Bernanke reassures economists Fed to wind down programs

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said on Monday that the Federal Reserve will wind down extraordinary actions taken last year.

He said the board possessed both the tools and the will to wind down its response to last year's economic downturn.

While the chairman, currently up for re-confirmation, did acknowledge those new programs have left many "uneasy," he assured all of those reversible actions were "necessary and helpful" at stimulating economic recovery.

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He also signaled the Fed would begin undertaking "unsparing self-assessments" of its bank regulatory powers, in part to ensure it would be able to handle economic crises that may later arise.

"The Federal Reserve has been aggressive in its efforts to stabilize our financial system and to support economic activity. At some point, however, we will need to unwind our accommodative policies in order to avoid higher inflation in the future," Bernanke said during a speech before the Economic Club of Washington.

Bernanke's address, mostly a defense of his tenure at the Fed, contained clear echoes of his tough confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee last week.

The chairman tackled four specific rhetorical questions in his remarks that mirrored those lawmakers asked of him last Wednesday: Where the economy is headed, what the Fed is doing about that course, whether those actions will prompt inflation and whether the Fed is ready for another economic crisis.

Bernanke answered those rhetorical questions point by point. He said the economy was experiencing "moderate" growth that could extend into next year, despite "headwinds" like constrained lending. He also said inflation would remain "subdued for some time."

Bernanke concluded by repeating his call for regulation authority, a provision in financial reform that would give the government the ability to wind down firms safely without taxpayer intervention. 

But the Fed chairman also took a moment to repeat his objections to a bill in the House to audit the Fed. Much as he said during his confirmation hearing, Bernanke stressed periodic audits of monetary policy would subject those important decisions to undue political pressures.

"The Fed Reserve fully agrees the Congress should have access to all of our financial transactions ..." he said. "Our concern would be that we would take some action on monetary policy that would be unpopular in certain quarters, and Congress, by taking some action with that audit, would [be able to overturn them]."

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