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Bernanke expected to assure Congress that higher rates aren't imminent

Section: Daily Dispatches

By Craig Torres and Jerry Hart
Bloomberg News
Saturday, February 24, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke will probably assure Congress that the central bank is mindful of the lack of job growth in the U.S. and an increase in the benchmark interest rate isn't imminent after the Fed’s decision to raise the cost of direct loans to banks.

The Fed chief will deliver his semi-annual report on the economy and interest rates to House and Senate panels Feb. 24- 25. Fed officials last month forecast growth of 2.8 percent to 3.5 percent this year, and minutes of their January meeting showed they are seeking more evidence the recovery is sustainable.

New York Fed President William Dudley indicated yesterday that policy makers need to focus now on maintaining growth rather than fighting inflation, citing a smaller-than-forecast increase in the consumer-price index for January reported by the Labor Department. Another measure of prices, which excludes energy and food, dropped for the first time since 1982.

"Monetary policy is about the economy," Dudley, a voting member of the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee, told reporters after a speech in San Juan, Puerto Rico. "We need to see solid growth and job creation."

Consumer prices rose 0.2 percent in January from December, and so-called core prices unexpectedly fell 0.1 percent. The report "showed there's no inflation pressure," Dudley said. "So our focus needs to be on growth and jobs."

The Fed on Feb. 18 said its decision to increase the discount rate by a quarter-point to 0.75 percent represented a "normalization" of lending rather than a change in policy. Officials also repeated that economic conditions warrant low levels in the federal funds rate "for an extended period."

That's a phrase Bernanke is likely to repeat to lawmakers next week, said Ethan Harris, head of economics for North America at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

"He is going to say it over and over again," Harris said. "Fed tightening doesn't happen until there is real healing in the job market, and the job market hasn't even turned positive."

U.S. stocks erased losses yesterday after the consumer-price report eased concern that the Fed will need to raise its benchmark rate to fight inflation.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index rose 0.2 percent to close at 1,109.17 in New York after earlier declining as much as 0.5 percent. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 0.1 percent to 10,402.35.

"The Fed is aware of the risk of higher inflation," said Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak & Co. LLC in New York. "But that concern is counter-balanced by the belief that the unemployment rate is likely to stay high for 2010."

Fed Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard said expectations for a rate increase were exaggerated.

"The idea that's in markets that there's a high probability that we'll raise rates later this year is overblown," Bullard said in response to audience questions after a speech in Memphis, Tennessee Feb. 18. "There's also some probability, maybe more, that this will extend into 2011."

Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart told a Georgia business audience the same day that policy "remains accommodative." Fed Governor Elizabeth Duke, speaking in Norfolk, Virginia, said the steps "do not signal any change in the outlook for monetary policy."

In a press release accompanying the discount rate increase, the 56-year-old Fed chairman and his colleagues at the Board of Governors took care to say the outlook for monetary policy "remains about as it was" when the FOMC met in January.

Minutes of the January meeting reflect Dudley's comments that the world's largest economy, while improving, still faces "some significant downside risks."

Business contacts expressed "great reluctance to build inventories, increase payrolls, and expand capacity," the minutes said. Officials forecast average unemployment of 9.5 percent to 9.7 percent in the final three months of the year, little improvement from the current 9.7 percent rate.

Dudley repeated that increasing the discount rate is the central bank's last step in ending emergency liquidity for markets and not a signal the Fed is prepared to tighten credit.

"Think of this as the last adjustment tied to the end of all the liquidity facilities," Dudley told reporters. "Think of this as the last piece of that package, rather than the first piece of a new package."

U.S. central bankers closed four emergency lending facilities this month and are preparing to reverse or neutralize the more than $1 trillion in excess bank reserves they have pumped into the banking system. The discount-rate increase will encourage banks to borrow in private markets rather than from the Fed, the statement said.

Before August 2007, the discount rate was set at one percentage point above the federal funds rate. As subprime mortgage defaults began to ripple through the financial system in August 2007, the Fed reduced the spread to half a percentage point.

The Fed has kept the benchmark rate for overnight lending between banks in a range of zero to 0.25 percent since December 2008. Dudley said the Fed won't necessarily restore the original spread between the discount rate and the federal funds rate.

"We don't have a clear goal that 50 or 100 basis points will be the final resting place," he said. “We felt 25 points wasn't appropriate once we got to a situation where bank liquidity had returned and banks could borrow from each other more easily."

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