Bernanke saying we never have to sell provokes exit mystery

When Ben S. Bernanke asserted last month that the Federal Reserve doesn’t ever have to sell assets, he raised questions about how the central bank can withdraw its record monetary stimulus without stoking inflation.

The Fed may decide to hold the bonds on its balance sheet to maturity as part of a review of the exit strategy Bernanke expects will be done “sometime soon,” he told lawmakers in Washington on Feb. 27. This would help address concerns that dumping assets on the market will lead to a rapid rise in borrowing costs. It also allows the Fed to avoid realizing losses on its bond holdings as interest rates climb.

Removing asset sales from the exit plan Fed officials agreed to in June 2011 means the central bank would stop prices from accelerating by relying primarily on its ability to pay interest on the cash it holds for banks. Given that the Fed’s total assets have reached an unprecedented level of more than $3 trillion, leaving them untouched when the economy picks up may stoke inflation, according to Dean Maki, chief U.S. economist at Barclays Plc in New York.

“If the Fed doesn’t withdraw quickly enough, there’s a risk of overshooting,” Maki said. “If the Fed gets rates back to a typical level and the economy is back to what’s regarded as normal, does having an expanded balance sheet have a notable effect on the economy, on asset markets, even once rates are normalized? We haven’t really had that situation in the U.S. before.”

‘Precisely Analogous’

No country has ever had a comparable increase in the size of its portfolio and unwound it “in the precisely analogous way,” Bernanke said in response to questions from members of the House Financial Services Committee. Japan was the only nation to use asset purchases, or quantitative easing, before the U.S. and is “still in that situation,” he said.

The Fed isn’t planning an immediate exit and continues to add to its stimulus, buying $85 billion of mortgage-backed securities and Treasuries each month. It has left the duration and size of the program open-ended.

Policy makers in December linked their benchmark borrowing cost to economic indicators for the first time, pledging to hold the rate near zero as long as projected inflation isn’t more than 2.5% and joblessness exceeds 6.5%. Unemployment was 7.7% in February.

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