Bernanke’s speech at Jackson Hole 2011

The annual meeting at Jackson Hole always provides a valuable opportunity to reflect on the economic and financial developments of the preceding year, and recently we have had a great deal on which to reflect. A year ago, in my remarks to this conference, I reviewed the response of the global policy community to the financial crisis.1 On the whole, when the eruption of the Panic of 2008 threatened the very foundations of the global economy, the world rose to the challenge, with a remarkable degree of international cooperation, despite very difficult conditions and compressed time frames. And when last we gathered here, there were strong indications that the sharp contraction of the global economy of late 2008 and early 2009 had ended. Most economies were growing again, and international trade was once again expanding.

Notwithstanding some important steps forward, however, as we return once again to Jackson Hole I think we would all agree that, for much of the world, the task of economic recovery and repair remains far from complete. In many countries, including the United States and most other advanced industrial nations, growth during the past year has been too slow and joblessness remains too high. Financial conditions are generally much improved, but bank credit remains tight; moreover, much of the work of implementing financial reform lies ahead of us. Managing fiscal deficits and debt is a daunting challenge for many countries, and imbalances in global trade and current accounts remain a persistent problem.

This list of concerns makes clear that a return to strong and stable economic growth will require appropriate and effective responses from economic policymakers across a wide spectrum, as well as from leaders in the private sector. Central bankers alone cannot solve the world’s economic problems. That said, monetary policy continues to play a prominent role in promoting the economic recovery and will be the focus of my remarks today. I will begin with an update on the economic outlook in the United States and then review the measures that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has taken to support the economic recovery and maintain price stability. I will conclude by discussing and evaluating some policy options that the FOMC has at its disposal, should further action become necessary.

The Economic Outlook As I noted at the outset, when we last gathered here, the deep economic contraction had ended, and we were seeing broad stabilization in global economic activity and the beginnings of a recovery. Concerted government efforts to restore confidence in the financial system, including the aggressive provision of liquidity by central banks, were essential in achieving that outcome. Monetary policies in many countries had been eased aggressively. Fiscal policy–including stimulus packages, expansions of the social safety net, and the countercyclical spending and tax policies known collectively as automatic stabilizers–also helped to arrest the global decline. Once demand began to stabilize, firms gained sufficient confidence to increase production and slow the rapid liquidation of inventories that they had begun during the contraction. Expansionary fiscal policies and a powerful inventory cycle, helped by a recovery in international trade and improved financial conditions, fueled a significant pickup in growth.

At best, though, fiscal impetus and the inventory cycle can drive recovery only temporarily. For a sustained expansion to take hold, growth in private final demand–notably, consumer spending and business fixed investment–must ultimately take the lead. On the whole, in the United States, that critical handoff appears to be under way.

However, although private final demand, output, and employment have indeed been growing for more than a year, the pace of that growth recently appears somewhat less vigorous than we expected. Notably, since stabilizing in mid-2009, real household spending in the United States has grown in the range of 1 to 2 percent at annual rates, a relatively modest pace. Households’ caution is understandable. Importantly, the painfully slow recovery in the labor market has restrained growth in labor income, raised uncertainty about job security and prospects, and damped confidence. Also, although consumer credit shows some signs of thawing, responses to our Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey on Bank Lending Practices suggest that lending standards to households generally remain tight.2

The prospects for household spending depend to a significant extent on how the jobs situation evolves. But the pace of spending will also depend on the progress that households make in repairing their financial positions. Among the most notable results to emerge from the recent revision of the U.S. national income data is that, in recent quarters, household saving has been higher than we thought–averaging near 6 percent of disposable income rather than 4 percent, as the earlier data showed.3 On the one hand, this finding suggests that households, collectively, are even more cautious about the economic outlook and their own prospects than we previously believed. But on the other hand, the upward revision to the saving rate also implies greater progress in the repair of household balance sheets. Stronger balance sheets should in turn allow households to increase their spending more rapidly as credit conditions ease and the overall economy improves.

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