Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned lawmakers Wednesday that, despite bright spots in recent economic reports, unemployment probably would stay high and the nation’s recovery would remain slow for the next several years.
In prepared testimony to House Financial Services Committee, Bernanke acknowledged that the unemployment rate — which now stands at 8.3 percent — has come down faster than anticipated. But he said several factors are likely to weigh on the economy. (The Labor Department will release numbers on February unemployment at the end of next week.)
Bernanke noted that wages are flat, that borrowers are having trouble getting loans, state and local governments are still laying off workers, and financial problems are causing crisis abroad, particularly in Europe.
The challenges, the Fed chief said, “have weighed on financial conditions and global economic growth, 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.”
On Thursday morning, the Commerce Department reported that the U.S. economy grew at a rate of 3 percent in the last three months of 2011, revising the previous estimate of 2.8 percent.
In his testimony, Bernanke also pointed to rising gas prices caused by a spike in global oil prices. Those high pump prices, he said, will probably push up inflation temporarily “while reducing consumers’ purchasing power.” Over the long term, he said, inflation is not likely to be a major concern.
Late last month, the Fed announced it would keep interest rates extraordinarily low through 2014, expecting that unemployment would not drop low enough to truly boost growth. Bernanke reiterated Wednesday that the Fed does not expect the jobless rate to decline much more than it already has this year and that it will “edge down only slowly” in coming years.
The Fed chief, on the Hill as part of two days of semiannual testimony on monetary policy, will speak before the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday.
Bernanke expressed some surprise that the unemployment rate has come down as quickly as it has, given other signs of weakness in the economy — in particular, relatively sluggish economic growth. “Continued improvement in the job market is likely to require stronger growth in final demand and production,” he said.
The Fed chairman highlighted the housing market as a heavy burden on the economy. Although homes cost much less than they used to — because real estate prices have declined and mortgage rates are low — he said, “unfortunately, many potential buyers lack the down payment and credit history required to qualify for loans.”
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 Europe’s financial crisis and its effects on the U.S. economy. He applauded European leaders’ recent steps to contain their debt crisis as “constructive,” but he said there’s more work to do.
He also expressed concern about Europe’s reliance on harsh austerity measures for troubled nations as a way to get a handle on their debt. “Further steps will also be required to boost growth and competitiveness in a number of countries,” he said.
As for the United States, he said that the recovery is continuing but has been “uneven and modest by historical standards.”
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