Washington – Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Wednesday the central bank will consider additional steps to boost the U.S. economy should the current soft patch persist, while warning of serious consequences if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling.
The Fed chief went to Capitol Hill to present the Semiannual Monetary Policy Report before the House Committee on Financial Services.
U.S. economic growth slowed in the first quarter to 1.9 percent, compared with 3.1 percent in the final three months of 2010, and the unemployment rate stands at 9.2 percent two years after the official end of the worst recession since the 1930s.
Bernanke told lawmakers the Fed is considering several possible courses of action in the event the economy grows even weaker.
"One option," he said, "would be to provide more explicit guidance about the period over which the federal funds rate and the balance sheet would remain at their current levels."
Besides keeping its benchmark interest rate at less than 0.25 percent since December 2008, the Federal Reserve has embarked on two rounds of bond-buying, known as "quantitative easing," in an effort to stimulate growth.
The second round of purchases, QEII, was recently completed, but the Fed could maintain those bonds on its balance sheet for longer than originally planned as a way of supporting the economy.
"Another approach would be to initiate more securities purchases or to increase the average maturity of our holdings," Bernanke said Wednesday.
Alternatively, he said the Fed could reduce the already low rate of interest it pays banks on reserves kept with the central bank, "thereby putting downward pressure on short-term rates more generally."
The Federal Open Market Committee expects the pace of the economic recovery to "remain moderate, that the unemployment rate will consequently decline only gradually, and that inflation will subside," the chairman said.
If those expectations prove too optimistic, "additional policy support" may be needed, he said.
Washington is now embroiled in a debate about raising the debt ceiling, which the Obama administration says must be done prior to Aug. 2 to ensure the United States does not default on obligations to creditors and benefit recipients.
Congressional Republicans say they won't agree to raise the ceiling without an agreement to sharply reduce the budget deficit.
While insisting it is vital Congress raise the debt limit, Bernanke declined to comment on the competing proposals for addressing the deficit.
His answers to questions from lawmakers made it plain that the Fed and other government agencies are planning for the possibility Congress the debt ceiling will not be increased by Aug. 2.
"The assumption is that as long as possible, the Treasury would want to try to make payments on the principal and interest to the government debt, because failure to do that would certainly throw the financial system into enormous disarray," Bernanke said.