IMF urges Federal Reserve to closely monitor stimulus

International Monetary Fund's headquarters in Washington Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

NEW YORK The International Monetary Fund is urging the Federal Reserve and other central banks to closely monitor their extraordinary efforts to jump-start economic growth, warning that the policies could inflate asset bubbles and destabilize financial markets.

The global lending organization said in a global stability report released Wednesday that the low interest rate policies, which are intended to spur borrowing, spending and investing, are providing "essential support" for economic growth and should continue. But it noted that the policies could have "adverse side effects."

"Of particular concern is the possible mispricing of credit risk, riskier positioning by weaker pension funds and insurance companies, and a rise in liquidity risk, particularly in countries where recoveries are more advanced," said the IMF. "Corporate leverage is rising in the United States and is already around one-third of the way through a typical cycle. Other spillovers include excessive capital flows into emerging market economies, where corporations -- which generally have sound finances at present -- are taking on more debt and foreign exchange exposure in response to low borrowing costs."

The fund says there are few signs of asset price bubbles yet.

The global stability report was released in advance of spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank in Washington this week.

The IMF's warning echoes recent debates among Federal Reserve policymakers, who have pursued aggressive measures intended to help lower still-high unemployment.

The Fed has said it plans to keep short-term interest rates at record lows at least until unemployment falls to 6.5 percent. And it is purchasing $85 billion a month in Treasury and mortgage bonds to lower long-term rates and encouraging more borrowing.

The effect on interest rates has also encouraged investors to shift money into stocks and other riskier holdings, and away from bonds. By driving up stock prices, the Fed hopes the lower rates will create a "wealth effect" and encourage more consumer spending and economic growth.

In the months after the Fed launched the bond-buying program last fall, stocks have surged. The Dow Jones industrial average and Standard & Poor's 500 index both reached record highs this month.

At a meeting of the Fed's policymaking committee last month, some officials argued that the Fed's programs could lead to another stock market bubble or encourage investors to take on too much debt.

Janet Yellen, the Fed's vice chair, downplayed those risks in remarks Tuesday at a conference sponsored by the IMF.

"I don't see pervasive evidence of rapid credit growth, a marked buildup in leverage, or significant asset bubbles that would threaten financial stability," she said. "But there are signs that some parties are reaching for yield, and the Federal Reserve continues to carefully monitor this situation."

The Fed is working with other regulators to enhance its oversight of financial markets, she said.

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