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Bernanke May Try Spurring Economy by Prolonging Stimulus

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke
U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke will probably delay the central bank’s exit from record stimulus, economists said in a survey, giving the flagging economy a boost without resorting to additional asset purchases.

Seventy-nine percent of 58 economists expect Bernanke to sustain the Fed balance sheet at current levels until October or later, compared with 52 percent who held that view before the Fed’s last policy meeting in April, according to a Bloomberg News survey conducted last week. Ninety percent of those surveyed predict the Fed will wait until the fourth quarter before dropping its pledge to hold interest rates low for an “extended period.”

Bernanke and his fellow policy makers have given no indication they’ll tighten policy anytime soon. With manufacturing slowing and unemployment increasing during May to 9.1 percent, the Fed chief said this month growth is “frustratingly slow,” and Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker said the economy could be “stuck below trend for some time.”

“The longer they signal they will be on hold for an extended period, they are de facto easing,” said Carl Riccadonna, senior U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. in New York. Expectations the central bank will delay a policy reversal help reduce long-term interest rates and spur growth, he said.

Congressional Mandate

The Federal Open Market Committee will begin a two-day meeting today in Washington and issue a statement tomorrow at about 12:30 p.m. Bernanke is scheduled to meet the press at 2:15 p.m. tomorrow, and the central bank will also release economic projections by policy makers.

By prompting expectations it will postpone a reduction in stimulus, the Fed can draw closer to meeting its congressional mandate to achieve maximum employment, Fed Vice Chairman Janet Yellen said in February.

“Such a shift in policy expectations would be associated with a lower trajectory for the unemployment rate,” Yellen said in a speech in New York. “Financial conditions would become significantly more accommodative, even in the absence of any change in the current level of the funds rate.”

Weaknesses in employment and housing eroded optimism among U.S. chief executive officers in the second quarter, a survey by Business Roundtable showed June 14. Eighty-seven percent of the 135 CEOs surveyed said they expected a gain in sales in the next six months, down from 92 percent in the first quarter, a sign that hiring and business investment may be slow to accelerate.

‘Significant Challenges’

“The weak economy continues to present significant challenges for most households,” David Dillon, chief executive officer of Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., the largest U.S. grocery chain, said on an investor conference call last week. “The promising signs of the improvement we saw earlier this year seems to have stagnated.”

The U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 1.8 percent in the first quarter, down from 3.1 percent in the fourth quarter, and recent data have shown manufacturing and consumer and business sentiment weakening.

“This soft patch further delays any moves to tightening,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial Inc. in Chicago. Policy makers “have made it clear they were in no hurry” to scale back the central bank’s $2.8 trillion balance sheet.

‘Extended Period’

Swonk predicts the Fed will stop reinvesting proceeds from maturing assets and drop its “extended period” pledge in the fourth quarter of this year and hold off on raising interest rates until March 2012.

Since the last FOMC meeting in April, stock prices and bond yields have fallen. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index dropped 6.3 percent to 1,278.36 yesterday from its 2011 peak on April 29. S&P 500 futures expiring in September traded at 1,277.9 at 11:20 a.m. in London today. The yield on the 10-year Treasury has fallen to 2.96 percent from its 2011 high of 3.74 percent in February.

“The soft patch would have to turn to a double-dip recession before the Fed would feel comfortable in enlarging its balance sheet and extending purchases” of Treasury securities through a third round of so-called quantitative easing, said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd. in New York.

Bond Purchases

The central bank has said it will complete $600 billion in bond purchases, known as QE2 for the second round of quantitative easing, by the end of this month. Sixty-nine percent of economists in the survey say that a third round of bond buying is “very unlikely,” and an additional 24 percent say it is “somewhat unlikely.”

“Their hands are pretty much tied,” Rupkey said. Accelerating inflation poses “some urgency” for policy makers and also argues against more asset purchases, he said.

The consumer price index climbed 3.6 percent in May from a year earlier, the fastest pace since October 2008. Prices excluding food and energy rose 1.5 percent, the most since January 2010, the Labor Department said last week.

Economists expect little change in the FOMC statement tomorrow. In a separate survey, 72 out of 73 economists said the Fed will keep the main interest rate in a range of zero to 0.25 percent, its level since December 2008.

Only eight of 73 economists expect the Fed to change interest rates before the end of this year, with the remainder expecting the central bank to remain on hold until at least next year.

Slow economic growth may help Bernanke “justify keeping interest rates low,” said Harm Bandholz, chief U.S. economist at Unicredit Group in New York.

Download: Lacker Speaks About U.S. Economy, Manufacturing

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