Current Economic Situation and Outlook
The economy has continued to recover from the steep recession of 2008 and 2009. Real gross domestic product (GDP) growth stepped up to an average annual rate of about 3-1/4 percent over the second half of last year, a faster pace than in the first half and during the preceding two years. Although real GDP growth is currently estimated to have paused in the first quarter of this year, I see that pause as mostly reflecting transitory factors, including the effects of the unusually cold and snowy winter weather. With the harsh winter behind us, many recent indicators suggest that a rebound in spending and production is already under way, putting the overall economy on track for solid growth in the current quarter. One cautionary note, though, is that readings on housing activity–a sector that has been recovering since 2011–have remained disappointing so far this year and will bear watching.
Conditions in the labor market have continued to improve. The unemployment rate was 6.3 percent in April, about 1-1/4 percentage points below where it was a year ago. Moreover, gains in payroll employment averaged nearly 200,000 jobs per month over the past year. During the economic recovery so far, payroll employment has increased by about 8-1/2 million jobs since its low point, and the unemployment rate has declined about 3-3/4 percentage points since its peak.
While conditions in the labor market have improved appreciably, they are still far from satisfactory. Even with recent declines in the unemployment rate, it continues to be elevated. Moreover, both the share of the labor force that has been unemployed for more than six months and the number of individuals who work part time but would prefer a full-time job are at historically high levels. In addition, most measures of labor compensation have been rising slowly–another signal that a substantial amount of slack remains in the labor market.
Inflation has been quite low even as the economy has continued to expand. Some of the factors contributing to the softness in inflation over the past year, such as the declines seen in non-oil import prices, will probably be transitory. Importantly, measures of longer-run inflation expectations have remained stable. That said, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) recognizes that inflation persistently below 2 percent–the rate that the Committee judges to be most consistent with its dual mandate–could pose risks to economic performance, and we are monitoring inflation developments closely.
Looking ahead, I expect that economic activity will expand at a somewhat faster pace this year than it did last year, that the unemployment rate will continue to decline gradually, and that inflation will begin to move up toward 2 percent. A faster rate of economic growth this year should be supported by reduced restraint from changes in fiscal policy, gains in household net worth from increases in home prices and equity values, a firming in foreign economic growth, and further improvements in household and business confidence as the economy continues to strengthen. Moreover, U.S. financial conditions remain supportive of growth in economic activity and employment.
As always, considerable uncertainty surrounds this baseline economic outlook. At present, one prominent risk is that adverse developments abroad, such as heightened geopolitical tensions or an intensification of financial stresses in emerging market economies, could undermine confidence in the global economic recovery. Another risk–domestic in origin–is that the recent flattening out in housing activity could prove more protracted than currently expected rather than resuming its earlier pace of recovery. Both of these elements of uncertainty will bear close observation.