The FINANCIAL — On July 6, 2015, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded the Article IV consultation with the United States.
The U.S. economy’s momentum in the first quarter was sapped by unfavorable weather, a sharp contraction in oil sector investment, and the West Coast port strike. But the underpinnings for a continued expansion remain in place. A solid labor market, accommodative financial conditions, and cheaper oil should support a more dynamic path for the remainder of the year. Despite this, the weaker outturn in the first few months of this year will unavoidably pull down 2015 growth, which is now projected at 2.5 percent. Stronger growth over the next few years is expected to return output to potential before it begins steadily declining to 2 percent over the medium term, according to IMF.
Inflation pressures remain muted. In May headline and core personal consumption expenditure (PCE) inflation declined to 0.2 and 1.2 percent year on year, respectively. Long-term unemployment and high levels of part-time work both point to remaining employment slack, and wage indicators on the whole have shown only tepid growth. When combined with the dollar appreciation and cheaper energy costs, inflation is expected to rise slowly staring later in the year, reaching the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent medium-term objective by mid 2017.
An important risk to growth is a further U.S. dollar appreciation. The real appreciation of the currency has been rapid, reflecting cyclical growth divergences, different trajectories for monetary policies among the systemically important economies, and a portfolio shift toward U.S. dollar assets. Lower oil prices and increasing energy independence have contained the U.S. current account deficit, despite the cyclical growth divergence with respect to its main trading partners and the rise in the U.S. dollar. Nevertheless, over the medium term, at current levels of the real exchange rate, the current account deficit is forecast to widen toward 3.5 percent of GDP.
Despite important policy uncertainties, the near term fiscal outlook has improved, and the federal government deficit is likely to move modestly lower in the current fiscal year. Following a temporary improvement, the federal deficit and debt-to-GDP ratios are, however, expected to begin rising again over the medium term as aging-related pressures assert themselves and interest rates normalize. In the near-term, the potential for disruption from either a government shutdown or a stand-off linked to the federal debt ceiling represent important (and avoidable) downside risks to growth and job creation that could move to the forefront, once again, later in 2015.
Much has been done over the past several years to strengthen the U.S. financial system. However, search for yield during the prolonged period of low interest rates, rapid growth in assets in the nonbank sector, and signs of stretched valuations across a range of asset markets point to emerging pockets of vulnerabilities. The more serious risks are likely to be linked to: the migration of intermediation to the nonbanks; the potential for insufficient liquidity in a range of fixed income markets that could lead to abrupt moves in market pricing; and life-insurance companies that have taken on greater market risk. But several factors mitigate these downsides. In particular, the U.S. banking system has strengthened its capital position (Tier 1 capital as a ratio of risk-weighted assets is at about 13 percent) and appears resilient to a range of extreme market and economic shocks. In addition, overall leverage does not appear excessive, household and corporate balance sheets look generally healthy, and credit growth has been modest.
The consultation focused on the prospects for higher policy rates and the outlook for, and policy response to financial stability risks, integrating the findings of the latest IMF Financial Sector Assessment Program for the U.S.
Executive Board Assessment
Executive Directors agreed with the thrust of the staff appraisal. They noted that the economic recovery continues to be underpinned by strong fundamentals, despite a temporary setback, while risks remain broadly balanced. Directors observed that considerable uncertainties, both domestic and external, weigh on the U.S. economy, with potential repercussions for the global economy and financial markets elsewhere. These include the timing and pace of interest rate increases, prospects for the dollar, and risks of weaker global growth. Directors stressed that managing these challenges, as well as addressing longstanding issues of public finances and structural weaknesses, are important policy priorities in the period ahead.
Directors agreed that decisions on interest rate increases should remain data-dependent, considering a broad range of indicators and carefully weighing the trade-offs involved. Specifically, they saw merit in awaiting clear signs of wage and price inflation, and sufficiently strong economic growth before initiating an interest rate increase. Noting the importance of the entire path of future policy rate changes, including in terms of the implications for outward spillovers and for financial markets, Directors were reassured by the Federal Reserve’s intention to follow a gradual pace of normalization. They welcomed the Federal Reserve’s efforts, and commitment to continue, to communicate its policy intentions clearly and effectively. Directors acknowledged that financial stability risks could arise from a protracted period of low interest rates. In this regard, they underscored the importance of strong regulatory, supervisory, and macroprudential frameworks to mitigate these risks.
Directors commended the authorities for the progress in reinforcing the architecture for financial sector oversight. They concurred with the main findings and recommendations of the Financial Sector Assessment Program assessment. Directors highlighted the need to complete the regulatory reforms under the Dodd-Frank Act and to address emerging pockets of vulnerability in the nonbank financial sector. They encouraged continued efforts to monitor and manage risks in the insurance sector, close data gaps, and improve the effectiveness of the Financial Stability Oversight Council while simplifying the broader institutional structure over time. Directors looked forward to further progress in enhancing cross-border cooperation among national regulators, and the framework for the resolution of cross-jurisdiction financial institutions.
Directors noted that there remain a range of challenges linked to fiscal health, lackluster business investment and productivity growth, and growing inequality. They agreed that reforms to the tax, pension, and health care systems will help create space for supporting near-term growth, including through infrastructure investment. Directors reiterated the need for a credible medium-term fiscal strategy that would anchor ongoing consolidation efforts, underpin debt sustainability, and reduce fiscal uncertainties. They called for renewed efforts to implement structural reforms to boost productivity and labor force participation, tackle poverty, address remaining weaknesses in the housing market, and advance the multilateral trade agenda.
It is expected that the next Article IV consultation with the United States will be held on the standard 12-month cycle.