JACKSON, Wyo. — Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Friday that the Fed will consider making another large-scale purchase of securities if the slowing economy were to deteriorate significantly and signs of deflation were to flare.
The Fed chief offered his most extensive thoughts yet on how to pull the U.S. economy out of a deepening slump. His remarks came 90 minutes after the government said the economy slowed sharply in the second quarter to a 1.6 percent pace.
Fears are growing that the country could lapse back into a recession. Bernanke described the economic outlook as “inherently uncertain” and said the economy “remains vulnerable to unexpected developments.”
Bernanke stopped short of committing to any specific action. But he raised the prospect of another Fed purchase of securities, most likely government debt or mortgage securities, to drive down rates on mortgages and other debt to spur more spending by Americans.
The other two options he laid out are:
— Providing more information in the Fed’s post-meeting policy statements about how long Fed policymakers would continue to keep rates at record lows. For more than a year, the Fed has been pledging to hold rates at ultra-low levels for an “extended period.”
— Cutting to zero the interest the Fed pays for banks to keep money parked at the Fed. That rate is now 0.25 percent.
“The issue at this stage is not whether we have the tools to help support economic activity and guard against disinflation. We do,” Bernanke said. “The issue is instead whether, at any given juncture, the benefits of each tool, in terms of additional stimulus, outweigh the associated costs or risks of using each tool.”
The Fed’s strategy carries no guarantees. Short-term interest rates near zero have yet to rejuvenate the economy. The benefits of federal stimulus programs are fading, and Congress has declined to pass any major new economic aid. That is putting immense pressure on Bernanke to provide relief, and he has no easy options for fixing the economy.
The economy, which has been losing momentum all year, slowed to a near crawl in the second quarter.
At such a weak pace, the nation’s 9.5 percent unemployment rate could climb and pass 10 percent later this year or early next year, some analysts say. With economic conditions worsening, there’s the danger that consumers and businesses will turn even more cautious in their spending, causing the economy to stall, or worse, slip into reverse.