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Ben Bernanke: Federal Reserve is ‘prepared to respond’ if economic recovery falters

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The Federal Reserve is prepared to take new action if the recovery falters, Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said Wednesday, raising the possibility of resuming un­or­tho­dox methods of trying to pump money into the economy.

Bernanke expects that the economy will strengthen over the remainder of the year as temporary drags such as higher fuel prices dissipate, according to his testimony before the House Financial Services Committee. But he also acknowledged that there is no way to be certain, and he said that the Fed would act if its outlook proves overly optimistic. His list of possible responses included a new round of Treasury bond purchases by the Fed. Only two weeks ago, the central bank completed a $600 billion effort to support the economy along those lines.

“The possibility remains that the recent economic weakness may prove more persistent than expected and that deflationary risk might reemerge, implying a need for additional policy support,” Bernanke said in his twice-yearly report to Congress on monetary policy. He added that the Fed is “prepared to respond” if economic conditions make it appropriate.

Those comments stopped short of an indication that the Fed will take new action, and according to minutes of its last policy meeting, released Tuesday, only “some” members of the policy committee are in favor of action. And unlike in a speech last August in which Bernanke raised the possibility of bond purchases because of a weakening economy, this time he also outlined a competing scenario: how the Fed would remove its support struts from the economy should inflation become a problem.

Nonetheless, the Fed chairman was more receptive to new steps to easing monetary policy than he was in a news conference just three weeks ago. In that span, economic data has generally been soft, particularly a report Friday that showed weak job creation in June and a rising unemployment rate. The Fed is charged by Congress with maintaining stable prices and maximum employment.

And Bernanke left little doubt that he would consider another series of bond purchases — a third round of what is known as “quantitative easing” — should the economy be at risk of dipping back into recession and if inflation were not viewed as much of a risk.

“Can you assure us today that there is going to be no QE3?” asked Rep. Sean P. Duffy (R-Wis.).

“I think we have to keep all the options on the table,” Bernanke replied.

Duffy followed: Is QE3 one of those options?

“Yes,” said the Fed chief.

But Bernanke also mentioned other options, including providing “more explicit guidance” about how long the Fed’s policy of ultra-low interest rates and massive stockpiling of securities will remain in place. The central bank has said only that rates will stay low for an “extended period,” but that could be converted into a more specific time horizon.

The Fed chief also said the central bank could lower the rate it pays banks to park money at the Fed, currently 0.25 percent. If that rate were even lower, banks would have slightly more incentive to lend money out instead of sitting on it.

“The most recent data attest to the continuing weakness of the labor market,” Bernanke said, noting that the rising number of people who have been unemployed for long periods of time is particularly pernicious.

Even as Bernanke raised the possibility of further action to try to combat rising joblessness, he also noted that the Fed would act differently if the economy became more vulnerable to inflation. He gave some clarity on how the Fed would remove its extensive efforts to prop up economic growth should that happen.

The central bank would raise its short-term interest rate, then begin selling off some of the nearly $3 trillion in securities it owns, adjusting the pace of those sales depending on economic conditions.

In one of the hearing’s stranger moments, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) asked Bernanke whether he thinks Paul Giamatti, the actor who portrayed the Fed chief in the HBO movie “Too Big Too Fail,” did so kindly.

“I haven’t seen the show,” Bernanke said.

“Well,” Perlmutter said, “he did a great job. His beard was precisely the way yours is.”

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