Despite the weaker data seen recently, the preconditions for a pickup in growth in 2011 appear to remain in place. Monetary policy remains very accommodative, and financial conditions have become more supportive of growth, in part because a concerted effort by policymakers in Europe has reduced fears related to sovereign debts and the banking system there. Banks are improving their balance sheets and appear more willing to lend. Consumers are reducing their debt and building savings, returning household wealth-to-income ratios near to longer-term historical norms. Stronger household finances, rising incomes, and some easing of credit conditions will provide the basis for more-rapid growth in household spending next year.
Businesses’ investment in equipment and software should continue to grow at a healthy pace in the coming year, driven by rising demand for products and services, the continuing need to replace or update existing equipment, strong corporate balance sheets, and the low cost of financing, at least for those firms with access to public capital markets. Rising sales and increased business confidence should also lead firms to expand payrolls. However, investment in structures will likely remain weak. On the fiscal front, state and local governments continue to be under pressure; but with tax receipts showing signs of recovery, their spending should decline less rapidly than it has in the past few years. Federal fiscal stimulus seems set to continue to fade but likely not so quickly as to derail growth in coming quarters.
Although output growth should be stronger next year, resource slack and unemployment seem likely to decline only slowly. The prospect of high unemployment for a long period of time remains a central concern of policy. Not only does high unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, impose heavy costs on the unemployed and their families and on society, but it also poses risks to the sustainability of the recovery itself through its effects on households’ incomes and confidence.
Maintaining price stability is also a central concern of policy. Recently, inflation has declined to a level that is slightly below that which FOMC participants view as most conducive to a healthy economy in the long run. With inflation expectations reasonably stable and the economy growing, inflation should remain near current readings for some time before rising slowly toward levels more consistent with the Committee’s objectives. At this juncture, the risk of either an undesirable rise in inflation or of significant further disinflation seems low. Of course, the Federal Reserve will monitor price developments closely.
In the remainder of my remarks I will discuss the policies the Federal Reserve is currently using to support economic recovery and price stability. I will also discuss some additional policy options that we could consider, especially if the economic outlook were to deteriorate further.
Federal Reserve Policy In 2008 and 2009, the Federal Reserve, along with policymakers around the world, took extraordinary actions to arrest the financial crisis and help restore normal functioning in key financial markets, a precondition for economic stabilization. To provide further support for the economic recovery while maintaining price stability, the Fed has also taken extraordinary measures to ease monetary and financial conditions.
Notably, since December 2008, the FOMC has held its target for the federal funds rate in a range of 0 to 25 basis points. Moreover, since March 2009, the Committee has consistently stated its expectation that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low policy rates for an extended period. Partially in response to FOMC communications, futures markets quotes suggest that investors are not anticipating significant policy tightening by the Federal Reserve for quite some time. Market expectations for continued accommodative policy have in turn helped reduce interest rates on a range of short- and medium-term financial instruments to quite low levels, indeed not far above the zero lower bound on nominal interest rates in many cases.