Bernanke May Find Deflation Is Back as Fed Concern (Update1)

By Steve Matthews

Nov. 20 (Bloomberg) — Five years after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke helped stamp out the risk of deflation, the threat is returning as the financial crisis and a worsening economic slump pull inflation lower.

Fed policy makers now predict the U.S. economy will contract until the middle of next year, according to minutes of their Oct. 28-29 meeting released yesterday in Washington. Government figures showed that consumer prices excluding food and fuel costs fell for the first time since 1982 last month.

The minutes, along with a slide in financial stocks to the lowest level in 13 years, increased the odds that the Fed will cut its benchmark interest rate next month. Bernanke may also need to revisit the unorthodox policy options, such as purchases of U.S. government debt, that he outlined as a board member in 2002-2003, Fed watchers said.

“The Federal Reserve put deflation back on the table as a significant policy concern,” said Vincent Reinhart, former director of the Fed’s Division of Monetary Affairs, who is now a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “There does not appear to be any barrier to lowering” main rate below the current 1 percent level, he said.

Unemployment Claims

Government figures today signaled further deterioration in the labor market, buttressing the case for more interest-rate cuts. Initial jobless claims increased by 27,000 to a higher- than-forecast 542,000 in the week ended Nov. 15, from 515,000 the prior week, the Labor Department said. Stocks were lower and crude oil fell below $50 a barrel in New York for the first time in almost two years.

Deflation, or prolonged declines in prices, hurts the economy by making debts harder to pay off and lenders more reluctant to extend credit. Japan is the only major economy to have suffered the phenomenon in modern times.

“A lesson I take from the Japanese experience is not to let that get ahead of us, to be aggressive,” Bernanke’s deputy, Vice Chairman Donald Kohn, said in answering questions after a speech yesterday in Washington. “Whatever I thought that risk was four or five months ago, I think it is bigger now even if it is still small.”

Kohn and Bernanke were both at the Fed in 2003, when the central bank’s preferred consumer-price gauge reached a low of 1.3 percent, spurring then-Chairman Alan Greenspan to cut the key rate to 1 percent.

`Policy Challenges’

Some policy makers saw a risk last month that the inflation rate will fall below their mandated goal of “price stability.” “Aggressive easing should reduce the odds of a deflationary outcome,” they said, while noting that the low federal funds rate target “would pose important policy challenges” in that case.

The Fed’s actions so far, including unprecedented injections of liquidity, haven’t been enough to spur lending. Banks may make it even harder to get loans as their share prices plummet. Citigroup Inc. closed at a level unseen since 1995. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Financials Index fell 12 percent to 139.84.

Fed officials expressed concern at last month’s meeting at the risk for “financial strains to intensify if some investors, such as hedge funds, found it necessary to sell assets and as lending institutions built reserves against losses.”

“Credit availability certainly hasn’t increased,” said Lyle Gramley, a former Fed governor. “That has to be a major concern for the Fed because historically the way we get out of recessions is having the Fed push down hard on the accelerator. If that is not working very well, we have to look somewhere else for salvation.”

Buying Treasuries

Future action by the central bank might include “aggressively buying long-term Treasury issues,” Gramley, now a Washington-based senior economic adviser for Stanford Group Co., said in a Bloomberg Television interview.

Michael Feroli, a JPMorgan Chase & Co. economist who used to work at the Fed, said the central bank could also purchase the debt of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage-finance companies seized by the government in September.

“Before ramping up” such programs, the Fed might “first communicate to the markets that the nature of the current economic woes should keep rates low for an extended period,” Feroli wrote in a note yesterday.

The Fed’s balance sheet has already doubled to almost $2 trillion as officials introduced programs to inject liquidity into the economy.

Fed’s Minutes

“Several” participants at last month’s Federal Open Market Committee meeting judged the extraordinary programs will need to be “unwound appropriately as the financial situation normalized,” the minutes said.

Bernanke, a scholar of the Great Depression and former Princeton University professor, detailed possible assets the Fed could buy to fight deflation in a November 2002 speech when he was a governor. “Sustained deflation can be highly destructive” and “should be strongly resisted,” he said.

Fed officials at last month’s meeting “agreed to take whatever steps were necessary to support the recovery.”

Policy makers projected the Fed’s preferred gauge of inflation at 1.5 percent to 2 percent next year, with a further slowdown in the next two years, reaching 1.3 percent to 1.7 percent in 2011, yesterday’s report showed.

Some officials “suggested that additional policy easing could well be appropriate at future meetings,” the minutes said.

“The door is wide open for a rate cut of half-a-point at the December 16 meeting,” said Allen Sinai, chief economist at Decision Economics in New York. He predicts the central bank will pare the main interest rate to 0.25 percent in January.

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