Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testified on "The Economic Outlook before Congress' Joint Economic Committee. While he didn't give much hope that rates would be rising anytime soon, he did offer hope that the Fed would begin withdrawing its special accommodations soon and again recognized the severe plight of savers. He says, "With unemployment well above normal levels and inflation subdued, fostering our congressionally mandated objectives of maximum employment and price stability requires a highly accommodative monetary policy. Normally, the Committee would provide policy accommodation by reducing its target for the federal funds rate, thus putting downward pressure on interest rates generally. However, the federal funds rate and other short-term money market rates have been close to zero since late 2008, so the Committee has had to use other policy tools."

Bernanke comments, "The first of these alternative tools is "forward guidance" about the FOMC's likely future target for the federal funds rate. Since December, the Committee's post-meeting statement has indicated that its current target range for the federal funds rate, 0 to 1/4 percent, will be appropriate "at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored." This guidance underscores the Committee's intention to maintain highly accommodative monetary policy as long as needed to support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability."

He continues, "The second policy tool now in use is large-scale purchases of longer-term Treasury securities and agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS). These purchases put downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, including mortgage rates. For some months, the FOMC has been buying longer-term Treasury securities at a pace of $45 billion per month and agency MBS at a pace of $40 billion per month. The Committee has said that it will continue its securities purchases until the outlook for the labor market has improved substantially in a context of price stability. The Committee also has stated that in determining the size, pace, and composition of its asset purchases, it will take appropriate account of the likely efficacy and costs of such purchases as well as the extent of progress toward its economic objectives."

Bernanke explains, "At its most recent meeting, the Committee made clear that it is prepared to increase or reduce the pace of its asset purchases to ensure that the stance of monetary policy remains appropriate as the outlook for the labor market or inflation changes. Accordingly, in considering whether a recalibration of the pace of its purchases is warranted, the Committee will continue to assess the degree of progress made toward its objectives in light of incoming information. The Committee also reiterated, consistent with its forward guidance regarding the federal funds rate, that it expects a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy to remain appropriate for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends and the economic recovery strengthens."

He adds, "In the current economic environment, monetary policy is providing significant benefits. Low real interest rates have helped support spending on durable goods, such as automobiles, and also contributed significantly to the recovery in housing sales, construction, and prices. Higher prices of houses and other assets, in turn, have increased household wealth and consumer confidence, spurring consumer spending and contributing to gains in production and employment. Importantly, accommodative monetary policy has also helped to offset incipient deflationary pressures and kept inflation from falling even further below the Committee's 2 percent longer-run objective.

But Bernanke tells us, "That said, the Committee is aware that a long period of low interest rates has costs and risks. For example, even as low interest rates have helped create jobs and supported the prices of homes and other assets, savers who rely on interest income from savings accounts or government bonds are receiving very low returns. Another cost, one that we take very seriously, is the possibility that very low interest rates, if maintained too long, could undermine financial stability. For example, investors or portfolio managers dissatisfied with low returns may "reach for yield" by taking on more credit risk, duration risk, or leverage. The Federal Reserve is working to address financial stability concerns through increased monitoring, a more systemic approach to supervising financial firms, and the ongoing implementation of reforms to make the financial system more resilient."

He says, "Recognizing the drawbacks of persistently low rates, the FOMC actively seeks economic conditions consistent with sustainably higher interest rates. Unfortunately, withdrawing policy accommodation at this juncture would be highly unlikely to produce such conditions. A premature tightening of monetary policy could lead interest rates to rise temporarily but would also carry a substantial risk of slowing or ending the economic recovery and causing inflation to fall further. Such outcomes tend to be associated with extended periods of lower, not higher, interest rates, as well as poor returns on other assets. Moreover, renewed economic weakness would pose its own risks to financial stability.

Finally, Bernanke comments, "Because only a healthy economy can deliver sustainably high real rates of return to savers and investors, the best way to achieve higher returns in the medium term and beyond is for the Federal Reserve--consistent with its congressional mandate--to provide policy accommodation as needed to foster maximum employment and price stability. Of course, we will do so with due regard for the efficacy and costs of our policy actions and in a way that is responsive to the evolution of the economic outlook."

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