December 4, 2020

Fed Chairman Defends Stimulus Efforts

Mr. Bernanke, in written testimony submitted to the Senate Banking Committee, also urged Congress and the Obama administration to replace the sequestration cuts scheduled to begin Friday with a plan to reduce federal deficits more gradually.

“Although monetary policy is working to promote a more robust recovery, it cannot carry the entire burden of ensuring a speedier return to economic health,” Mr. Bernanke said. He warned that the combination of previous spending cuts and sequestration “could create a significant headwind for the economic recovery.”

Still, Mr. Bernanke was relatively upbeat about the health of the broader economy, which he described as growing at a “moderate if somewhat uneven pace.”

He said disappointing growth in the fourth quarter “does not appear to reflect a stalling-out of the recovery.” Consumer demand kept rising and, he said, “Available information suggests that economic growth has picked up again this year.”

Mr. Bernanke, who reports to Congress on monetary policy twice each year, used his written testimony to strongly defend the Fed’s expansion of its economic stimulus campaign in September and December to reduce unemployment more quickly. He will answer questions from the Senate committee Tuesday morning, then testify before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday morning.

The Fed, which has amassed almost $3 trillion in Treasury and mortgage-backed securities, is expanding those holdings by $85 billion a month until it sees clear improvement in the labor market. It plans to hold short-term interest rates near zero even longer, at least until the unemployment rate falls below 6.5 percent.

“In the current economic environment, the benefits of asset purchases, and of policy accommodation more generally, are clear,” Mr. Bernanke said. “Monetary policy is providing important support to the recovery” while keeping inflation in check.

The asset purchases and the interest-rate policy are designed to reduce borrowing costs for businesses and consumers. Mr. Bernanke said the recovery of the housing market and higher sales of automobiles, among other durable goods, demonstrated the benefit of the Fed’s campaign.

Fed Governor Jeremy C. Stein and some other Fed officials have expressed concern in recent months that low interest rates are encouraging excessive risk-taking by investors pursuing higher returns. Mr. Stein in a recent speech highlighted rising demand for junk bonds and certain kinds of real estate investments, and shifts in bank balance sheets, as areas of potential concern.

Mr. Bernanke said Tuesday that the Fed takes these concerns “very seriously,” noting that the central bank has significantly expanded its efforts to monitor financial markets, and has given greater priority to financial regulation.

But he noted that low interest rates also were helping to strengthen the financial system, by encouraging companies to increase reliance on long-term funding, allowing debt levels to decline and strengthening growth.

He added that he saw no reason to consider a change in course.

“To this point 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,” Mr. Bernanke said.

He also downplayed the concern expressed by some Fed officials and analysts that the central bank’s plans to control inflation as the economy recovers could be complicated by a political backlash because it may lose money as it sheds some of its vast holdings of Treasuries and mortgage bonds.

Such losses could be large enough to prevent the Fed from transferring profits to the Treasury Department for the first time since 1934, according to a Fed analysis.

Mr. Bernanke, noting the Fed has transferred $290 billion to Treasury since 2009, said it was “highly likely” Treasury still would see a net benefit from the purchases because any losses would not exceed those profits.

“Moreover, to the extent that monetary policy promotes growth and job creation, the resulting reduction in the federal deficit would dwarf any variation in the Federal Reserve’s remittances to the Treasury,” he said.

When Mr. Bernanke last appeared before Congress in July, he identified three major obstacles to faster growth: the depressed housing market, the financial crisis in Europe, and American fiscal policy. In his prepared testimony Tuesday, he did not mention Europe and barely touched on housing. But he warned that government policy was continuing to slow the pace of economic growth.

The recent agreements to reduce deficits, Mr. Bernanke said, focused on short-term spending cuts while doing little to address longer-term imbalances.

“To address both the near- and longer-term issues,” he said, “the 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.”

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