Going forward, investment and hiring in the private sector should be facilitated by the ongoing improvement in credit conditions. Larger businesses remain able to finance themselves at historically low interest rates, and corporate balance sheets are strong.
Smaller businesses still face difficulties in obtaining credit, but surveys of both banks and borrowers indicate that conditions are slowly improving for those firms as well. In contrast, virtually all segments of the construction industry remain troubled. In the residential sector, low home prices and mortgage rates imply that housing is quite affordable by historical standards; yet, with underwriting standards for home mortgages having tightened considerably, many potential homebuyers are unable to qualify for loans. Uncertainties about job prospects and the future course of house prices have also deterred potential buyers. Given these constraints on the demand for housing, and with a large inventory of vacant and foreclosed properties overhanging the market, construction of new single- family homes has remained at very low levels, and house prices have continued to fall. The housing sector typically plays an important role in economic recoveries; the depressed state of housing in the United States is a big reason that the current recovery is less vigorous than we would like. Developments in the public sector also help determine the pace of recovery.
Here, too, the picture is one of relative weakness. Fiscally constrained state and local governments continue to cut spending and employment. Moreover, the impetus provided to the growth of final demand by federal fiscal policies continues to wane. 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. By taking decisions today that lead to fiscal consolidation over a longer horizon, policymakers can avoid a sudden fiscal contraction that could put the recovery at risk. At the same time, establishing a credible plan for reducing future deficits now would not only enhance economic performance in the long run, but could also yield near- term benefits by leading to lower long-term interest rates and increased consumer and business confidence.
Let me turn to the outlook for inflation. As you all know, over the past year, prices for many commodities have risen sharply, resulting in significantly higher consumer prices for gasoline and other energy products and, to a somewhat lesser extent, for food. Overall inflation measures reflect these price increases: For example, over the six months through April, the price index for personal consumption expenditures has risen at an annual rate of about 3-1/2 percent, compared with an average of less than 1 percent over the preceding two years.
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.1 Of course, gasoline prices are exceptionally important for both family finances and the broader economy; but the fact that gasoline price increases alone account for so much of the overall increase in inflation suggests that developments in the global market for crude oil and related products, as well as in other commodities markets, are the principal factors behind the recent movements in inflation, rather than factors specific to the U.S. economy. An important implication is that if the prices of energy and other commodities stabilize in ranges near current levels, as futures markets and many forecasters predict, the upward impetus to overall price inflation will wane and the recent increase in inflation will prove transitory.