Bernanke addresses Atlanta economic conference

I would like to thank the organizers for inviting me to participate once again in the International Monetary Conference. I will begin with a brief update on the outlook for the U.S. economy, then discuss recent developments in global commodity markets that are significantly affecting both the U.S. and world economies, and conclude with some thoughts on the prospects for monetary policy.

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. A range of positive and negative forces is currently influencing both household finances and attitudes. On the positive side, household incomes have been boosted by the net improvement in job market conditions since earlier this year as well as from the reduction in payroll taxes that the Congress passed in December. Increases in household wealth--largely reflecting gains in equity values--and lower debt burdens have also increased consumers’ willingness to spend. On the negative side, households are facing some significant headwinds, including increases in food and energy prices, declining home values, continued tightness in some credit markets, and still-high unemployment, all of which have taken a toll on consumer confidence.

Developments in the labor market will be of particular importance in setting the course for household spending. As you know, the jobs situation remains far from normal. For example, aggregate hours of production workers--a comprehensive measure of labor input that reflects the extent of part-time employment and opportunities for overtime as well as the number of people employed--fell, remarkably, by nearly 10 percent from the beginning of the recent recession through October 2009. Although hours of work have increased during the expansion, this measure still remains about 6-1/2 percent below its pre-recession level. For comparison, the maximum decline in aggregate hours worked in the deep 1981-82 recession was less than 6 percent. Other indicators, such as total payroll employment, the ratio of employment to population, and the unemployment rate, paint a similar picture. Particularly concerning is the very high level of long-term unemployment--nearly half of the unemployed have been jobless for more than six months. People without work for long periods can find it increasingly difficult to obtain a job comparable to their previous one, as their skills tend to deteriorate over time and as employers are often reluctant to hire the long-term unemployed.

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 business sector generally presents a more upbeat picture. Capital spending on equipment and software has continued to expand, reflecting an improving sales outlook and the need to replace aging capital. Many U.S. firms, notably in manufacturing but also in services, have benefited from the strong growth of demand in foreign markets.

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