Today Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke will give his second-ever press briefing at the conclusion of the Federal Open Market Committee meeting, the Fed’s policymaking session. The press briefing has now started. To view it live, click here.
Update: 3:20 p.m.
Bernanke was mum on when the Fed will eventually begin to sell the massive holdings of securities it amassed as a result of the financial crisis. (Recent numbers released by the central bank indicate that its balance sheet is now close to $3 trillion).
“At this point, it will depend on incoming data,” the Fed chief said. The Fed has “no alternative” but to watch economic data and make a decision once it believes the economy is healthy enough to accommodate such an exit, he said.
The briefing wrapped up in a little under an hour. The entire press conference can be seen on the Fed’s broadcast channel here. Check washingtonpost.com for complete coverage and analysis.
Updated: 3:04 p.m.
The Fed is busy writing dozens of rules for the financial services industry as part of last year’s Wall Street reform law. One of these entails the designation of banks and non-banks as “systemically important financial institutions,” or SIFIs, subject to greater capital requirements and oversight. Bernanke was asked whether the “too big to fail”designation process might slow the recovery of the financial sector by, for example, forcing banks to hold back capital instead of lending it.
Bernanke largely brushed off the concerns. “I’m very supportive of increased capital and better quality capital to ensure that the banks will be stable and able to lend in the event of another crisis,” he said, adding that it is appropriate to put additional capital requirements for “the largest and most systemically important institutions because their failure would have very deleterious impacts on the financial system.”
Bernanke also said does not believe the larger capital requirements on banks designated as too big to fail would necessarily slow down overall lending: “to the extent they [SIFIs] reduce their lending, some of that lending may go to other institutions” that are not SIFIs.
Another questioner pointed out that, unlike his predecessor, Alan Greenspan, Bernanke brings his own economic forecast to the Fed’ s policymaking meetings. Where do Mr. Bernanke’s forecasts fall relative to the rest of his colleagues on the Federal Reserve board?
“I characterize myself as being pretty consistent with mot of my colleagues,” Bernanke said, noting his belief that the economic slowdown “is at least partly” temporary.
He said the United States needs to “urgently” get its fiscal house in order and “in particular by taking a long-run perspective to do that.”
Last week Bernanke urged congressional Republicans to focus on raising the nation’s debt limit by the Treasury Department’s August deadline without tying it to spending cuts.
Updated 2:45 p.m.:
The first question on Greece just came up: Steve Liesman of CNBC asked the extent to which the Greek debt crisis was discussed at the Fed’s policymaking meeting and whether it may merit further easing of monetary policies.
Bernanke said it was “one of several financial risks” facing the economy and that the Fed is “following the situation closely” and making sure American financial institutions are well-positioned to weather any fallout from the crisis.
The Post’s Neil Irwin asked Bernanke whether he believes the Fed has the authority to set a 2 percent inflation target on its own. Bernanke has proposed setting such a target, but it is unclear whether the Fed could do so without congressional approval.
“We might have the legal authority to do this,” the Fed chief said, but “we might need some buy-in from Congress.” A key concern, he said, is making sure that Congress would understand that “having a target would not mean that we are abandoning the other leg of our dual mandate,” which is the Fed’s commitment to promoting low unemployment.
Updated 2:37 p.m.:
The first questioner of the session asked whether the Fed’s “exceptionally long period” for keeping interest rates low also applies for how long it will keep its securities on its books.
Bernanke said the Fed hasn’t made any commitment on when it would unwind its securities holdings, which it built up throughout the financial crisis as it bought troubled assets from banks.
The Fed had previously indicated that the economic slowdown was due in part to “temporary” factors such as supply chain disruptions linked to the earthquake in Japan. A questioner challenged this view, asking whether there are more permanent factors holding back the economy.
“We don’t have a precise read on why this slower pace of growth is persisting,” Bernanke said. However, he ventured a guess that “some of the headwinds” on the economy, such as weakness in the financial sector and consumers’ winding down of their debt, may be “stronger and more persistent than we thought.”
Updated 2:16 p.m.:
The Fed has just released its expectations for economic growth for both this year and next. Gross domestic product is projected to rise 2.7 to 2.9 percent in 2011, compared with the 3.1 to 3.3 percent Fed officials envisioned in April.
In 2012, the Fed now projects 3.3 to 3.7 percent growth, down from 3.5 to 4.2 percent previously forecast. That would mean unemployment come down more slowly than expected in April - to between 7.8 and 8.2 percent at the end of 2012, not the 7.6 to 7.9 percent in the April forecast.
Updated 2:04 p.m.:
Shortly before the briefing the Fed released its policymaking statement, announcing that although the Fed sees dimmer economic growth, it will expire its program of buying $600 billion in Treasury bonds to pump up the economy at the end of the month.
Neil Irwin, who covers the economic policy for The Washington Post, points out here that after the last meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee in April, the Fed said that it believed the economy was “proceeding at a moderate pace and overall conditions in the labor market are improving gradually.” Today, however, the Fed said the economic recovery is continuing “somewhat more slowly than the Committee had expected” and that “labor market indicators have been weaker than anticipated.”
The Fed will soon release its latest growth projections for the last half of 2011 and for 2011, which will pave the way for the afternoon’s press conference. Expect to see questions on the Fed’s revised economic outlook, as well as the impact of international events moving the markets, such as the Greek debt crisis.