Statement by Alan Greenspan, Chairman, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, before the Subcommittee on Domestic and International Monetary Policy of the Committee on Banking and Financial Services, U.S. House of Representatives, February 24, 1998

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Statement by Alan Greenspan, Chairman, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, before the Subcommittee on Domestic and International Monetary Policy of the Committee on Banking and Financial Services, US. House of Representatives, February 24, 1998

I welcome this opportunity to present the Federal Reserve's semiannual report on economic conditions and the conduct of monetary policy. I

The U.S. Economy in 1997

The U.S. economy delivered another exemplary performance in 1997. Over the four quarters of last year, real gross domestic product expanded close to 4 percent, its fastest annual increase in ten years. To produce that higher output, about 3 million Americans joined the nation's payrolls, in the process contributing to a reduction in the unemployment rate to 43/4 percent, its lowest sustained level since the late 1960s. And our factories were working more intensively too: Industrial production increased 5 3/4 percent last year, exceeding robust additions to capacity.

Those gains were shared widely. The hourly wage and salary structure rose about 4 percent, fueling impressive increases in personal incomes. Unlike some prior episodes when faster wage rate increases mainly reflected attempts to make up for more rapidly rising prices of goods and services, the fatter paychecks that workers brought home represented real increments to purchasing power. Measured consumer price inflation came in at 1 3/4 percent over the twelve months of 1997, down about 1 1/2 percentage points from the pace of the prior year. While swings in the prices of food and fuel contributed to this decline, both narrower price indexes excluding those items and broader ones including all goods and services produced in the United States also paint a portrait of continued progress toward price stability. Businesses, for the most part, were able to pay these higher real wages while still increasing their earnings. Although aggregate data on profits for all of 1997 are not yet available, corporate profit margins most likely remained in an elevated range not seen consistently since the 1960s. These healthy gains in earnings and the expectations of more to come provided important support to the equity market, with most major stock price indexes gaining more than 20 percent over the year.

The strong growth of the real income of workers and corporations is not unrelated to the economy's continued good performance on inflation. Taken together, recent evidence supports the view that such low inflation, as closely approaching price stability as we have known in the United States in three decades, engenders many benefits. When changes in the general price level are small and predictable, households and firms can plan more securely for the future. The perception of reduced risk encourages investment. Low inflation also exerts a discipline on costs, fostering efforts to enhance productivity. Productivity is the ultimate source of rising standards of living, and we witnessed a notable pickup in this measure in the past two years.

The robust economy has facilitated the efforts of the Congress and the Administration to restore balance in the unified federal budget. As I have indicated to the Congress on numerous occasions, moving beyond this point and putting the budget in significant surplus would be the surest and most direct way of increasing national saving. In turn, higher national saving, by promoting lower real long-term interest rates, helps spur spending to outfit American firms and their workers with the modern equipment they need to compete successfully on world markets. We have seen a partial down payment of the benefits of better budget balance already: It seems reasonable to assume that the decline in longer-term Treasury yields last year owed, in part, to reduced competition--current and prospective--from the federal government for scarce private saving. However, additional effort remains to be exerted to address the effects on federal entitlement spending of the looming shift within the next decade in the nation's retirement demographics. …