Federal Reserve chief offers little cheer

No new stimulus as chairman Ben Bernanke says growth will depend on action taken by politicians.

The US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, right, and Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, chat before the morning session of the economic policy symposium at Jackson Hole in Wyoming yesterday. Reed Saxon / AP Photo
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Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve, failed to offer much cheer to either commentators or stock markets yesterday.

In a much-awaited speech at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the world's central bankers had gathered on the eve of the third anniversary of the global financial downturn, he held out little prospect of any new stimulus programmes.

Stock markets immediately started trading downwards, admittedly on a quiet Friday in August volumes, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 160 points to 10,999 in early trading. London's FTSE 100 was down 82 points at one stage, but recovered later.

The only gainers were metals, especially gold and silver, while the dollar strengthened.

"This economic healing will take a while, and there may be setbacks along the way," Mr Bernanke said.

In other words, you are on your own.

"Of course, the United States faces many growth challenges," he added. "Our population is ageing, like those of many other advanced economies, and our society will have to adapt over time to an older workforce. Our … educational system, despite considerable strengths, poorly serves a substantial portion of our population.

"The costs of health care in the United States are the highest in the world, without fully commensurate results in terms of health outcomes. But all of these long-term issues were well known before the crisis; efforts to address these problems have been ongoing."

While expressing long-term optimism, the Fed chief made plain that the central bank had found recent developments troubling, and he said it would expand its policy meeting next month to two days from one to discuss options.

However, Mr Bernanke also stressed that most of the burden for ensuring a solid foundation for US long-term growth lay at the feet of the White House and Congress.

"Financial stress has been and continues to be a significant drag on the recovery, both here and abroad," he said. "It is difficult to judge by how much these developments have affected economic activity thus far, but there seems little doubt that they have hurt household and business confidence and that they pose ongoing risks to growth."

The Fed said earlier this month it expected to hold overnight US interest rates near zero for at least the next two years and it was examining other steps to bolster growth.

Some investors have begun to hope the central bank, which has already bought US$2.3 trillion (Dh8.44tn) in bonds, would launch a fresh round of asset purchases, although many analysts think more modest steps, such as shifting the Fed's securities holdings into longer maturities, are more likely.

Mr Bernanke simply reiterated language from the Fed's latest policy statement that the US central bank was examining its options and was prepared to act as needed.

"Monetary policy must be responsive to changes in the economy and, in particular, to the outlook for growth and inflation," he said. He repeated the Fed's view that easing commodity prices should bring inflation into line with the Fed's 2 per cent or under goal.

Earlier yesterday, a government report showed that the US economy grew slower than previously thought in the second quarter as business inventories and exports were less robust, although consumer spending was revised up.

GDP expanded at an annual rate of 1 per cent, the commerce department said, a downward revision of its prior estimate of 1.3 per cent. It also said after-tax corporate profits rose at the fastest pace in a year.

"We were expecting a bit of a downward revision, which reflects the headwinds on the recovery and all the factors we're trying to wrestle to the ground," Paul Ballew, the chief economist at Nationwide Insurance in Ohio said. "We're expecting that things will be marginally stronger in the last part of the year. The question is are we looking at a fourth quarter recovery?"

Oil headed for its first weekly gain in five weeks on speculation the US would take further steps to bolster the world's largest economy. Petrol traded at near its highest point in three weeks as Hurricane Irene threatened to disrupt American fuel supplies.