Well, I guess I’m officially in the camp of those who think a) that policymakers are overestimating the resiliency of the recovery and b)that the Fed is erring in its decisions not to take additional measures to boost the economy.
Bernanke spent a lot of time on the defensive in this speech, defending the Fed’s vigilance, arguing that Fed policy has not driven up the price of commodities, and making the case that inflation worries are overblown (but does not ever say that employment is a larger concern of the Fed’s at this point, which would be the logical next statement).
Here are some key excerpts from Bernanke’s speech today (read the whole thing here), which had four subheads:
The Outlook for Growth
U.S. economic growth so far this year looks to have been somewhat slower than expected. Aggregate output increased at only 1.8 percent at an annual rate in the first quarter, and supply chain disruptions associated with the earthquake and tsunami in Japan are hampering economic activity this quarter. A number of indicators also suggest some loss of momentum in the labor market in recent weeks. We are, of course, monitoring these developments. That said, with the effects of the Japanese disaster on manufacturing output likely to dissipate in coming months, and with some moderation in gasoline prices in prospect, growth seems likely to pick up somewhat in the second half of the year. Overall, the economic recovery appears to be continuing at a moderate pace, albeit at a rate that is both uneven across sectors and frustratingly slow from the perspective of millions of unemployed and underemployed workers.
As is often the case, the ability and willingness of households to spend will be an important determinant of the pace at which the economy expands in coming quarters. [. . .]
Although the jobs market remains quite weak and progress has been uneven, overall we have seen signs of gradual improvement. For example, private-sector payrolls increased at an average rate of about 180,000 per month over the first five months of this year, compared with less than 140,000 during the last four months of 2010 and less than 80,000 per month in the four months prior to that. As I noted, however, recent indicators suggest some loss of momentum, with last Friday’s jobs market report showing an increase in private payrolls of just 83,000 in May. I expect hiring to pick up from last month’s pace as growth strengthens in the second half of the year, but, again, the recent data highlight the need to continue monitoring the jobs situation carefully. [. . . ]
The prospect of increasing fiscal drag on the recovery highlights one of the many difficult tradeoffs faced by fiscal policymakers: If the nation is to have a healthy economic future, policymakers urgently need to put the federal government’s finances on a sustainable trajectory. But, on the other hand, a sharp fiscal consolidation focused on the very near term could be self-defeating if it were to undercut the still-fragile recovery. The solution to this dilemma, I believe, lies in recognizing that our nation’s fiscal problems are inherently long-term in nature. Consequently, the appropriate response is to move quickly to enact a credible, long-term plan for fiscal consolidation.
The Outlook for Inflation:
Although the recent increase in inflation is a concern, the appropriate diagnosis and policy response depend on whether the rise in inflation is likely to persist. So far at least, there is not much evidence that inflation is becoming broad-based or ingrained in our economy; indeed, increases in the price of a single product–gasoline–account for the bulk of the recent increase in consumer price inflation. [. . . ]
Besides the prospect of more-stable commodity prices, two other factors suggest that inflation is likely to return to more subdued levels in the medium term. First, the still-substantial slack in U.S. labor and product markets should continue to have a moderating effect on inflationary pressures. Notably, because of the weak demand for labor, wage increases have not kept pace with productivity gains. Thus the level of unit labor costs in the business sector is lower than it was before the recession. Given the large share of labor costs in the production costs of most firms (typically, a share far larger than that of raw materials costs), subdued unit labor costs should remain a restraining influence on inflation. [. . .]
In all, these cases reinforce the view that the fundamentals of global supply and demand have been playing a central role in recent swings in commodity prices. That said, there is usually significant uncertainty about current and prospective supply and demand. Accordingly, commodity prices, like the prices of financial assets, can be volatile as market participants react to incoming news. Recently, commodity prices seem to have been particularly responsive to news bearing on the prospects for global economic growth as well as geopolitical developments.
As the rapid growth of emerging market economies seems likely to continue, should we therefore expect continued rapid increases in the prices of globally-traded commodities? While it is certainly possible that we will see further increases, there are good reasons to believe that commodity prices will not continue to rise at the rapid rates we have seen recently. In the short run, unexpected shortfalls in the supplies of key commodities result in sharp price increases, as usage patterns and available supplies are difficult to change quickly. Over longer periods, however, high levels of commodity prices curtail demand as households and firms adjust their spending and production patterns. Indeed, as I noted earlier, we have already seen significant reductions in commodity use in the advanced economies. Likewise, over time, high prices should elicit meaningful increases in supply, both as temporary factors, such as adverse weather, abate and as investments in productive capacity come to fruition. Finally, because expectations of higher prices lead financial market participants to bid up the spot prices of commodities, predictable future developments bearing on the demands for and supplies of commodities tend already to be reflected in current prices. For these reasons, although unexpected developments could certainly lead to continued volatility in global commodity prices, it is reasonable to expect the effects of commodity prices on overall inflation to be relatively moderate in the medium term.
Monetary Policy (here are these four paragraphs in their entirety):
Let me conclude with a few words about the current stance of monetary policy. As I have discussed today, the economic recovery in the United States appears to be proceeding at a moderate pace and–notwithstanding unevenness in the rate of progress and some recent signs of reduced momentum–the labor market has been gradually improving. At the same time, the jobs situation remains far from normal, with unemployment remaining elevated. Inflation has risen lately but should moderate, assuming that commodity prices stabilize and that, as I expect, longer-term inflation expectations remain stable.
Against this backdrop, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has maintained a highly accommodative monetary policy, keeping its target for the federal funds rate close to zero and further easing monetary conditions through large-scale asset purchases. The FOMC has indicated that it will complete its purchases of $600 billion of Treasury securities by the end of this month while maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its securities holdings. The Committee also continues to anticipate that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate for an extended period.
The U.S. economy is recovering from both the worst financial crisis and the most severe housing bust since the Great Depression, and it faces additional headwinds ranging from the effects of the Japanese disaster to global pressures in commodity markets. In this context, monetary policy cannot be a panacea. Still, the Federal Reserve’s actions in recent years have doubtless helped stabilize the financial system, ease credit and financial conditions, guard against deflation, and promote economic recovery. All of this has been accomplished, I should note, at no net cost to the federal budget or to the U.S. taxpayer.
Although it is moving in the right direction, the economy is still producing at levels well below its potential; consequently, accommodative monetary policies are still needed. Until we see a sustained period of stronger job creation, we cannot consider the recovery to be truly established. At the same time, the longer-run health of the economy requires that the Federal Reserve be vigilant in preserving its hard-won credibility for maintaining price stability. As I have explained, most FOMC participants currently see the recent increase in inflation as transitory and expect inflation to remain subdued in the medium term. Should that forecast prove wrong, however, and particularly if signs were to emerge that inflation was becoming more broadly based or that longer-term inflation expectations were becoming less well anchored, the Committee would respond as necessary. Under all circumstances, our policy actions will be guided by the objectives of supporting the recovery in output and employment while helping ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with the Federal Reserve’s mandate.
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