Video: Bernanke: Growth slowed, uncertainty increased

updated 10/7/2008 2:03:25 PM ET 2008-10-07T18:03:25

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned Tuesday that the financial crisis has not only darkened the country’s current economic performance but also could prolong the pain.

The Fed chief’s more gloomy assessment appeared to open the door wider to an interest rate cut on or before Oct. 28-29, the central bank’s next meeting, to brace the wobbly economy.

Bernanke said the Fed will “need to consider” whether its current stance of holding rates steady “remains appropriate” given the fallout from the worst financial crisis in decades.

If the Fed does lower its key rate from 2 percent it would mark an about-face. The Fed in June had halted an aggressive rate-cutting campaign to revive the economy out of fear those low rates would aggravate inflation. Since then, financial and economic conditions have deteriorated, while record-high energy prices have calmed, giving the Fed more leeway to again cut rates.

Many believe the country is on the brink of, or already in, its first recession since 2001.

“The outlook for economic growth has worsened,” Bernanke said told the annual meeting here of the National Association for Business Economics.

All told, economic activity is likely to be “subdued” during the remainder of this year and into next year, Bernanke said. “The heightened financial turmoil that we have experienced of late may well lengthen the period of weak economic performance and further increase the risks to growth,” he warned.

Consumers — major shapers of economic activity — have buckled under the weight of rising joblessness, shrinking paychecks, hard-to-get credit, declining net wealth and tanking home and stock values. All the strains are “now showing through more clearly to consumer spending,” Bernanke said.

Inflation numbers are “very ugly right now,” Bernanke acknowledged. Even so, he believed slowing growth in the United States and overseas will continue to damp prices for energy, food and other commodities, meaning a better inflation outlook ahead. Inflation will moderate “pretty significantly” over the next few quarters, he predicted.

Meanwhile, worsening sales prospects and a heightened sense of uncertainty have begun to weigh more heavily on businesses, making them more cautious to hire and to invest in their companies, he said.

Employers cut jobs in September at the fastest pace in more than five years, the government reported last week. Payrolls were slashed by 159,000 last month alone. It was the ninth straight month of job losses. A staggering 760,000 jobs have disappeared so far this year.

Major Market Indices

The financial and credit crises, which took a turn for the worst in September and continue to stubbornly persist, are likely to “increase the restraint on economic activity in the period ahead,” Bernanke said.

Even households with good credit histories are now facing difficulties obtaining mortgages or home equity lines of credit, he noted. Banks are also reducing credit card limits and denial rates on auto loan applications are rising, he said.

Banks, too, are feeling the strain of a lockup in lending, particularly in the market for commercial paper.

To that end, the Fed invoked Depression-era emergency powers to begin buying commercial paper — short-term funding that many companies rely on to pay their workers and buy supplies.

The government’s bailout package is aimed at thawing lending by buying rotten mortgages and other bad debts from banks and other financial institutions. By getting these bad debts off bank’s balance sheets, they might be in a better position to raise capital and more willing to lend to each other and to customers.

Tight credit has made it increasingly difficult and expensive for companies to raise money to fund their operations. Commercial paper is a way of borrowing money for short periods, typically ranging from overnight to less than a week.

In more normal times, about $100 billion of these short-term IOUs were outstanding at any given time, sold by companies to buyers that included money market mutual funds, pension funds and other investors. But this market has virtually dried up as investors have become too jittery to buy paper for longer than overnight or a couple of days.

The unstable situation has left many companies vulnerable. The notion under the plan is for the government to provide a “backstop” that would give companies a new place to get cash, the Fed said. The action makes the Fed a crucial source of credit for nonfinancial businesses in addition to commercial banks and investment firms.

The Fed said it planned to stop buying commercial paper on April 30, 2009, unless the Federal Reserve board agrees to extend the program. The Fed created a separate entity to pool and hold the commercial paper it buys. The Fed said this should allow the central bank to more easily manage the program and better control risk.

There was $1.61 trillion in outstanding commercial paper, seasonally adjusted, on the market as of last Wednesday, according to the most recent data from the Fed. That was down from $1.70 trillion in the previous week. Since the summer of 2007, the market has shrunk from more than $2.2 trillion.

“The expansion of Federal Reserve lending is helping financial firms cope with reduced access to their usual sources of funding,” Bernanke explained.

Bernanke believed the Fed’s bold actions — along with the $700 billion financial bailout signed into law by President Bush on Friday — will help restore confidence in financial markets and help them function more normally.

“These are momentous steps, but they are being taken to address a problem of historic dimensions,” he said.

He also defended the timing of the actions by the Fed and the Bush administration. “We have learned from historical experience with severe financial crises that if government intervention comes only at a point at which many or most financial institutions are insolvent or nearly so, the costs of restoring the system are greatly increased. This is not the situation we face today,” he said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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