Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke today and answered four frequently asked questions. The questions were; where is the economy headed, what had the Fed done to help the economy, will the Fed cause more inflation down the road and finally, how can we avoid similar problems in the future?
I thought the most interesting was Bernanke’s take on the state of the economy. Bernanke said that the economy is slowing picking up but he was careful to say that we’re not out of the woods yet and unemployment will stay high for some time. Here’s part of his answer:
Recently we have seen some pickup in economic activity, reflecting, in part, the waning of some forces that had been restraining the economy during the preceding several quarters. The collapse of final demand that accelerated in the latter part of 2008 left many firms with excessive inventories of unsold goods, which in turn led them to cut production and employment aggressively. This phenomenon was especially evident in the motor vehicle industry, where automakers, a number of whom were facing severe financial pressures, temporarily suspended production at many plants. By the middle of this year, however, inventories had been sufficiently reduced to encourage firms in a wide range of industries to begin increasing output again, contributing to the recent upturn in the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Although the working down of inventories has encouraged production, a sustainable recovery requires renewed growth in final sales. It is encouraging that we have begun to see some evidence of stronger demand for homes and consumer goods and services. In the housing sector, sales of new and existing homes have moved up appreciably over the course of this year, and prices have firmed a bit. Meanwhile, the inventory of unsold new homes has been shrinking. Reflecting these developments, homebuilders have somewhat increased the rate of new construction–a marked change from the steep declines that have characterized the past few years.
Consumer spending also has been rising since midyear. Part of this increase reflected a temporary surge in auto purchases that resulted from the “cash for clunkers” program, but spending in categories other than motor vehicles has increased as well. In the business sector, outlays for new equipment and software are showing tentative signs of stabilizing, and improving economic conditions abroad have buoyed the demand for U.S. exports.
Though we have begun to see some improvement in economic activity, we still have some way to go before we can be assured that the recovery will be self-sustaining. Also at issue is whether the recovery will be strong enough to create the large number of jobs that will be needed to materially bring down the unemployment rate. Economic forecasts are subject to great uncertainty, but my best guess at this point is that we will continue to see modest economic growth next year–sufficient to bring down the unemployment rate, but at a pace slower than we would like.