Bernanke Meets The Press, Defends Fed Policies

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke stayed on message Wednesday during his first ever press conference: rising energy and food prices are “transitory,” he said, and the Fed needs to stay the course in terms of its loose fiscal policy.

“We’re still digging ourselves out of a very deep hole,” Bernanke said.

Bernanke faced a roomful reporters for the first time in the Fed’s 97-year history following the central bank’s regular policy meeting at which no significant changes were announced.

Stock markets inched higher during the one-hour press conference, held in a converted dining room within the Federal Reserve’s headquarters complex in Washington D.C.

Dressed in a gray suit and checkered red tie, Bernanke maintained the Fed’s long-held position that current inflationary pressures are likely temporary and not yet cause for a shift away from low interest rates and other Fed policies designed to spur economic recovery.

Bernanke was seated behind a desk with the U.S. flag on one side and the Federal Reserve Board’s flag on the other. He seemed no different than in scores of other appearances he’s made before Congress or at economic conferences: calm, obliging, professorial.

“The Federal Reserve has been looking for ways to increase transparency for many years,” Bernanke responded to a question on the decision to hold press conferences.

“It used to be that the mystique of central banking was all about not letting anybody know what you were doing. As recently as 1994 the Federal Reserve didn't even tell the public when it changed the target for the federal funds rate,” he noted.

But that dynamic has changed. Bernanke said he and his colleagues decided recently that press conferences could “provide some additional color and context” to the Fed’s processes and decisions.

“We thought it was a natural next step,” he said. “I’ve always been a big believer in providing as much information as we can.”

Meanwhile, the Fed's policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee earlier Wednesday left interest rates untouched and said it has no plans to cut short its $600 billion bond-buying program before its scheduled conclusion in June.

Prior to taking questions, Bernanke read a short statement that explained the Fed’s decision to maintain its current policies.

Then the questions began. Although worded differently each time, many of the queries focused on concerns that the Fed’s policies are contributing to rising commodity prices a helping to push down the value of the U.S. dollar.

In carefully worded answers, undoubtedly aware of the impact his words could have on financial markets, Bernanke defended Fed policies.

For instance, a second round of securities purchases announced last fall, a program referred to as quantitative easing, has been “effective,” he said. “We were able to get the financial easing we we’re looking for.”

At the same time he balked at a third round of debt purchasing. “The tradeoffs are getting less attractive at this point.  Inflation has gotten higher,” he said.

In response to a question about the rising price of oil, he said: “There’s not much the Federal Reserve can do about gas prices, per se, at least not without derailing growth entirely, which is certainly not the right way to go.”

In the wake of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the Fed took on an unprecedented role in fostering an economic recovery.

Bernanke and his colleagues lowered interest rates in December 2008 to a range of zero to 0.25% -- and they’ve kept them there. In addition, they set in motion programs that have seen the Fed purchase more than $2 trillion in U.S. debt in an effort to pump liquidity into moribund global credit markets.

And the Fed has maintained that high profile as unemployment has hovered stubbornly near 9%.

Supporters have praised the Fed for its pro-active approach, arguing that the recession could have been far worse if not for the Fed’s active role. Critics have questioned whether the policies had much impact and now argue that all that added liquidity is contributing to a dangerous jump in inflation.

Either way, the Fed has been a lightning rod and momentum has grown in support of Bernanke explaining the Fed’s decisions given the impact they have on the pocketbooks of all Americans.

Earlier this year the Fed announced that Bernanke would hold the historic press conference, much as European central bankers have for several years. While many have cheered the improved accessibility, others have expressed concern that any gaffe by Bernanke could inadvertently move stock markets.

There were no obvious gaffes.

Bernanke told reporters he couldn’t pinpoint exactly when the Fed would start to “tighten” monetary policy. However, the Fed would do its best to “communicate” when that change may occur.

The Fed is lagging behind other central banks in tightening financial conditions. The European Central Bank raised benchmark rates earlier this month and China has also taken steps to cool its economy. However, Japan has stuck to near-zero interest rates.

The Fed’s policy of loose money has put pressure on the dollar, pushing it to its lowest level in three years as the added liquidity combined with recent concerns for the ability of the U.S. to repay its massive debt have rattled currency investors.

Bernanke said the value of the dollar often fluctuates.

“The best thing we can do to create strong fundamentals to the dollar in the medium term is to first keep inflation low, which maintains the buying power of the dollar and second to create a strong economy.”

Bernanke said long-term unemployment in the U.S. is the worst it’s been since World War II. Forty-five percent of those unemployed have been out of a job for 6 months or more, he said.

“By getting unemployment down, we hope to bring back to work some of the people who've been out of work as long as they have and in that respect try to avoid the longer term consequences of people being out of work for months at a time. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been as aggressive as we have,” he said.

Asked about a threat last week by rating firm Standard & Poor’s to cut the United States’ AAA credit rating, the Fed chairman said the warning will be “constructive” if it pushes policy makers toward a solution regarding this country’s massive debt load.

“I think it's the most important economic problem, at least in the longer term, that the United States faces.  We currently have a fiscal deficit which is simply not sustainable over the longer term.  And if it's not addressed it will have significant consequences for financial stability, for economic growth, and for our standard of living,” he said.