The Economic Outlook
We continue to expect economic activity to bottom out, then to turn up later this year. Key elements of this forecast are our assessments that the housing market is beginning to stabilize and that the sharp inventory liquidation that has been in progress will slow over the next few quarters. Final demand should also be supported by fiscal and monetary stimulus. An important caveat is that our forecast assumes continuing gradual repair of the financial system; a relapse in financial conditions would be a significant drag on economic activity and could cause the incipient recovery to stall. I will provide a brief update on financial markets in a moment.
Even after a recovery gets under way, the rate of growth of real economic activity is likely to remain below its longer-run potential for a while, implying that the current slack in resource utilization will increase further. We expect that the recovery will only gradually gain momentum and that economic slack will diminish slowly. In particular, businesses are likely to be cautious about hiring, implying that the unemployment rate could remain high for a time, even after economic growth resumes.
In this environment, we anticipate that inflation will remain low. Indeed, given the sizable margin of slack in resource utilization and diminished cost pressures from oil and other commodities, inflation is likely to move down some over the next year relative to its pace in 2008. However, inflation expectations, as measured by various household and business surveys, appear to have remained relatively stable, which should limit further declines in inflation.
Conditions in Financial Markets
As I noted, a sustained recovery in economic activity depends critically on restoring stability to the financial system. Conditions in a number of financial markets have improved in recent weeks, reflecting in part the somewhat more encouraging economic data. However, financial markets and financial institutions remain under considerable stress, and cumulative declines in asset prices, tight credit conditions, and high levels of risk aversion continue to weigh on the economy.
Among the markets that have recently begun to function a bit better are the markets for short-term funding, including the interbank markets and the commercial paper market. In particular, concerns about credit risk in those markets appear to have receded somewhat, there is more lending at longer maturities, and interest rates have declined. The modest improvement in funding conditions has contributed to diminished use of the Federal Reserve’s liquidity facilities for financial institutions and of our commercial paper facility. The volume of foreign central bank liquidity swaps has also declined as dollar funding conditions have eased.
The issuance of asset-backed securities (ABS) backed by credit card, auto, and student loans all picked up in March and April, and ABS funding rates have declined, perhaps reflecting the availability of the Federal Reserve’s TALF facility as a market backstop. Some of the recent issuance made use of TALF lending, but lower rates and spreads have facilitated issuance outside the TALF as well.
Mortgage markets have responded to the Federal Reserve’s purchases of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities, with mortgage rates having fallen sharply since last fall, as I noted earlier. The decline in mortgage rates has spurred a pickup in refinancing as well as providing some support for housing demand. However, the supply of mortgage credit is still relatively tight, and mortgage activity remains heavily dependent on the support of government programs or the government-sponsored enterprises.
The combination of a broad rally in equity prices and a sizable reduction in risk spreads in corporate debt markets reflects a somewhat more optimistic view of the corporate sector on the part of investors, and perhaps some decrease in risk aversion. Bond issuance by nonfinancial firms has been relatively strong recently. Still, spreads over Treasury rates paid by both investment-grade and speculative-grade corporate borrowers remain quite elevated. Investors seemed to adopt a more positive outlook on the condition of financial institutions after several large banks reported profits in the first quarter, but readings from the credit default swap market and other indicators show that substantial concerns about the banking industry remain.
As you know, the federal bank regulatory agencies began conducting the Supervisory Capital Assessment Program in late February. The program is a forward-looking exercise intended to help supervisors gauge the potential losses, revenues, and reserve needs for the 19 largest bank holding companies in a scenario in which the economy declines more steeply than is generally anticipated. The simultaneous comprehensive assessment of the financial conditions of the 19 companies over a relatively short period of time required an extraordinary coordinated effort among the agencies.
The purpose of the exercise is to ensure that banks will have a sufficient capital buffer to remain strongly capitalized and able to lend to creditworthy borrowers even if economic conditions are worse than expected. Following the announcement of the results, bank holding companies will be required to develop comprehensive capital plans for establishing the required buffers. They will then have six months to execute those plans, with the assurance that equity capital from the Treasury under the Capital Assistance Program will be available as needed.