Household finances and attitudes also bear heavily on the housing market, which has generally remained depressed. In particular, home sales dropped sharply following the recent expiration of the homebuyers’ tax credit. Going forward, improved affordability–the result of lower house prices and record-low mortgage rates–should boost the demand for housing. However, the overhang of foreclosed-upon and vacant housing and the difficulties of many households in obtaining mortgage financing are likely to continue to weigh on the pace of residential investment for some time yet.
In the business sector, real investment in equipment and software rose at an annual rate of more than 20 percent over the first half of the year. Some of these gains no doubt reflected spending that had been deferred during the crisis, including investments to replace or update existing equipment. Consequently, investment in equipment and software will almost certainly increase more slowly over the remainder of this year, though it should continue to advance at a solid pace. In contrast, outside of a few areas such as drilling and mining, business investment in structures has continued to contract, although the rate of contraction appears to be slowing.
Although most firms faced problems obtaining credit during the depths of the crisis, over the past year or so a divide has opened between large firms that are able to tap public securities markets and small firms that largely depend on banks. Generally speaking, large firms in good financial condition can obtain credit easily and on favorable terms; moreover, many large firms are holding exceptionally large amounts of cash on their balance sheets. For these firms, willingness to expand–and, in particular, to add permanent employees–depends primarily on expected increases in demand for their products, not on financing costs. Bank-dependent smaller firms, by contrast, have faced significantly greater problems obtaining credit, according to surveys and anecdotes. The Federal Reserve, together with other regulators, has been engaged in significant efforts to improve the credit environment for small businesses. For example, through the provision of specific guidance and extensive examiner training, we are working to help banks strike a good balance between appropriate prudence and reasonable willingness to make loans to creditworthy borrowers. We have also engaged in extensive outreach efforts to banks and small businesses. There is some hopeful news on this front: For the most part, bank lending terms and conditions appear to be stabilizing and are even beginning to ease in some cases, and banks reportedly have become more proactive in seeking out creditworthy borrowers.
Incoming data on the labor market have remained disappointing. Private-sector employment has grown only sluggishly, the small decline in the unemployment rate is attributable more to reduced labor force participation than to job creation, and initial claims for unemployment insurance remain high. Firms are reluctant to add permanent employees, citing slow growth of sales and elevated economic and regulatory uncertainty. In lieu of adding permanent workers, some firms have increased labor input by increasing workweeks, offering full-time work to part-time workers, and making extensive use of temporary workers.
Besides consumption spending and business fixed investment, net exports are a third source of demand for domestic production. The substantial recovery in international trade is a very positive development for the global economy; for the United States, improving export markets are an important reason that manufacturing has been a leading sector in the recovery. Like others, we were surprised by the sharp deterioration in the U.S. trade balance in the second quarter. However, that deterioration seems to have reflected a number of temporary and special factors. Generally, the arithmetic contribution of net exports to growth in the gross domestic product tends to be much closer to zero, and that is likely to be the case in coming quarters.
Overall, the incoming data suggest that the recovery of output and employment in the United States has slowed in recent months, to a pace somewhat weaker than most FOMC participants projected earlier this year. Much of the unexpected slowing is attributable to the household sector, where consumer spending and the demand for housing have both grown less quickly than was anticipated. Consumer spending may continue to grow relatively slowly in the near term as households focus on repairing their balance sheets. I expect the economy to continue to expand in the second half of this year, albeit at a relatively modest pace.