Bernanke Says Fed Must Monitor Inflation ‘Extremely Closely’

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke speaks during the Financial Markets Conference in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Photographer: Chris Rank/Bloomberg

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said policy makers must watch inflation “extremely closely” for evidence that rising commodity costs are having more than a temporary impact on consumer prices.

“So long as inflation expectations remain stable and well anchored” and the rise in commodity prices slows, as he’s forecasting, then “the increase in inflation will be transitory,” Bernanke said yesterday in response to audience questions after a speech in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

“We have to monitor inflation and inflation expectations extremely closely because if my assumptions prove not to be correct, then we would certainly have to respond to that and ensure that we maintain price stability,” he said.

The dollar rose against the euro and yen after the comments, which are similar to both Bernanke’s congressional testimony and the statement from the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee last month. He told lawmakers March 1 that Fed officials “continue to monitor these developments closely and are prepared to respond as necessary,” while the FOMC said on March 15 that it “will pay close attention to the evolution of inflation and inflation expectations.”

The dollar rose to 84.36 yen at 10:11 a.m. in Tokyo from 84.06 yesterday after earlier touching 84.49. Against the euro, the dollar strengthened to $1.4199 from $1.4221.

Responding to another question yesterday about housing, Bernanke said that the Fed expects a “very high rate” of foreclosures this year, which harms home prices and construction and creates a drag on the recovery, which he said is “not as strong as we would like it to be.”

Price Gauge

The Commerce Department reported last week that the Fed’s preferred price gauge, the personal consumption expenditures index, excluding food and energy, increased 0.9 percent in February from a year earlier. Including all items, prices rose 1.6 percent, compared with a 1.2 percent 12-month increase through January.

Fed officials aim for annual inflation in the long run of 1.6 percent to 2 percent.

Bernanke, in his response yesterday, acknowledged gains in prices of commodities including metals, grains and energy. The national average price of gasoline rose to $3.55 on March 15 from $3.07 on January 1. Gasoline rose further after the Fed’s meeting to $3.66 on Apr. 3.

The FOMC, led by Bernanke, said after its last meeting that the economy is on a “firmer footing” and affirmed plans to buy $600 billion of Treasuries through June. Bernanke hasn’t said what he favors as the next move for monetary policy after that.

Close to Zero

The Fed has kept its benchmark interest rate close to zero since December 2008 and last month reiterated it would remain there for an “extended period.”

Even so, some policy makers who have broken with Bernanke before are discussing the need to tighten credit. Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser, who dissented twice from decisions to lower borrowing costs in 2008, said April 1 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that an increase in growth or inflation expectations may “suggest that it is time to begin taking our foot off the accelerator and start heading for the exit ramp.”

While Bernanke’s “remarks echoed the vigilance on inflation expectations that was present in the last meeting statement, it was certainly less hawkish” than recent comments from some regional Fed presidents, Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York, said in a research note.

Didn’t Discuss Policy

Bernanke wasn’t asked about and didn’t discuss interest rates. New York Fed President William Dudley, the FOMC’s vice chairman, said April 1 that faster-than-expected payroll growth in March shouldn’t alter the central bank’s bond-buying program to prop up the recovery. “I don’t see any reason to pull back from that yet,” Dudley said to reporters after a speech in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Dudley also said that “provided commodity prices level off around current levels, the effect on inflation should be transitory. But we will need to ensure that commodity-price pressures do not cause inflation expectations to become unmoored.”

Bernanke’s prepared remarks focused on regulation of clearinghouses for financial trading. Bernanke said the U.S. should subject such institutions to “strong” risk-management oversight to minimize the chance they’ll require emergency government aid.

Fed officials are “nervous” about inflation, including food and energy prices, said Jason Schenker, an economist who attended Bernanke’s speech.

“Everything is dependent, truly, on what happens with commodity prices,” Schenker, president of Prestige Economics LLC in Austin, Texas, said after Bernanke spoke. “If they remain very high, this is tough.”

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