Fed enters ‘uncharted territory’ as assets hit $3 trillion

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s unprecedented bond buying pushed the Fed’s balance sheet to a record $3 trillion as he shows no sign of softening his effort to bring down 7.8 percent unemployment.

The Fed is purchasing $85 billion of securities every month, using the full force of its balance sheet to stoke the economic recovery. The central bank began $40 billion in monthly purchases of mortgage-backed securities in September and added $45 billion in Treasury securities to that pace this month.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Julia Coronado, chief economist for North America at BNP Paribas SA in New York, and a former Fed economist. Even as “the easy money will flow through financial markets and into the real economy at some point and lift us to a better growth trajectory,” the U.S. faces “a lot of risks,” she said.

The Fed’s total assets climbed by $48 billion in the past week to $3.01 trillion as of Jan. 23, according to a release from the central bank yesterday in Washington. The announcement came as the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index closed at the highest level since December 2007.

Fed policy makers have voiced increasing concern that record-low interest rates are overheating markets for assets from farmland to junk bonds, which could heighten risks when they reverse their unprecedented bond purchases.

Yet with unemployment still high almost three-and-a-half years since the economy began its recovery, Fed officials are expected to affirm their accommodation when they meet in Washington to discuss policy on Jan. 29-30.

‘Hard Pressed’

“You’re hard pressed to find another example in history where the Fed pulled out all the stops to help a recovery along,” said Michael Hanson, senior U.S. economist at Bank of America Corp. in New York, and a former Fed economist. “It’s at least as revolutionary as Paul Volcker coming in and saying we’re going to hike rates until inflation” declines.

The Fed has a dual mandate from Congress to achieve stable prices and maximum employment. Volcker, Fed chairman from 1979 to 1987, pushed interest rates to as high as 22 percent to rein in annual price acceleration approaching 15 percent. Now Bernanke is focusing Fed policy on the other mandate, aiming to reduce the ranks of the nation’s 12.2 million unemployed workers.

Fed officials have said their $85 billion pace of purchases will continue until the labor market improves “substantially.” Still, they disagree on how long they should press on with the buying.

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