That discussion began after the Fed started taking unorthodox measures in 2008 to address the financial crisis, including several rounds of massive bond purchases and steps to shore up lending markets. All the Republican presidential candidates have criticized Bernanke on various counts, saying he has printed too much money, damaged the value of the dollar and carried out programs that simply haven’t worked.
In Washington, the reaction to the Fed’s efforts to bring down unemployment has divided along partisan lines. Democrats say the steps are necessary, but Republicans say they risk sparking inflation and undermining the currency.
The latest commotion follows the Fed’s release last month of a report analyzing housing policy, which central bank officials say is closely related to their efforts to reinvigorate the economy. The report suggested that additional federal efforts to help homeowners could be worthwhile, even at taxpayer expense.
Democrats have seized on the “white paper” as ammunition in arguing for billions of dollars in new federal relief for beleaguered borrowers. Some Republicans have accused the Fed, which generally avoids addressing policy questions before Congress, of potentially compromising the central bank’s independence.
“It appears the Fed may have overstepped their bounds in recommending fiscal policy actions,” said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan Chase. “It does get a little bit into dangerous territory.”
After Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) complained this month that the Fed had crossed a line, Bernanke said publicly that he was sorry if the lawmaker thought that the white paper intruded on a congressional debate. And after Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) released a letter he sent to the Fed, warning it “to refrain from providing any hint of activism,” Bernanke called him to explain the central bank’s actions.
Some Fed officials, in particular New York Fed chief William Dudley, have advocated a variety of new efforts to aid homeowners. Many of the white paper’s ideas to help the housing market echo Obama administration proposals, such as helping homeowners refinance into more affordable mortgages and selling foreclosed buildings for use as rental properties.
Speaking at a national conference of home builders this month, Bernanke explained that the Fed has a keen interest in the health of the housing and mortgage markets because they are related to the central bank’s main missions of supporting the economy, regulating banks and protecting consumers.