments on their debts have spread from smaller countries, such as Greece and Ireland, to larger economies, such as Spain and Italy. This is not something we can dismiss as somebody else’s problem. A full-blown financial meltdown in Europe would hit U.S. exports, which have been one of the economy’s few bright spots. Perhaps more importantly, it could slam U.S. financial markets and deal a further blow to already fragile confidence. In other words, a downturn in Europe could knock the props out from under the U.S. recovery.

We’ve had our own shock right here at home in the form of the contentious debate over a long-term fix for the federal budget deficit. It’s essential that we bring the budget under control. But, how this is accomplished is extremely important, both for our country’s short- and long-run economic health. ... In the near term, efforts at deficit reduction may reduce demand and further slow the already precarious recovery. In addition, the deficit controversy has added one more ingredient to the currents of economic anxiety that are roiling households and businesses.
And on downside risks:
[S]everal more persistent trends are also impeding recovery. The news from the housing market has been particularly dismal. Past recoveries typically got a kick start from a rebound in home construction and spending on furniture, appliances, and other big-ticket items people needed for their new houses and apartments. This time, though, construction is stuck at post-World War II low levels. A huge supply of homes is available for sale, which keeps prices down. Add to that what might be called a shadow inventory of some 4 million homes whose owners are seriously delinquent on their mortgages or in foreclosure. Despite great loan terms and low prices, buyers who qualify for credit are understandably nervous about jumping back into the housing market. And, of course, millions of other potential buyers are underwater on their current mortgages, making it hard for them to sell or refinance.

Meanwhile, the bounce in consumer spending often seen in the wake of recessions has been unusually tepid this time around. The combination of huge amounts of household debt, losses in the housing and stock markets, and high unemployment has clearly taken a toll on both the ability and willingness of households to spend. People are on edge waiting for the other shoe to drop. Consumer sentiment plunged last month, which was partly a reaction to the unnerving news about the federal debt ceiling debate in Washington, D.C., and the European debt crisis. In fact, the latest consumer sentiment readings are near the all-time lows recorded in late 2008 during the most terrifying moments of the financial crisis. Here is a telling statistic: Sixty-two percent of households expect their income to stay the same or decline over the next year, the worst reading in the over 30 years that this question has been asked. With consumer spending making up 70 percent of the economy, it’s hard to have a robust recovery when Americans are so dispirited.
Right now I'd put the European crisis and premature austerity as the two biggest downside risks. High gasoline prices are still a drag, as is the ongoing housing crisis.

John Williams concludes:
Right now, though, the real threat is an economy that is at risk of stalling and the prospect of many years of very high unemployment, with potentially long-run negative consequences for our economy.