Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress on Wednesday the outlook for the economy remains "unusually uncertain" but that the Fed plans no specific steps "in the near term" to try to fuel the struggling recovery.
Bernanke said the Fed would consider action if matters worsened.
His comments to the Senate Banking Committee sent stocks tumbling. The Dow Jones industrial average had been up 20 points before he spoke. It fell as much as 160 points during his testimony, but recovered some losses to close down 109 points. Investors shifted money into the safety of Treasury bonds; the yield on 10-year Treasury notes fell to 2.86 percent.
"The markets are more paranoid than the Fed is about the economy's health," said David Resler, chief U.S. economist at Nomura Securities. Investors wanted to hear a strategy "that will make a second dip a very remote possibility."
Bernanke downplayed the odds that the economy will slide back into a "double-dip" recession. Still, he acknowledged the recovery is fragile.
"If the recovery seems to be faltering, we have to at least review our options," Bernanke told lawmakers. But he said no further action is planned for now because the economy is still growing.
Record low interest rates are still needed to bolster the economy, Bernanke said. He repeated a pledge to keep them there for an "extended period."
The recovery, which had been flashing signs of strengthening earlier this year, is losing momentum. And fears are growing that it could stall.
Consumers have cut spending. Businesses, uncertain about the strength of their own sales or the economic recovery, are sitting on cash, reluctant to beef up hiring and expand operations. A stalled housing market, near double-digit unemployment and an edgy Wall Street shaken by Europe's debt crisis are other factors playing into the economic slowdown.
"In short, it look likes our economy is in need of additional help," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.
Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the highest-ranking Republican on the panel, said the economic outlook has become a "bit more cloudy."
Bernanke said the Fed is "prepared to take further policy actions as needed" to keep the recovery on track. Fed policymakers haven't settled on "leading options" but they are being explored, he said. Those options include lowering the rate the Fed pays banks to keep money parked at the Fed, strengthening the pledge to hold rates at record lows and reviving some crisis-era programs, Bernanke said.
Bernanke is trying to send a positive message that the recovery will last in the face of growing threats. At the same time, he wants to assure Americans that the Fed will take new stimulative actions if necessary.
With little appetite in Congress to provide a major new stimulus package, more pressure falls on Bernanke to keep the recovery going.
Bernanke and his Fed colleagues have cut their forecasts for growth this year.
If the recovery were to flash serious signs of backsliding, the Fed could revive programs to buy mortgage securities or government debt. It could cut to zero the interest rate paid to banks on money left at the Fed or lower the rate banks pay for emergency Fed loans. The Fed also could create a new program to spark more lending to businesses and consumers in a bid to lure them to ratchet up spending and grow the economy.
Bernanke said the debt crisis in Europe, which has rattled Wall Street, played a role in the Fed's "somewhat weaker outlook." Although financial markets have improved considerably since the depth of the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, conditions have become "less supportive of economic growth in recent months," he explained.
As a result, Bernanke said progress in reducing the nation's unemployment rate, now at 9.5 percent, is now expected to be "somewhat slower" than thought. Unemployment is expect to stay high, in the 9 percent range, through the end of this year, under the Fed's forecast.
High unemployment is a drag on household spending, Bernanke said, although he believed both consumers and businesses would spend enough to keep the recovery intact.
Bernanke also said it would take a "significant amount of time" to restore the nearly 8.5 million jobs wiped out over 2008 and 2009.
The housing market remains weak and the overhang of vacant or foreclosed houses are weighing on home prices and home construction, he said.
Given the weak recovery, inflation is not a problem, Bernanke said.
And Bernanke said he didn't view deflation as a "near term risk to the United States." Deflation is a prolonged and destabilizing drop in prices for goods, the values of stocks and homes and in wages. Although most economists think the prospects of deflation are remote, some Fed officials have expressed concern about it.
To strengthen the economy, many economists predict the Fed will hold a key bank lending rate at a record low near zero well into 2011, or possibly into 2012. Doing so, would help nip any deflationary forces.
And keeping that bank rate at super low levels also would mean rates on certain credit cards, home equity loans, some adjustable-rate mortgages and other consumer loans would stay at their lowest point in decades.
Ultra-low lending rates, however, haven't done much lately to rev up the economy. Consumers and businesses are cautious and aren't showing an appetite to spend as lavishly as they usually do in the early stages of economic recoveries.
Bernanke, meanwhile, welcomed Congress' new revamp of financial regulations signed into law by President Barack Obama on Wednesday. The new law, he said, "will place our financial system on a sounder foundation and minimize the risk of a repetition of the devastating events of the past three years."