Interest Rate Roundup

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bernanke: Rock, meet hard place

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke's testimony before the Joint Economic Committee has just been released. My general sense is that the Fed is caught between a rock and a had place -- and Bernanke knows it. Specifically, economic growth is being threatened by tightening lending standards and the slumping housing market. But inflation pressures are building due to the slumping dollar and soaring commodity prices. How did his testimony address those facts? Here are a few excerpts (with emphasis mine in all cases):

EXCERPT #1 (on the overall economic state of affairs right now):

"Since I last appeared before this Committee in March, the U.S. economy has performed reasonably well. On preliminary estimates, real gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an average pace of nearly 4 percent over the second and third quarters despite the ongoing correction in the housing market. Core inflation has improved modestly, although recent increases in energy prices will likely lead overall inflation to rise for a time.

"However, the economic outlook has been importantly affected by recent developments in financial markets, which have come under significant pressure in the past few months. The financial turmoil was triggered by investor concerns about the credit quality of mortgages, especially subprime mortgages with adjustable interest rates. The continuing increase in the rate of serious delinquencies for such mortgages reflects in part a decline in underwriting standards in recent years as well as softening house prices. Delinquencies on these mortgages are likely to rise further in coming quarters as a sizable number of recent-vintage subprime loans experience their first interest rate resets."

EXCERPT #2 (on financial market turmoil impacting the real economy):

"To be sure, the recent developments may well lead to a healthier financial system in the medium to long term: Increased investor scrutiny of structured credit products is likely to lead ultimately to greater transparency in these products and to better differentiation among assets of varying quality. Investors have also become more cautious and are demanding greater compensation for bearing risk. In the short term, however, these events do imply a greater measure of financial restraint on economic growth as credit becomes more expensive and difficult to obtain. "

EXCERPT #3 (on the outlook for inflation):

"The Committee projected overall and core inflation to be in a range consistent with price stability next year. Supporting this view were modest improvements in core inflation over the course of the year, inflation expectations that appeared reasonably well anchored, and futures quotes suggesting that investors saw food and energy prices coming off their recent peaks next year. But the inflation outlook was also seen as subject to important upside risks. In particular, prices of crude oil and other commodities had increased sharply in recent weeks, and the foreign exchange value of the dollar had weakened. These factors were likely to increase overall inflation in the short run and, should inflation expectations become unmoored, had the potential to boost inflation in the longer run as well."

EXCERPT #4 (on the very latest economic data):

"In the days since the October FOMC meeting, the few data releases that have become available have continued to suggest that the overall economy remained resilient in recent months. However, financial market volatility and strains have persisted. Incoming information on the performance of mortgage-related assets has intensified investors' concerns about credit market developments and the implications of the downturn in the housing market for economic growth. In addition, further sharp increases in crude oil prices have put renewed upward pressure on inflation and may impose further restraint on economic activity. The FOMC will continue to carefully assess the implications for the outlook of the incoming economic data and financial market developments and will act as needed to foster price stability and sustainable economic growth."

Again, the consistent message here is that the Fed is somewhat boxed in. Its past irresponsible monetary policy created a huge bubble in housing, which has since burst. That is flooding the banking system with bad loans, delinquencies, and foreclosures. The Fed probably wants to target that with more aggressive easing. But doing so risks weakening the dollar further and giving speculators even more easy money with which to pile into the commodities market. In other words, the threat of stagflation is very real.


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