Testimony of Federal Reserve Officials

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Testimony of Federal Reserve Officials


Testimony by Alan Greenspan, Chairman, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, U.S. Senate, February 13, 2001

I appreciate the opportunity this morning to present the Federal Reserve's semiannual report on monetary policy.

The past decade has been extraordinary for the American economy and monetary policy. The synergies of key technologies markedly elevated prospective rates of return on high-tech investments, led to a surge in business capital spending, and significantly increased the underlying growth rate of productivity. The capitalization of those higher expected returns boosted equity prices, contributing to a substantial pickup in household spending on new homes, durable goods, and other types of consumption generally, beyond even that implied by the enhanced rise in real incomes.

When I last reported to you in July, economic growth was just exhibiting initial signs of slowing from what had been an exceptionally rapid and unsustainable rate of increase that began a year earlier.

The surge in spending had lifted the growth of the stocks of many types of consumer durable goods and business capital equipment to rates that could not be continued. The elevated level of light vehicle sales, for example, implied a rate of increase in the number of vehicles on the road hardly sustainable for a mature industry. And even though demand for a number of high-tech products was doubling or tripling annually, in many cases new supply was coming on even faster. Overall, capacity in high-tech manufacturing industries rose nearly 50 percent last year, well in excess of its rapid rate of increase over the previous three years. Hence, a temporary glut in these industries and falling prospective rates of return were inevitable at some point. Clearly, some slowing in the pace of spending was necessary and expected if the economy was to progress along a balanced and sustainable growth path.

But the adjustment has occurred much faster than most businesses anticipated, with the process likely intensified by the rise in the cost of energy that has drained business and household purchasing power. Purchases of durable goods and investment in capital equipment declined in the fourth quarter. Because the extent of the slowdown was not anticipated by businesses, it induced some backup in inventories, despite the more advanced just-in-time technologies that have in recent years enabled firms to adjust production levels more rapidly to changes in demand. Inventory-sales ratios rose only moderately; but relative to the levels of these ratios implied by their downtrend over the past decade, the emerging imbalances appeared considerably larger. Reflecting these growing imbalances, manufacturing purchasing managers reported last month that inventories in the hands of their customers had risen to excessively high levels.

As a result, a round of inventory rebalancing appears to be in progress. Accordingly, the slowdown in the economy that began in the middle of 2000 intensified, perhaps even to the point of growth stalling out around the turn of the year. As the economy slowed, equity prices fell, especially in the high-tech sector, where previous high valuations and optimistic forecasts were being reevaluated, resulting in significant losses for some investors. In addition, lenders turned more cautious. This tightening of financial conditions, itself, contributed to restraint on spending.

Against this background, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) undertook a series of aggressive monetary policy steps. At its December meeting, the FOMC shifted its announced assessment of the balance of risks to express concern about economic weakness, which encouraged declines in market interest rates. Then on January 3, and again on January 31, the FOMC reduced its targeted federal funds rate 1/2 percentage point, to its current level of 5 1/2 percent.

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