Ben Bernanke strikes cautious tone amid signs economic recovery accelerating

February 29, 2012

The U.S. economy started the year with a burst of healthy activity, according to a Federal Reserve survey Wednesday that reported that the country’s factories and stores and even the troubled housing market appeared to be gaining momentum.

Reflecting the upbeat data, Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke told Congress that the country is adding jobs across industries and that unemployment is dropping at a surprisingly fast rate.

This latest evidence suggests that the so-far-anemic economic recovery is gradually accelerating and, with each passing month, could be growing more durable — good news for a workforce that still faces a historically high jobless rate and for a president who is looking to keep his own job in November.

But, as Bernanke testified, there is a long list of factors that might knock off course what he called an “uneven and modest” recovery. State and local governments are continuing to lay off workers , many borrowers are having trouble getting loans, and the housing market remains distressed. And if that were not enough, the recent spike in gasoline prices is likely to eat away at workers’ salaries.

“Continued improvement in the job market is likely to require stronger growth,” Bernanke said.

Until late last year, the economy seemed to be flirting with a new recession. But in the past few months, the dynamics have changed notably. The European debt crisis, which was threatening to upend global financial markets, has moderated, at least for the time being. The U.S. unemployment rate has come down rapidly to 8.3 percent.

“The U.S. is close to a self-sustaining expansion, where job gains drive income growth and consumer spending, in turn driving further job gains,” economists at PNC Bank said in a research memo.

Even more bright signs emerged Wednesday. The European Central Bank agreed to provide an additional $700 billion in cheap loans to the continent’s banks. Analysts said the move will further buttress Europe’s financial system and ease concerns that banks would stop providing credit — the lifeblood of an economy — to the continent’s consumers and businesses.

The Commerce Department reported that the U.S. economy grew at a clip of 3 percent in the final three months of last year, surpassing a previous estimate of 2.8 percent. The data showed that companies rebuilt their inventories after a cautious summer and fall and that consumer spending increased.

And the Fed’s “beige book” survey, which offers anecdotes of economic activity around the country, reported more factory production — especially in the auto sector, as well as at steel and metal firms. Retail sales also got a boost.

Even housing improved modestly in many parts of the country, a first since the end of the recession.

“This is further evidence that the moribund housing market could be on the cusp of a revival in which higher demand triggers an eventual increase in supply,” Paul Edelstein, an economist at IHS Global Insight, said in a report.

The improved outlook has lifted U.S. stock markets. On Tuesday the Dow Jones industrial average closed above 13,000, and on Wednesday the technology-heavy Nasdaq composite index crossed 3000 for the first time in more than 11 years before settling down a few points.

For much of President Obama’s tenure, the nation’s sluggish economy has looked to pose a significant handicap in his reelection bid. His rivals in the Republican Party could seize on an unemployment rate above 9 percent. Now, the decline in the jobless rate and the surge in the stock markets have blunted the GOP’s economic criticism.

Yet the economy’s uncertain future could still trip Obama up.

“The unemployment rate remains elevated, long-term unemployment is still near record levels, and the number of persons working part time for economic reasons is very high,” Bernanke said in his testimony before the House Financial Services Committee.

He repeated the Fed’s previous assessment that the jobless rate is unlikely to decline much more than it has this year and that it will “edge down only slowly” in coming years. Fed officials predict that the unemployment rate will end this year between 8.2 percent and 8.5 percent and will be between 6.7 percent and 7.6 percent in 2014.

“Fiscal and financial strains in Europe have weighed on financial conditions and global economic growth,” Bernanke also noted, “and problems in U.S. housing and mortgage markets have continued to hold down not only construction and related industries but also household wealth and confidence.”

While falling real estate prices and low mortgage rates have reduced the cost of buying a home, “many potential buyers lack the down payment and credit history required to qualify for loans,” Bernanke said. Others, he said, “are reluctant to buy a house now because of concerns about their income, employment prospects and the future path of home prices.”

Bernanke also pointed to rising gasoline prices caused by a spike in global oil prices as worrisome development. Those high pump prices, he said, will probably push up inflation only temporarily “while reducing consumers’ purchasing power.”

The Fed chief is scheduled to appear before the Senate banking committee on Thursday, the second day of his semiannual testimony on monetary policy.

Earlier this year, the Fed announced that it would keep interest rates extraordinarily low through 2014 in an effort to support the recovery. The Fed is now weighing whether to take additional action to stimulate economic growth, and Bernanke has often used public appearances to telegraph new steps.

But analysts who follow the Fed noted that Bernanke declined to provide such a hint on Wednesday — suggesting that the debate is ongoing. “The Chairman gave no clear signal that the committee is considering further monetary easing in the near future,” economists at Goldman Sachs wrote.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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