Friday, October 17, 2008

Credit Crisis Threatens US Economy, Says Bernanke

Source : The Business Times, October 17, 2008

Says it'll take time to restore normal credit flows; hints rates may be cut further

(NEW YORK) Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke on Wednesday gave a dour assessment of the US economy, citing a 'significant threat' from shuttered credit markets in remarks that indicated he was open to cutting interest rates further.

Together with dismal data on retail sales and factory growth, the remarks helped send US stocks on their greatest one-day percentage slide since the 1987 crash.

Mr Bernanke said it would take some time to restore normal credit flows and pledged that the US central bank would continue to act aggressively to fight the crisis. Importantly, he said inflation risks were ebbing, which suggests Fed officials see latitude to lower borrowing costs further.

'By restricting flows of credit to households, businesses, and state and local governments, the turmoil in financial markets and the funding pressures on financial firms pose a significant threat to economic growth,' Mr Bernanke told the Economic Club of New York. 'We will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to improve market functioning and liquidity,' he said, adding that policymakers' aggressive and quick response crucially distinguished this episode from the crisis of the 1930s.

Still, Fed vice-chairman Donald Kohn, speaking separately in New York, said escalating mistrust among financial institutions had hampered the immediate benefits of lower interest rates. At the same time, he said, inflation was likely to move lower as the banking crisis dragged on growth.

St Louis Fed president James Bullard said the unexpectedly sharp 1.2 per cent drop in September retail sales reported on Wednesday increased the risk of recession. 'The third quarter, I think, will be flat to slightly negative,' he told reporters. 'That is going to push up the probability that it will later be named a recession.'

The data contributed to expectations that Fed officials will follow up the emergency interest rate cut made last week with another reduction at their next meeting on Oct 28-29.

In concert with central banks around the globe, the Fed cut benchmark rates by a half point to 1.5 per cent last week. It said an intensification of the financial crisis had raised risks to growth, while curbing the risk of inflation.

In the latest bid to restore financial market stability, the US government on Tuesday announced a dramatic plan to recapitalise banks, beginning with a US$125 billion equity investment in nine major financial institutions.

But even with the government scrambling to restore credit, Mr Bernanke cautioned it would take time for the economy to heal. 'Stabilisation of the financial markets is a critical first step, but even if they stabilise as we hope they will, broader economic recovery will not happen right away,' he said.

Mr Kohn agreed. 'The troubles in credit markets have spilled over into the economy,' he said.

Analysts said Mr Bernanke's words suggested the Fed chief saw the deteriorating outlook as calling for another rate cut.

'Bernanke's comments reinforce the sense that the Fed will lower interest rates when it meets again,' said Tony Crescenzi, chief bond market strategist at Miller, Tabak & Co in New York.

Mr Kohn, meanwhile, said he was hopeful that the government's plan to inject US$250 billion in equity into ailing banks would be effective in thawing credit markets. 'It's not going to cure all the ills, but it's a very important step in that direction,' he said. 'The situation here is quite severe.' - Reuters

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