Bernanke: Sputtering economy needs help

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Bernanke

WASHINGTON – Ben Bernanke sent a message Tuesday to Congress: The Federal Reserve’s low-interest-rate policies are giving crucial support to an economy still burdened by high unemployment.

The Fed chairman acknowledged the risks of keeping rates low indefinitely. But he expressed confidence that such risks pose little threat now.

Delivering the Fed’s semiannual monetary report to Congress, Bernanke sought to minimize concerns that the central bank’s easy-money policies might cause runaway inflation later or dangerous bubbles in assets like stocks. He sought to reassure sometimes-skeptical senators that the Fed is monitoring potential threats and can defuse them before they hurt the economy.

Several Fed policymakers said at their most recent meeting that the Fed might have to scale back its bond purchases because of the risks. Those comments, contained in minutes released last week, fanned speculation that the Fed might soon allow long-term borrowing rates to rise. Stock prices fell sharply.

But Bernanke gave no signal that the Fed might shift away from its low-interest-rate policy. He said its aggressive program to buy $85 billion a month in Treasurys and mortgage bonds had kept borrowing costs low. And that, in turn, has helped strengthen sectors such as housing and autos, he said.

On budget policy, Bernanke urged Congress to replace the automatic spending cuts due to start Friday with more gradual reductions in budget deficits in the short run. He said the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the automatic spending cuts that take effect Friday would shave growth by 0.6 percentage point this year.

“Congress and the administration should consider replacing the sharp, front-loaded spending cuts required by the sequestration with policies that reduce the federal deficit more gradually in the near term but more substantially in the longer run,” Bernanke said.

Economists said Bernanke made clear the Fed has no plans to scale back its pace of bond purchases.

“That policy will continue to be supportive for growth, with no sign of imminent plans to scale down (the bond purchases) and certainly no plans to remove accommodation for a very long time,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.

Addressing concerns that the bond purchases, which have pushed the Fed’s balance sheet to a record high above $3 trillion, could trigger high inflation, Bernanke said:

“Inflation is currently subdued and inflation expectations appear well-anchored. We do not see the potential costs of the increased risk-taking in some financial markets as outweighing the benefits of promoting a stronger economic recovery and more-rapid job creation.”

He said that over the past six months, the economy has grown moderately but unevenly. Bernanke said the pause in growth seen in the final three months of 2012 “does not appear to be a stalling-out of the recovery.” He said growth appears to have picked up in the past two months.

Ben Bernanke, right, President Bush's top economic adviser, speaks in the Oval Office at the White House after Bush named him to take over the Federal Reserve from retiring Alan Greenspan in Washington, Monday, Oct. 24, 2005. When Paul Volcker, left, stepped down as chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1987, there was considerable hand-wringing over who could fill the big shoes of this 6-foot-7, cigar-chomping, inflation-fighting colossus. Then the shy, bespectacled Alan Greenspan, center, answered that question by building a legend of his own. (AP Photo/Files) Enlarge photo

Ben Bernanke, right, President Bush's top economic adviser, speaks in the Oval Office at the White House after Bush named him to take over the Federal Reserve from retiring Alan Greenspan in Washington, Monday, Oct. 24, 2005. When Paul Volcker, left, stepped down as chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1987, there was considerable hand-wringing over who could fill the big shoes of this 6-foot-7, cigar-chomping, inflation-fighting colossus. Then the shy, bespectacled Alan Greenspan, center, answered that question by building a legend of his own. (AP Photo/Files)