Bernanke: Five questions about the Federal Reserve and monetary policy

The second monetary policy tool we have been using involves communicating our expectations for how long the short-term interest rate will remain exceptionally low. Because the yield on, say, a five-year security embeds market expectations for the course of short-term rates over the next five years, convincing investors that we will keep the short-term rate low for a longer time can help to pull down market-determined longer-term rates. In sum, the Fed's basic strategy for strengthening the economy--reducing interest rates and easing financial conditions more generally--is the same as it has always been. The difference is that, with the short-term interest rate nearly at zero, we have shifted to tools aimed at reducing longer-term interest rates more directly.

Last month, my colleagues and I used both tools--securities purchases and communications about our future actions--in a coordinated way to further support the recovery and the job market. Why did we act? Though the economy has been growing since mid-2009 and we expect it to continue to expand, it simply has not been growing fast enough recently to make significant progress in bringing down unemployment. At 8.1 percent, the unemployment rate is nearly unchanged since the beginning of the year and is well above normal levels. While unemployment has been stubbornly high, our economy has enjoyed broad price stability for some time, and we expect inflation to remain low for the foreseeable future. So the case seemed clear to most of my colleagues that we could do more to assist economic growth and the job market without compromising our goal of price stability.

Specifically, what did we do? On securities purchases, we announced that we would buy mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by the government-sponsored enterprises at a rate of $40 billion per month. Those purchases, along with the continuation of a previous program involving Treasury securities, mean we are buying $85 billion of longer-term securities per month through the end of the year. We expect these purchases to put further downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, including mortgage rates. To underline the Federal Reserve's commitment to fostering a sustainable economic recovery, we said that we would continue securities purchases and employ other policy tools until the outlook for the job market improves substantially in a context of price stability.

In the category of communications policy, we also extended our estimate of how long we expect to keep the short-term interest rate at exceptionally low levels to at least mid-2015. That doesn't mean that we expect the economy to be weak through 2015. Rather, our message was that, so long as price stability is preserved, we will take care not to raise rates prematurely. Specifically, we expect that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the economy strengthens. We hope that, by clarifying our expectations about future policy, we can provide individuals, families, businesses, and financial markets greater confidence about the Federal Reserve's commitment to promoting a sustainable recovery and that, as a result, they will become more willing to invest, hire and spend.

Now, as I have said many times, monetary policy is no panacea. It can be used to support stronger economic growth in situations in which, as today, the economy is not making full use of its resources, and it can foster a healthier economy in the longer term by maintaining low and stable inflation. However, many other steps could be taken to strengthen our economy over time, such as putting the federal budget on a sustainable path, reforming the tax code, improving our educational system, supporting technological innovation, and expanding international trade. Although monetary policy cannot cure the economy's ills, particularly in today's challenging circumstances, we do think it can provide meaningful help. So we at the Federal Reserve are going to do what we can do and trust that others, in both the public and private sectors, will do what they can as well.

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