Below is the full testimony by Chairman Bernanke on the Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress, before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C.
Chairman Dodd, Senator Shelby, and members of the Committee, I am pleased to present the Federal Reserve's semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress.
Economic and Financial Developments
The economic expansion that began in the middle of last year is proceeding at a moderate pace, supported by stimulative monetary and fiscal policies. Although fiscal policy and inventory restocking will likely be providing less impetus to the recovery than they have in recent quarters, rising demand from households and businesses should help sustain growth. In particular, real consumer spending appears to have expanded at about a 2-1/2 percent annual rate in the first half of this year, with purchases of durable goods increasing especially rapidly. However, the housing market remains weak, with the overhang of vacant or foreclosed houses weighing on home prices and construction.
An important drag on household spending is the slow recovery in the labor market and the attendant uncertainty about job prospects. After two years of job losses, private payrolls expanded at an average of about 100,000 per month during the first half of this year, a pace insufficient to reduce the unemployment rate materially. In all likelihood, a significant amount of time will be required to restore the nearly 8-1/2 million jobs that were lost over 2008 and 2009. Moreover, nearly half of the unemployed have been out of work for longer than six months. Long-term unemployment not only imposes exceptional near-term hardships on workers and their families, it also erodes skills and may have long-lasting effects on workers' employment and earnings prospects.
In the business sector, investment in equipment and software appears to have increased rapidly in the first half of the year, in part reflecting capital outlays that had been deferred during the downturn and the need of many businesses to replace aging equipment. In contrast, spending on nonresidential structures--weighed down by high vacancy rates and tight credit--has continued to contract, though some indicators suggest that the rate of decline may be slowing. Both U.S. exports and U.S. imports have been expanding, reflecting growth in the global economy and the recovery of world trade. Stronger exports have in turn helped foster growth in the U.S. manufacturing sector.
Inflation has remained low. The price index for personal consumption expenditures appears to have risen at an annual rate of less than 1 percent in the first half of the year. Although overall inflation has fluctuated, partly reflecting changes in energy prices, by a number of measures underlying inflation has trended down over the past two years. The slack in labor and product markets has damped wage and price pressures, and rapid increases in productivity have further reduced producers' unit labor costs.
My colleagues on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) and I expect continued moderate growth, a gradual decline in the unemployment rate, and subdued inflation over the next several years. In conjunction with the June FOMC meeting, Board members and Reserve Bank presidents prepared forecasts of economic growth, unemployment, and inflation for the years 2010 through 2012 and over the longer run. The forecasts are qualitatively similar to those we released in February and May, although progress in reducing unemployment is now expected to be somewhat slower than we previously projected, and near-term inflation now looks likely to be a little lower. Most FOMC participants expect real GDP growth of 3 to 3-1/2 percent in 2010, and roughly 3-1/2 to 4-1/2 percent in 2011 and 2012. The unemployment rate is expected to decline to between 7 and 7-1/2 percent by the end of 2012. Most participants viewed uncertainty about the outlook for growth and unemployment as greater than normal, and the majority saw the risks to growth as weighted to the downside. Most participants projected that inflation will average only about 1 percent in 2010 and that it will remain low during 2011 and 2012, with the risks to the inflation outlook roughly balanced.
One factor underlying the Committee's somewhat weaker outlook is that financial conditions—though much improved since the depth of the financial crisis—have become less supportive of economic growth in recent months. Notably, concerns about the ability of Greece and a number of other euro-area countries to manage their sizable budget deficits and high levels of public debt spurred a broad-based withdrawal from risk-taking in global financial markets in the spring, resulting in lower stock prices and wider risk spreads in the United States. In response to these fiscal pressures, European leaders put in place a number of strong measures, including an assistance package for Greece and €500 billion of funding to backstop the near-term financing needs of euro-area countries. To help ease strains in U.S. dollar funding markets, the Federal Reserve reestablished temporary dollar liquidity swap lines with the ECB and several other major central banks. To date, drawings under the swap lines have been limited, but we believe that the existence of these lines has increased confidence in dollar funding markets, helping to maintain credit availability in our own financial system.
Like financial conditions generally, the state of the U.S. banking system has also improved significantly since the worst of the crisis. Loss rates on most types of loans seem to be peaking, and, in the aggregate, bank capital ratios have risen to new highs. However, many banks continue to have a large volume of troubled loans on their books, and bank lending standards remain tight. With credit demand weak and with banks writing down problem credits, bank loans outstanding have continued to contract. Small businesses, which depend importantly on bank credit, have been particularly hard hit. At the Federal Reserve, we have been working to facilitate the flow of funds to creditworthy small businesses. Along with the other supervisory agencies, we issued guidance to banks and examiners emphasizing that lenders should do all they can to meet the needs of creditworthy borrowers, including small businesses.1 We also have conducted extensive training programs for our bank examiners, with the message that lending to viable small businesses is good for the safety and soundness of our banking system as well as for our economy. We continue to seek feedback from both banks and potential borrowers about credit conditions. For example, over the past six months we have convened more than 40 meetings around the country of lenders, small business representatives, bank examiners, government officials, and other stakeholders to exchange ideas about the challenges faced by small businesses, particularly in obtaining credit. A capstone conference on addressing the credit needs of small businesses was held at the Board of Governors in Washington last week.2 This testimony includes an addendum that summarizes the findings of this effort and possible next steps.