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Bernanke tells Congress Fed flexible on bond buying

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke arrives to deliver his semi-annual monetary policy report to Congress before the House Financial Services Committee in Washington, July 17, 2013. (REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan)

WASHINGTON: Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Wednesday the U.S. central bank still expected to start scaling back its massive bond purchase program later this year, but he left open the option of changing that plan if the economic outlook shifted. While sticking closely to a timeline to wind down the bond buying that he first outlined last month, Bernanke went out of his way to stress that nothing was set in stone.

“Our asset purchases depend on economic and financial developments, but they are by no means on a preset course,” he told the House of Representatives Financial Services Committee.

Under the timeline Bernanke laid out on June 19, Fed policymakers would likely reduce their monthly bond buys later this year and halt them altogether by mid-2014, as long as the economic recovery unfolds as expected.

While he did not depart from that guidance Wednesday, he said the current $85 billion monthly pace of purchases could be reduced “somewhat more quickly” if economic conditions improved faster than expected.

On the other hand, it “could be maintained for longer” if the labor market outlook darkened, or inflation did not appear to be rising toward the Fed’s 2 percent goal.

“Indeed, if needed, the [Fed’s policy] committee would be prepared to employ all its tools, including an increase [in] the pace of purchases for a time, to promote a return to maximum employment in a context of price stability,” Bernanke said.

“There is something in these comments for everybody,” said Omer Esiner, chief market analyst at Commonwealth Foreign Exchange in Washington. “Bernanke has done a good job of leaving himself plenty of maneuver room in terms of policy.”

Bernanke’s semiannual testimony to Congress may be his last if he steps down when his term as chairman ends in January, as many expect, and a number of lawmakers lauded the Fed chairman for his service in their opening remarks.

“He opened up the process and demystified what the Fed does,” said Representative Mel Watt, a Democrat from North Carolina who is a long-serving member of the committee. “He speaks in plain language as opposed to some of the prior chairs who seemed to try to make things so complicated.”

Under Bernanke, the Fed has held overnight interest rates near zero since December 2008 and more than tripled its balance sheet to about $3.46 trillion with a series of bond purchases.

It launched the bond purchases to drive down long-term borrowing costs and spur investment and hiring.

Bernanke set off a brief but fierce global market selloff last month when he outlined the Fed’s plans to curtail its so-called quantitative easing, and he has joined a slew of officials since then who have spelled out their intention to keep rates near zero well after the bond buying ends. Economists expect the Fed to start tapering bond buying at its meeting in September.

Bernanke also acknowledged that one of his motives in talking about tapering last month had been to head off a possible bubble in financial markets, rather than out of a conviction the economy was poised to grow faster than forecast.

Many economists had suspected that had been an important reason.

“Not speaking about these issues would have risked a dislocation, a moving of market expectations away from the expectations of the committee. It would have risked increased buildup of leverage or excessively risky positions in the market,” he said.

While the end of the Fed’s bond buying may be in view, Bernanke repeated that officials will keep rates near zero at least until the jobless rate, which stood at 7.6 percent in June, falls to 6.5 percent, as long as inflation remains in check. Most do not expect rates to rise until sometime in 2015.

He also said the Fed would look closely at any decline in unemployment to see whether it was being driven by strength in hiring or a decline in the number of Americans looking for work, in which case the central bank would be more patient before raising rates.

Any rate hike cycle, he said, would be gradual.

Traders now see the Fed holding off on rate hikes a bit longer, with the first rate increase now seen as coming in December 2014, based on trading in futures tied to the Fed’s short-term rate target at the Chicago Board of Trade. A day earlier they expected a first rate hike as soon as October 2014.

Speaking about the Fed’s bloated balance sheet, Bernanke suggested the central bank would hold the government bonds it has bought for a long time, if not to maturity, and reinvest any proceeds to keep its balance sheet from shrinking quickly.

Some Fed officials have been concerned about the low level of inflation and have expressed a hesitance to trim bond purchases until inflation quickens. The central bank’s preferred price gauge is a full percentage point below its target.

Bernanke repeated his view that transitory factors appeared to be restraining price gains, although he said policymakers were aware that very low inflation raised the risk of an outright deflation, which could sap the economy’s strength.

Data Tuesday showed that inflation firmed last month, and hiring in recent months has been relatively strong.

However, the government said Wednesday groundbreaking for homes fell to a 10-month low. In addition, retail sales were weak in June, and second-quarter gross domestic product growth is expected to come in at around a dismal 1 percent annual rate, painting a very mixed picture for Fed policymakers.

Bernanke, who appears for a second day of testimony before the Senate Banking Committee Thursday, said the economic recovery was continuing at a moderate pace thanks to a stronger housing sector, which was helping conditions in the labor market improve gradually.

He also repeated that the Fed felt the risks to the economy had decreased since the fall.

But he said higher taxes and cuts in federal government spending could turn out to exert a larger drag on U.S. growth than expected, and that worsening conditions overseas could hurt conditions back home.

“With the recovery still proceeding at only a moderate pace, the economy remains vulnerable to unanticipated shocks, including the possibility that global economic growth may be slower than currently anticipated,” Bernanke said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 18, 2013, on page 6.

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