Fed tries to fight inflation while keeping mortgage rates low

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Wednesday he doesn’t expect the central bank to sell its huge trove of mortgage securities anytime soon, easing fears the move would raise borrowing costs for home buyers.

“I currently do not anticipate that the Federal Reserve will sell any of its security holdings in the near term, at least until after policy tightening has gotten underway and the economy is clearly in a sustainable recovery,” he said in testimony prepared for a congressional hearing Wednesday that was postponed due to a snowstorm.

But Bernanke provided his most detailed blueprint yet for draining the massive reserves of cash the Fed pumped into credit markets after the financial crisis. That cooled markets. The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 20.26 points at 10,038.

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The Fed’s purchase of $1.25 trillion of mortgage-backed securities has pushed down mortgage rates and stoked home sales. But some fear the massive liquidity will spark inflation.

Bernanke said the most drastic option — selling securities — isn’t imminent, and interest rates will stay low for “an extended period.”

Conrad DeQuadros of RDQ Economics doesn’t expect the Fed to raise rates until next year.

The Fed plans to end purchases of mortgage securities by March 31. Economists such as DeQuadros say that will lead to modestly higher mortgage rates.

Bernanke reiterated that the Fed has other tools to drain reserves from credit markets to stave off inflation. It could boost the interest rate it pays banks to keep excess cash at the Fed, and offer a “term deposit” that would pay an even higher rate for a bank to park cash for a longer period. Both would discourage lending.

The Fed also could sell its securities with an agreement to buy them back in the future. Such reverse repurchase agreements, or “reverse repos,” would temporarily siphon cash from markets.

Bernanke said under a possible scenario, the Fed would use various tools to remove small amounts of cash from credit markets, then increase the interest rate it pays on bank reserves to reclaim larger amounts. But if cash must be withdrawn rapidly, it would also offer term deposits and conduct reverse repos.

Bernanke said the Fed plans soon to raise the discount rate it charges banks for emergency loans, a rate it lowered amid the financial crisis. Economists say that does not herald higher interest rates for consumers.

“It’s consistent with the Fed saying … the crisis is past us,” says James O’Sullivan, chief economist of MF Global

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