Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Monday said the central bank will keep a close eye on the sliding U.S. dollar even as he pledged anew to keep interest rates at record-lows to nurture the economic recovery.
In remarks to the Economic Club of New York, Bernanke engaged in a delicate dance.
He made clear Fed policymakers will keep rates at super-low levels. Yet through his words, Bernanke is also trying to bolster confidence in the dollar without actually raising rates, a move that could short-circuit the fragile recovery.
Economists say a free-fall in the value of the dollar is remote but can't be entirely dismissed.
Although low interest rates can put additional downward pressure on the dollar, they are needed to encourage American consumers and businesses to spend more and fuel the economic turnaround.
"We are attentive to the implications of changes in the value of the dollar," Bernanke said in rare remarks about the greenback. The Fed, he said, will continue to "monitor these developments closely."
Although commodity prices — such as oil — have risen lately, that pickup likely reflects a revival in global economic activity and the recent depreciation of the dollar, Bernanke said. Even so, the Fed chief predicted inflation probably will remain "subdued for some time."
That gives the Fed leeway to hold rates at record-low levels for an "extended period," he said, repeating a pledge made at the Fed's meeting earlier this month.
Economists expect the Fed will hold rates near zero at its next meeting on Dec. 15-16 and into part of next year to help the recovery gain traction.
Bernanke predicted the U.S. economy should continue to grow next year, but he warned of "important headwinds" that will restrain the recovery, including a weak job market and tight credit for small businesses and households.
Those forces "likely will prevent the expansion from being as robust as we would hope," he said.
After a record four straight losing quarters, the economy started to grow again in the July-September period at a pace of 3.5 percent. Government-supported spending on homes and cars drove the rebound, raising questions about the staying power of the recovery once that assistance fades.
Bernanke said the rebound reflected more than "purely temporary factors" and predicted growth would continue into next year.
But he cautioned there is uncertainty about how the economy will evolve next year, and warned that "future setbacks are possible."
One of the biggest threats hanging over the recovery is rising unemployment.
The U.S. unemployment rate bolted to 10.2 percent in October. It marked just the second time in the post-World War II period that the jobless rate topped 10 percent. Some economists think it could rise as high as 11 percent by the middle of next year before started to gradually drift down.
Bernanke said the unemployment rate "likely will decline only slowly" if economic growth remains "moderate" as he expects.
Because jobs are likely to remain scarce for some time, consumers — critical shapers of overall economic activity — will be cautious about spending, Bernanke said.
Banks dealing with the fallout from soured commercial real estate loans also could slow progress on efforts to get credit flowing more freely again, the Fed chief said. And credit difficulties will limit the ability of some businesses to expand and hire.
"Overall a number of factors suggest that employment gains may be modest during the early stages of the expansion," Bernanke said.
The Obama administration has done nothing to halt the dollar's slide. The sagging greenback has helped sales of U.S. exports because it makes it less expensive on foreign markets.
But a disorderly drop in the dollar could ignite a new economic crisis in the U.S., prompting investors to dump their dollar holdings and driving up domestic interest rates.
China, the No. 1 lender to the United States, which has racked up a record $1.42 trillion budget deficit, has expressed concerns that the falling dollar threatens the value of its existing U.S. holdings.
Bernanke said the Fed's commitment to the underlying strengths of the U.S. economy, "will help ensure that the dollar is strong and a source of global financial stability."