Date: April 7, 2020
Former Fed chair sees interest rates at zero for a long time
Bernanke says case can be made to stop bank dividend payouts
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says he doesn’t see a quick, sharp rebound in the economy after a precipitous fall this quarter on efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a rapid” bounce back, he told a virtual discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution on Tuesday. “We’ll probably have to restart activity fairly gradually and there may be subsequent periods of slower activity again.”
While he said the economy could contract at a 30% annualized rate or more in the second quarter, Bernanke brushed aside comparisons to the 12-year-long Great Depression. “If all goes well in a year or two we should be in a substantially better position,” he said.
Bernanke, who is a distinguished fellow at Brookings, commended the response of U.S. fiscal and monetary policy makers to the crisis as “pretty good,” though he said there have been logistical problems in getting the help to where it’s needed. Further fiscal action is likely, he added.
The former Fed chair said the central bank has made progress in restoring some semblance of order to the financial markets. “We have seen the credit markets improve,” he said.
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He also said he suspected the Fed will hold the short-term interest rates it controls effectively at zero for “quite a while” as it seeks to lift inflation to its 2% target and return the labor market to full employment.
“At this point inflation is not a high risk,” he said. “If anything disinflation, low inflation will be more of a concern in the next year than too high inflation.”
Bernanke, who led the Fed through the 2008-09 financial crisis, said U.S. banks are in much better shape than they were back then and could act as a bulwark against the weakening of the economy.
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Nevertheless, he saw a case for regulators to ask banks to be cautious about paying out dividends or executing share buybacks, provided that could be done without unduly alarming investors about the financial health of the institutions.
Regulators did not do that 2008 and “in retrospect that might have been a mistake. In the end many banks were short of capital.”
“I do think some cautions on dividend payments, if it could be done in a way that doesn’t hurt confidence in the banking system, would be worth discussing,” he said.