Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke on Monday gave his most aggressive response yet to critics of quantitative easing, the Fed's policy of buying up long-term assets to stimulate the economy. In a speech to the Economic Club of Indiana, Bernanke also tackled questions on the so-called fiscal cliff and the threat of inflation. Some highlights:
On those who say that the Federal Reserve is enabling deficit spending by keeping borrowing cheap:
"The responsibility for fiscal policy lies squarely with the administration and the Congress. At the Federal Reserve, we implement policy to promote maximum employment and price stability, as the law under which we operate requires. Using monetary policy to try to influence the political debate on the budget would be highly inappropriate."
"For what it's worth, I think the strategy would also likely be ineffective: Suppose, notwithstanding our legal mandate, the Federal Reserve were to raise interest rates for the purpose of making it more expensive for the government to borrow. Such an action would substantially increase the deficit, not only because of higher interest rates, but also because the weaker recovery that would result from premature monetary tightening would further widen the gap between spending and revenues."
On the "fiscal cliff":
I certainly don't underestimate the challenges that fiscal policymakers face. They must find ways to put the federal budget on a sustainable path, but not so abruptly as to endanger the economic recovery in the near term. In particular, the Congress and the administration will soon have to address the so-called fiscal cliff, a combination of sharply higher taxes and reduced spending that is set to happen at the beginning of the year.
According to the Congressional Budget Office and virtually all other experts, if that were allowed to occur, it would likely throw the economy back into recession. The Congress and the administration will also have to raise the debt ceiling to prevent the Treasury from defaulting on its obligations.
On fears of inflation:
The Federal Reserve's price stability record is excellent, and we are fully committed to maintaining it. Inflation has averaged close to 2 percent per year for several decades, and that's about where it is today. In particular, the low interest rate policies the Fed has been following for about five years now have not led to increased inflation. Moreover, according to a variety of measures, the public's expectations of inflation over the long run remain quite stable within the range that they have been for many years…
By buying securities, are you "monetizing the debt"--printing money for the government to use--and will that inevitably lead to higher inflation?
No, that's not what is happening, and that will not happen. Monetizing the debt means using money creation as a permanent source of financing for government spending. In contrast, we are acquiring Treasury securities on the open market and only on a temporary basis, with the goal of supporting the economic recovery through lower interest rates.
On why he's committed to low rates through 2015:
In the category of communications policy, we also extended our estimate of how long we expect to keep the short-term interest rate at exceptionally low levels to at least mid-2015. That doesn't mean that we expect the economy to be weak through 2015. Rather, our message was that, so long as price stability is preserved, we will take care not to raise rates prematurely.
Specifically, we expect that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the economy strengthens. We hope that, by clarifying our expectations about future policy, we can provide individuals, families, businesses and financial markets greater confidence about the Federal Reserve's commitment to promoting a sustainable recovery and that, as a result, they will become more willing to invest, hire and spend.
On the limits of monetary policy:
As I have said many times, monetary policy is no panacea. It can be used to support stronger economic growth in situations in which, as today, the economy is not making full use of its resources, and it can foster a healthier economy in the longer term by maintaining low and stable inflation. However, many other steps could be taken to strengthen our economy over time, such as putting the federal budget on a sustainable path, reforming the tax code, improving our educational system, supporting technological innovation, and expanding international trade.
Many savers are also homeowners; indeed, a family's home may be its most important financial asset. Many savers are working, or would like to be. Some savers own businesses, and--through pension funds and 401(k) accounts--they often own stocks and other assets. The crisis and recession have led to very low interest rates, it is true, but these events have also destroyed jobs, hamstrung economic growth, and led to sharp declines in the values of many homes and businesses. What can be done to address all of these concerns simultaneously? The best and most comprehensive solution is to find ways to a stronger economy.
On why he opposes auditing the Fed:
There have been recent proposals to expand the authority of the GAO over the Federal Reserve to include reviews of monetary policy decisions. Because the GAO is the investigative arm of the Congress and GAO reviews may be initiated at the request of members of the Congress, these reviews (or the prospect of reviews) of individual policy decisions could be seen, with good reason, as efforts to bring political pressure to bear on monetary policymakers.
A perceived politicization of monetary policy would reduce public confidence in the ability of the Federal Reserve to make its policy decisions based strictly on what is good for the economy in the longer term. Balancing the need for accountability against the goal of insulating monetary policy from short-term political pressure is very important, and I believe that the Congress had it right in the 1970s when it explicitly chose to protect monetary policy decision-making from the possibility of politically motivated reviews.