The Federal Reserve is helping to stimulate the economy by making it cheaper for people to borrow and spend, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco said on Friday.
Bank President and CEO John Williams told 200 community leaders in Salt Lake City that the Fed's recent actions "won't quickly return our economy to full strength. I know that. But they can help speed the recovery and make it more secure."
The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, with branch offices in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, provides wholesale banking services to financial institutions throughout nine western states.
Last month the Federal Reserve said it would buy $40 billion a month in mortgage bonds the centerpiece of its most recent recovery plan to make home buying more affordable.
"This purchase program is intended to be flexible and adjust to changing circumstances," said Williams. "Unlike our past asset purchase programs, this one doesn't have a preset expiration date. Instead, its duration will depend on what happens with the economy. Specifically, we've said we'll continue buying mortgage-backed securities until the job market shows substantial improvement."
The Fed also announced last month that it plans to keep short-term interest rates at record lows at least through mid-2015 six months longer than previously had been planned.
"We also said we'd maintain low rates for a considerable time after the economic recovery strengthens," said Williams. "In other words, we intend to keep short-term rates low even as the economy improves to make sure this recovery takes hold."
He acknowledged that the recovery has been "stubbornly slow" and the job outlook "has been frustratingly slow as well."
Yet the most encouraging signs of a turnaround have been improvements in two key sectors of the economy: autos and housing, Williams said. Car sales have bounced back 60 percent from their recession lows. And although housing starts are only a third of their peak levels during the boom "they are up sharply from where they were a year ago."
Despite the nation being in its fourth year of the economy recovery, he said, "that in itself is a significant accomplishment, given how close our financial system came to collapsing in late 2008."
Williams also said he anticipates that the economy will gain momentum.
"I expect real gross domestic product, that is, the nation's total output of goods and services, to expand at a modest pace of about 1¾ percent this year, but improve a bit to about 2 ½ percent next year and about 3 ½ in 2014," he said. "I see the unemployment rate remaining about 7 percent through at least the end of 2014. I expect inflation to remain slightly below 2 percent for the next few years as labor costs and import prices remain subdued."
Former Utah Democratic Congresswoman Karen Shepherd called Williams' remarks honest and refreshing, "particularly in the middle of an election. There isn't a quick and easy way back to full employment. It will be a slow and painful process."