US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has a message for Congress: Do more to stimulate hiring and growth — or risk delaying the economy’s return to full health.
Bernanke held out the prospect on Friday that the Fed might take further steps later to help the economy, but he offered no new plans for now.
At a time when Congress has focused on shrinking budget deficits, Bernanke agreed that doing so is important for the long term. However, he warned lawmakers not to “disregard the fragility of the current economic recovery.”
Investors had hoped Bernanke would use his much-anticipated speech at an economic conference in Jackson Hole to unveil some aggressive measure to jolt the economy.
He did not. However, he did say the Fed’s policy meeting next month will be extended to two days, instead of the scheduled one, to permit a “fuller discussion” of the central bank’s options.
“He appears to be saying that the Fed has largely played its part and that the politicians need to step up their game,” said Paul Dales, senior US economist at Capital Economics.
Investors seemed to take comfort from Bernanke’s view that the job market and the economy will return to full health in the long run and the notion that the Fed might provide more help in the future. After initial losses, the Dow Jones industrial average closed up 134 points. Broader stock indexes also gained.
Bernanke’s speech came shortly after the government said the economy grew at a scant 1 percent annual rate in the April-June quarter — even slower than previously estimated.
The economy is still hobbled by a depressed housing market, high oil prices and fears that the European debt crisis will deteriorate into a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis. The Dow has lost about 11 percent of its value since late July on fears that the economy might slip back into recession.
On Friday, Bernanke blamed this summer’s political squabbling over raising the federal debt limit for undermining consumer and business confidence. And he warned that further gridlock in Washington would “pose ongoing risks to growth.”
The Fed chief said that the depressed housing sector has delayed a full recovery in the broader economy. He said the home market should gradually return to health — a process he said the government should support.
In his speech in Jackson Hole a year ago, Bernanke signaled that the Fed would begin a new round of Treasury bond purchases to try to lower long-term interest rates, spur spending and boost the stock market. His words ignited a 28 percent, eight-month rally in the Dow.
This time, Bernanke merely repeated that the Fed “has a range of tools that could be used to provide additional monetary stimulus.”
The most powerful weapon the Fed has left would be a third round of bond purchases. Critics, from congressional Republicans to some Fed officials, have raised concerns that the Fed’s Treasury purchases could ignite inflation and speculative buying on Wall Street, while doing little to aid the economy.
Bernanke pushed back against that notion in his speech. He said that with oil and other commodity prices easing, he expects long-term inflation to remain low well into next year.
Others have questioned whether any further lowering of long-term rates is needed. Investors seeking the safety of US debt have forced down the yield on the 10-year Treasury note to 2.19 percent — a full point lower than it was when the Fed completed its Treasury purchases about two months ago. Yet the economy is still sputtering.