U.S. Economy in a Dangerous Drift

Article excerpt

U.S. economic woes are in stark contrast to Canada's robust economy. The uncertain economic situation in the United States is largely a result of geopolitical uncertainties, its policy on Iraq. and mounting budget deficits. To alter the United States' economic course, the U.S. central banker calls for a different type of accounting that takes a longer-term view of government finances, and offsets any tax cuts or spending increases so the deficit does not continue to grow. Federal Reserve Board's semi-annual monetary policy report to the Congress Before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, U.S. Senate, February 11, 2003.

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I will begin by reviewing the state of the U.S. economy and the conduct of monetary policy and then turn to some key issues related to the federal budget.

When I testified before this committee last July, 1 noted that, while the growth of economic activity over the first half of the year bad been spurred importantly by a swing from rapid inventory drawdown to modest inventory accumulation, that source of impetus would surely wind down in subsequent quarters, as it did. We at the Federal Reserve recognized that a strengthening of final sales was an essential element of putting the expansion on a firm and sustainable track. To support such a strengthening, monetary policy was set to continue its accommodative stance.

In the event, final sales continued to grow only modestly, and business outlays remained soft. Concerns about corporate governance, which intensified for a time, were compounded over the late summer and into the fall by growing geopolitical tensions. In particular, worries about the situation in Iraq contributed to an appreciable increase in oil prices. These uncertainties, coupled with ongoing concerns surrounding macroeconomic prospects, heightened investors' perception of risk and, perhaps, their aversion to such risk. Equity prices weakened further, the expected volatility of equity prices rose to unusually high levels, spreads on corporate debt and credit default swaps deteriorated, and liquidity in corporate debt markets declined. The economic data and the anecdotal information suggested that firms were tightly limiting hiring and capital spending and keeping an unusually short leash on inventories.

With capital markets inhospitable and commercial banks firming terms and standards on business loans, corporations relied to an unusual extent on a drawdown of their liquid assets rather than on borrowing to fund their limited expenditures.

By early November, conditions in financial markets had firmed somewhat on reports of improved corporate profitability. But on November 6, with economic performance remaining subpar, the Federal Open Market Committee chose to ease the stance of monetary policy, reducing the federal funds rate 50 basis points, to 1%. We viewed that action as insurance against the possibility that the still widespread weakness would become entrenched. With inflation expectations well contained, this additional monetary stimulus seemed to offer worthwhile insurance against the threat of persistent economic weakness and unwelcome substantial declines in inflation from already low levels.

In the weeks that followed, financial market conditions continued to improve, but only haltingly. The additional monetary stimulus and the absence of further revelations of major corporate wrongdoing seemed to provide some reassurance to investors. Equity prices rose, volatility declined, risk spreads narrowed, and market liquidity increased, albeit not to levels that might be associated with robust economic conditions. At the same time, mounting concerns about geopolitical risks and energy supplies, amplified by the turmoilin Venezuela, were mirrored by the worrisome surge in oil prices, continued skittishness in financial markets, and substantial uncertainty among businesses about the outlook.

Partly as a result, growth of economic activity slowed markedly late in the summer and in the fourth quarter, continuing the choppy pattern that prevailed over the past year. …