Bernanke Testimony – Economic Outlook and Policy


 

Chairman Casey, Vice Chairman Brady, and other members of the Committee, I appreciate this opportunity to discuss the economic outlook and economic policy.

Economic growth has continued at a moderate rate so far this year. Real gross domestic product (GDP) rose at an annual rate of about 2 percent in the first quarter after increasing at a 3 percent pace in the fourth quarter of 2011. Growth last quarter was supported by further gains in private domestic demand, which more than offset a drag from a decline in government spending.

Labor market conditions improved in the latter part of 2011 and earlier this year. The unemployment rate has fallen about 1 percentage point since last August; and payroll employment increased 225,000 per month, on average, during the first three months of this year, up from about 150,000 jobs added per month in 2011. In April and May, however, the reported pace of job gains slowed to an average of 75,000 per month, and the unemployment rate ticked up to 8.2 percent. This apparent slowing in the labor market may have been exaggerated by issues related to seasonal adjustment and the unusually warm weather this past winter.1 But it may also be the case that the larger gains seen late last year and early this year were associated with some catch-up in hiring on the part of employers who had pared their workforces aggressively during and just after the recession.2 If so, the deceleration in employment in recent months may indicate that this catch-up has largely been completed, and, consequently, that more-rapid gains in economic activity will be required to achieve significant further improvement in labor market conditions.

Economic growth appears poised to continue at a moderate pace over coming quarters, supported in part by accommodative monetary policy. In particular, increases in household spending have been relatively well sustained. Income growth has remained quite modest, but the recent declines in energy prices should provide some offsetting lift to real purchasing power. While the most recent readings have been mixed, consumer sentiment is nonetheless up noticeably from its levels late last year. And, despite economic difficulties in Europe, the demand for U.S. exports has held up well. The U.S. business sector is profitable and has become more competitive in international markets.

However, some of the factors that have restrained the recovery persist. Notably, households and businesses still appear quite cautious about the economy. For example, according to surveys, households continue to rate their income prospects as relatively poor and do not expect economic conditions to improve significantly. Similarly, concerns about developments in Europe, U.S. fiscal policy, and the strength and sustainability of the recovery have left some firms hesitant to expand capacity.

The depressed housing market has also been an important drag on the recovery. Despite historically low mortgage rates and high levels of affordability, many prospective homebuyers cannot obtain mortgages, as lending standards have tightened and the creditworthiness of many potential borrowers has been impaired. At the same time, a large stock of vacant houses continues to limit incentives for the construction of new homes, and a substantial backlog of foreclosures will likely add further to the supply of vacant homes. However, a few encouraging signs in housing have appeared recently, including some pickup in sales and construction, improvements in homebuilder sentiment, and the apparent stabilization of home prices in some areas.

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