Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress Wednesday that a new stimulus program is in the works that will entail additional asset purchases, the clearest indication yet that the central bank is contemplating another round of monetary easing.
Bernanke said in prepared remarks that the economy is growing more slowly than expected, and should that continue the central bank stands at the ready with more accommodative measures.
"Once the temporary shocks that have been holding down economic activity pass, we expect to again see the effects of policy accommodation reflected in stronger economic activity and job creation," he said
"However, given the range of uncertainties about the strength of the recovery and prospects for inflation over the medium term, the Federal Reserve remains prepared to respond should economic developments indicate that an adjustment in the stance of monetary policy would be appropriate."
Markets reacted immediately to the remarks, sending stocks up sharply in a matter of minutes. Gold prices continued to surge past record levels, whileTreasury yields moved higher as well.
The Fed recently completed the second leg of its quantitative easing program, buying $600 billion worth of Treasurys in an effort to boost liquidity and get investors to purchase riskier assets.
While stocks rose about 6 percent through the course of the program, nicknamed QE2 , economic progress has remained elusive.
U.S. gross domestic product grew just 1.9 percent in the first three months of the year, and the second quarter does not appear to have been much better. For 2011 as a whole, the Fed sees U.S. GDP expanding 2.7 percent to 2.9 percent, down from forecasts in a range of 3.1 percent to 3.3 percent back in April.
Unemployment has taken a turn higher as well, with the economy creating just 18,000 jobs in June and the jobless rate edging higher to 9.2 percent.
Minutes to the central bank's June meeting on Tuesday suggested that, while some members were pondering the possible need for additional easing amid a weak economy, the Fed is not yet ready to take any further action.
But the minutes also reflected divisions within the central bank over further easing, and Bernanke's speech provided a further indicator that a QE3 move is far from off the table.
"Even with the federal funds rate close to zero, we have a number of ways in which we could act to ease financial conditions further," Bernanke said.
Among the options he outlined: "More explicit guidance" regarding how long rates and the size of the Fed's $2.6 trillion balance sheet will remain at current levels; more securities purchases to increase the average maturity; and cutting the interest paid to banks on reserves at the Fed, a move that would encourage the institutions to put more money to work.
"Of course, our experience with these policies remains relatively limited, and employing them would entail potential risks and costs," he said. "However, prudent planning requires that we evaluate the efficacy of these and other potential alternatives for deploying additional stimulus if conditions warrant."
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