The former Princeton professor cut the Fed’s target interest rate almost to zero in December 2008 and has led the central bank in three rounds of large-scale asset purchases, or quantitative easing, that have swelled the Fed’s balance sheet to a record $3.41 trillion.
President Barack Obama, in an interview on PBS this week, provided one of the clearest signals yet that Bernanke may not remain beyond the end of his term on Jan. 31. Bernanke “already stayed a lot longer than he wanted or he was supposed to,” Obama said.
The labor market has gained strength since the Fed began the latest round of asset purchases in September. Employers added 175,000 jobs in May, and the country has regained 6.3 million jobs since 2010, 72% of those lost in the aftermath of the recession.
“The economy is recovering, and there’s a great deal of strength behind it,” said Andrew Wilkinson, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak & Co. in New York, citing gains in construction and employment and rising retail sales. “People are going out and spending, not keeping the pocketbook closed.”
Still, unemployment has exceeded 7.5% since January 2009, the longest stretch of such high joblessness since the depression. The ratio of workers to the total population fell to 58.2% in 2011, the lowest since 1983. The ratio rose to 58.6% in May.
Slowing global growth and federal government budget cuts are taking a toll on the world’s largest economy. Manufacturing unexpectedly shrank in May at the fast pace in four years, according to figures from the Institute for Supply Management.
“The uncertainty that continues in Washington has an adverse effect on confidence,” Jeffrey Smisek, chief executive officer of United Continental Holdings Inc. in Chicago, the world’s largest airline, said in a June 14 presentation. “We don’t see a degradation in the United States demand, but we don’t see a significant improvement.”
A rebound in housing, fueled by record-low mortgage rates, has shored up the expansion. Home prices rose 10.9% in the 12 months through March, according to the S&P/Case Shiller index of property values in 20 cities, the biggest annual gain since April 2006.
Blackstone Group LP Chief Executive Officer Stephen Schwarzman said this month housing has been a “big winner” in the economy.
The world’s biggest alternative-asset manager has spent $5 billion to acquire almost 30,000 U.S. single-family houses in a bet home prices will maintain gains. New York-based Blackstone has jumped 38% this year before today, more than double the gain for the S&P 500.
“You are seeing a lot of strength in housing and it’s coming from almost every place geographically,” Schwarzman said in a June 11 presentation to investors.