Since my appearance before this committee in February, the labor market has continued to strengthen. Job gains have averaged 180,000 per month so far this year, down only slightly from the average in 2016 and still well above the pace we estimate would be sufficient, on average, to provide jobs for new entrants to the labor force. Indeed, the unemployment rate has fallen about 1/4 percentage point since the start of the year, and, at 4.4 percent in June, is 5‑1/2 percentage points below its peak in 2010 and modestly below the median of Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) participants' assessments of its longer-run normal level. The labor force participation rate has changed little, on net, this year--another indication of improving conditions in the jobs market, given the demographically driven downward trend in this series. A broader measure of labor market slack that includes workers marginally attached to the labor force and those working part time who would prefer full-time work has also fallen this year and is now nearly as low as it was just before the recession. It is also encouraging that jobless rates have continued to decline for most major demographic groups, including for African Americans and Hispanics. However, as before the recession, unemployment rates for these minority groups remain higher than for the nation overall.
Meanwhile, the economy appears to have grown at a moderate pace, on average, so far this year. Although inflation-adjusted gross domestic product is currently estimated to have increased at an annual rate of only 1-1/2 percent in the first quarter, more-recent indicators suggest that growth rebounded in the second quarter. In particular, growth in household spending, which was weak earlier in the year, has picked up in recent months and continues to be supported by job gains, rising household wealth, and favorable consumer sentiment. In addition, business fixed investment has turned up this year after having been soft last year. And a strengthening in economic growth abroad has provided important support for U.S. manufacturing production and exports. The housing market has continued to recover gradually, aided by the ongoing improvement in the labor market and mortgage rates that, although up somewhat from a year ago, remain at relatively low levels.
With regard to inflation, overall consumer prices, as measured by the price index for personal consumption expenditures, increased 1.4 percent over the 12 months ending in May, up from about 1 percent a year ago but a little lower than earlier this year. Core inflation, which excludes energy and food prices, has also edged down in recent months and was 1.4 percent in May, a couple of tenths below the year-earlier reading. It appears that the recent lower readings on inflation are partly the result of a few unusual reductions in certain categories of prices; these reductions will hold 12-month inflation down until they drop out of the calculation. Nevertheless, with inflation continuing to run below the Committee's 2 percent longer-run objective, the FOMC indicated in its June statement that it intends to carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward our symmetric inflation goal.
Looking ahead, my colleagues on the FOMC and I expect that, with further gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, the economy will continue to expand at a moderate pace over the next couple of years, with the job market strengthening somewhat further and inflation rising to 2 percent. This judgment reflects our view that monetary policy remains accommodative. Ongoing job gains should continue to support the growth of incomes and, therefore, consumer spending; global economic growth should support further gains in U.S. exports; and favorable financial conditions, coupled with the prospect of continued gains in domestic and foreign spending and the ongoing recovery in drilling activity, should continue to support business investment. These developments should increase resource utilization somewhat further, thereby fostering a stronger pace of wage and price increases.
Of course, considerable uncertainty always attends the economic outlook. There is, for example, uncertainty about when--and how much--inflation will respond to tightening resource utilization. Possible changes in fiscal and other government policies here in the United States represent another source of uncertainty. In addition, although the prospects for the global economy appear to have improved somewhat this year, a number of our trading partners continue to confront economic challenges. At present, I see roughly equal odds that the U.S. economy's performance will be somewhat stronger or somewhat less strong than we currently project.