Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke reiterated Wednesday that the Fed is nowhere close to raising interest rates, assuring markets that the US easy money tap would not soon dry up.
With the economy still facing risks, especially from government spending cuts, Bernanke told a Congressional panel that the Fed was still planning to trim its quantitative easing stimulus, if growth continues at a steady pace.
But expectations that the Fed was poised to start tightening monetary policy, which have sent interest rates jumping and sparked turmoil in global markets, were unwarranted, he stressed.
“I don’t think the Fed can get interest rates up very much, because the economy is weak, inflation rates are low,” Bernanke told the House Financial Services Committee.
“If we were to tighten policy, the economy would tank.”
Seeking to clarify Fed policy, after interest rates jumped more than a full percentage point in two months, Bernanke pledged to stick to the path that he laid out in June, after the last meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee.
At that time, he said the Fed could begin cutting the QE program, which injects some $85 billion a month into the economy via bond purchases, later this year and end the program by mid-next year.
But he also said then that interest rate hikes were not expected before 20015 -- a message markets seemed not to have gotten, to the Fed’s apparent frustration.
The outsized jump in bond yields and market interest rates in recent weeks could result in hobbling the recovery by slowing demand especially in the housing sector, which has become a key contributor to growth, economists worry.
Bernanke said US growth remains moderate, a view backed up by the picture in the Fed’s Beige Book regional economic survey, also released Wednesday.
Even so, he said, the jobs situation is “far from satisfactory” and that underemployment and long-term unemployment rates are “still much too high.”
And he stressed that the cuts mandated by Congress to slice the fiscal deficit still have the potential to hurt growth.
“The risks remain that tight federal fiscal policy will restrain economic growth over the next few quarters by more than we currently expect,” he told the panel.
Given that, Bernanke even hedged the plan to reel in the QE bond purchases and wind them up in the middle of next year.
“I emphasise that, because our asset purchases depend on economic and financial developments, they are by no means on a preset course,” he told the panel.
Underscoring his message, he said that eventually increasing the federal funds rate from its near-zero level still hinged on reducing the unemployment rate, now at 7.6 per cent, to 6.5 per cent or less, and keeping inflation tame at around 2 per cent.
And even then rate hikes would not be automatic, he said: those numbers “are thresholds, not triggers.”
Analysts said Bernanke succeeded in clarifying the Fed’s stance, even if the economic picture -- and hence the Fed’s path -- remains still uncertain.
“The Fed chairman’s prepared testimony struck a now-familiar balance,” said Jim O’Sullivan of High Frequency Economics.
“Overall, no new signal, but, if anything, he is emphasising the no-imminent-tightening point a bit more.”
“Bernanke generally stuck to the QE tapering time frame mentioned after the June 19 policy meeting,” said Sal Guatieri at BMO Capital Markets.
Even so, the Fed chairman “isn’t satisfied and is unconvinced that the improving trend will continue,” he said.
Markets took a mixed reaction to bernanke’s message. The broad-based S&P 500 closed up 0.3 per cent, while the yield on the 10-year Treasury bond fell to 2.49 per cent from 2.53 per cent.
The dollar edged up slightly, trading at $1.3125 to the euro from $1.3164 late Tuesday, and at 99.60 yen from 99.04.