Bernanke offers grim job outlook, help for dollar

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke touched on the human toll of the weak job market, singling out young people's jobless rate, in remarks at the Economic Club of New York.
Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke touched on the human toll of the weak job market, singling out young people's jobless rate, in remarks at the Economic Club of New York. (Daniel Acker/bloomberg News)
By Neil Irwin and Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke waded Monday into the debate among policymakers over the vigor of the economic recovery, offering a sobering view of what lies ahead in his most detailed comments on the economy in months.

Bernanke's focus on the weak job market and his opinion that inflation will remain subdued show that he is looking to keep the Fed focused on supporting growth for quite a while longer by leaving interest rates at rock-bottom levels. Financial markets may be soaring and the economy expanding. But, he said, "the best thing we can say about the labor market right now is that it may be getting worse more slowly."

Speaking at the Economic Club of New York, Bernanke also offered rare remarks about the value of the U.S. currency, saying the Fed's policies will "help ensure that the dollar is strong." Stepping into an arena usually reserved for Treasury secretaries, he signaled that the central bank is paying close attention to the dollar's rapid decline and lent some of his own credibility to Obama administration efforts to maintain confidence in the dollar on international markets.

Bernanke's remarks about the dollar came one day after China's top bank regulator criticized the Fed's handling of monetary policy, blaming the weak dollar and low interest rates for creating a global bubble in asset prices.

The U.S.-China economic relationship is under particular scrutiny this week as President Obama visits Beijing. China is the largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt and thus would be exposed to massive losses if the dollar were to plummet.

The overriding takeaway from his speech, however, was that the Fed should continue aggressive efforts to stimulate economic activity.

"Continued growth next year is likely," Bernanke said. But he added, "Some important headwinds -- in particular, constrained bank lending and a weak job market -- likely will prevent the expansion from being as robust as we would hope."

Bernanke in the center

In the past week, several other Fed officials have given their views of the economic outlook, voicing a range of concerns. Some view the economy as fundamentally weak and see little reason to fear rising prices as long as the jobless rate is high. But others have argued the Fed should soon reverse direction, raising interest rates before there is much improvement in economic conditions, lest there be a burst of inflation.

Bernanke's comments position him in the center. He agrees with those who see a weak recovery and think inflation is unlikely to be an immediate threat. Bernanke, however, did give a nod to concerns about rising prices in the future, noting that expectations of inflation can "be early warnings of actual inflation" and "must be monitored carefully."

"He touched a lot of bases and acknowledged a lot of concerns but didn't really sway from the central view that there will be moderate growth and subdued inflation," said Peter Hooper, chief economist for Deutsche Bank Securities.

The jobless rate rose to 10.2 percent in October and is widely forecast to keep edging upward. Indeed, as Bernanke said Monday, "the unemployment rate will decline only slowly if economic growth remains moderate, as I expect."

Bernanke emphasized the human toll of the continued weak job market, noting the astronomical unemployment rates among some subsets of the labor force, such as the 19 percent jobless rate among 16-to-24-year-olds. This widespread unemployment among young adults could have long-lasting implications, he said, as they lose out on work experience and on-the-job training.


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