WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has called the economy “frustratingly slow.” On Tuesday, Congress will find out whether he still thinks so, even after Friday’s news that hiring surged in January and unemployment reached a three-year low.
Don’t expect a radical new outlook on the economy.
When Bernanke testifies to the Senate Budget Committee, economists expect no shifts in the Fed’s efforts to bolster the recovery. They say Bernanke’s tone might be slightly more upbeat than when he spoke Thursday to House members. But they expect him to reiterate the Fed’s plan to keep a key interest rate at a record low near zero until at least late 2014.
The super-low rates are meant to encourage consumers and businesses to borrow and spend and further strengthen the economy.
Analysts also expect Bernanke to hold out the possibility that the Fed might launch another round of bond purchases later this year if the economy needs more support. Such purchases are intended to further drive down long-term rates.
But many private economists think the timetable for any new bond purchases has been pushed back because of last week’s robust jobs report. And if the economy keeps improving, they say that the notion of more bond purchases could be permanently shelved.
On Friday, the government said employers added 243,000 jobs in January, far more than expected. And unemployment fell for a fifth straight month, to 8.3 percent. Still, 8.3 percent is still painfully high. Nearly 13 million people remain unemployed.
“I expect that Bernanke will take note of the good news that the economy is healing while saying that the bad news is that it is healing slowly,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Global Insight.
Bernanke will likely keep all the Fed’s option open, in part because of threats to the U.S. economy from abroad. They include Europe’s debt crisis and rising tensions with Iran that could disrupt global oil supplies.
Moreover, Congress is still debating whether to extend a Social Security tax cut that benefits 160 million Americans and is due to expire at the end of this month.
“The uncertainty level right now is just so high,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial. “The Fed is going to be very cautious in changing its stance.”
At its last meeting Jan. 24-25, the Fed for the first time published forecasts of where officials think the Fed’s key rate, the federal funds rate, is headed over the next three years and when they expect the first increase.
The rate has been near zero since December 2008. In its policy statement in January, the Fed said it would probably not increase that rate until late 2014 at the earliest — a year and a half later than it had previously said.
At the House hearing last week, Bernanke defended that decision against Republican criticism that it raises the threat of high inflation and of speculative bubbles in assets. Earlier extended periods of low rates triggered a bubble in technology stocks in the late 1990s. When that bubble burst, it contributed to the 2001 recession.
A separate period of low rates has been blamed for fueling the housing bubble, which burst and helped lead to the Great Recession. But on Thursday, Bernanke noted that inflation has declined, while unemployment and slow economic growth remain problems.
Economists say Fed officials are prepared to keep rates low as long as inflation is tame. But if prices were to escalate, analysts say it would cause the Fed to move up its late-2014 timetable for a rate increase, even if growth remained slow.
The decision to announce that the Fed doesn’t plan to raise its benchmark rate until late 2014 at the earliest was adopted on a 9-1 vote. The lone dissenter was Jeffrey Lacker of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. Lacker said he doesn’t think the economy needs low rates for that long and fears they could trigger high inflation.
Some other Fed regional bank presidents are also skeptical. On Monday, St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard said:
“A near-zero rate policy stretching over many years can begin to distort fundamental decision-making in the economy in ways that may be destructive to longer-run economic growth,” Bullard said.
Still, Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors, said while some Fed officials have misgivings, Bernanke commands a solid majority of the Fed’s policy group. He said the Fed will probably stick with the late-2014 timetable for now, in part to avoid sending mixed signals to the financial markets.
“I don’t think they will move off that target this year unless the economy really takes off,” Naroff said.