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Ben Bernanke makes strong defense of Federal Reserve's rate policies

Chairman Ben Bernanke offered a wide-ranging defense of the Federal Reserve's aggressive policies to stimulate the still-weak economy.

twitter-logo Associated Press   Washington     Last Updated: October 2, 2012  | 00:00 IST

Chairman Ben Bernanke offered a wide-ranging defense of the Federal Reserve's aggressive policies to stimulate the still-weak economy.

The Fed needs to drive down long-term borrowing rates because the economy isn't growing fast enough to reduce high unemployment, Bernanke said in a speech to the Economic Club of Indiana. The unemployment rate is 8.1 per cent.

Low rates could also help shrink the federal budget deficit by easing the government's borrowing costs and generating tax revenue from stronger growth, Bernanke argued.

The chairman cautioned Congress against adopting a law that would allow it to monitor the Fed's interest-rate discussions. The House has passed legislation to broaden Congress' investigative authority over the Fed -authority that would include a review of interest-rate policymaking. The Senate hasn't adopted the Bill.

Bernanke warned that such a step would improperly inject political pressure into the Fed's private deliberations and affect the officials' decisions.

His speech follows the Fed's decision at its September 12-13 meeting to launch a new mortgage-bond buying program. The goal is to try to drive low mortgage rates even lower to encourage home buying. Increased home sales could help spur hiring and accelerate economic growth.

The average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is already 3.4 per cent, a record low. But some economists think home loan rates could fall further, in part because long-term Treasury yields are much lower: The rate on the 10-year Treasury is just 1.62 per cent.

After its September meeting, the Fed said it would keep buying mortgage bonds until the job market showed substantial improvement. It also decided to keep its benchmark short-term rate near zero through at least mid-2015.

In his speech Monday, Bernanke sought to reassure investors that the Fed's timetable for keeping its short-term rate ultra-low "doesn't mean we expect the economy to be weak through 2015." Rather, he said the Fed expects to keep rates low well after the economy strengthens.

Bernanke spoke two days before President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney will hold a debate in which the economy is the central theme.

And on Friday, the government will release its September jobs report. Economists expect only modest hiring and continued unemployment above 8 per cent.

The US economy is still struggling more than three years after the Great Recession ended. Persistently high unemployment and weak pay growth have kept spending by consumers weak. That, in turn, has hurt manufacturing and slowed broader economic growth.

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