Fed Chief: Economy To See Moderate Growth

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007, before the House Budget Committee hearing on long-term fiscal challenges and the economy. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) AP Photo

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke predicted Tuesday the U.S. economy will rebound from an anemic performance at the start of the year even if the housing slump continues.

Economic growth in the first three months of this year nearly stalled, logging just a 0.6 percent pace. It was the worst quarterly showing in more than four years.

However, Bernanke said he believes some of the forces that figured prominently in that poor performance — including a bloated trade deficit, cutbacks by businesses in inventory investment and weak federal defense spending — "seem likely to be at least partially reversed in the near term."

Bernanke made his comments via satellite to an international monetary conference in Cape Town, South Africa. In his talk, he stuck to the Fed's forecast that the economy in coming quarters will advance "at a moderate pace, close to or slightly below the economy's trend rate of expansion." A copy of his prepared remarks was made available in Washington.

Some economists put the economy's trend, or normal growth rate at around 3 to 3.25 percent.

Even with Bernanke's hopeful outlook, the Fed chief did make clear once again that the painful residential real-estate bust, which started last year, "appears likely to remain a drag on economic growth for somewhat longer than previously expected," he said.

Residential construction will likely remain "subdued for a time" until builders can pare down a backlog of unsold new homes, he noted.

But, thus far, the problems in the housing market have not spread through the broader economy in a significant way, Bernanke said. "We have not seen major spillovers from housing onto other sectors of the economy," he observed.

On the inflation front, Bernanke said that underlying inflation, which excludes food and energy prices, still remains "somewhat elevated" despite some improvements. Bernanke again clung to the Fed's forecast that underlying inflation seems likely to moderate gradually over time. Still, he said, there is a big risk to the economy is if this forecast does not materialize.

Besides talking about the economy, Bernanke also discussed the troubles plaguing both lenders and borrowers with high-risk "subprime" mortgages, which are made to people with spotty credit histories.

While subprime mortgage borrowing nearly tripled in 2004-2005, decelerating house prices, higher interest rates, and slower economic growth have contributed to an increased rate of delinquency among subprime borrowers. This has also been aggravated by a glut in the market for home sales, and a slowdown in new home construction.

Foreclosures and delinquencies have spiked as rising interest rates and falling home prices made it difficult for some people to keep up with their payments.

"The problems in the subprime sector are causing real distress for many homeowners," he said. "To help mitigate the situation, the Federal Reserve and other federal supervisory agencies are encouraging the banks and thrift institutions that we supervise to work with borrowers who may be having trouble meeting their mortgage obligations, including identifying and contacting borrowers before they enter delinquency or foreclosure."

Bernanke, as he said in a speech last month, predicted there will be further increases in delinquencies and foreclosures this year and next as interest rates on many subprime adjustable-rate loans will go up as they reset.

Some analysts estimate that nearly 2 million adjustable-rate mortgages will reset to higher rates this year and next.

Even with the expectation of more problems in this area, Bernanke repeated his belief that troubles in the subprime mortgage market are "unlikely to seriously spill over to the broader economy or the financial system."

Bernanke acknowledged that problems in the subprime market can be traced in part to loose standards, which in some cases allowed people to get mortgages with little documentation.

Facing criticism from Congress about lax regulation in the subprime arena, Bernanke again said the Fed will consider tougher rules to crack down on abusive practices and improve disclosure.

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