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Bernanke makes strong defense of Fed rate policies

WASHINGTON -- Chairman Ben Bernanke offered a wide-ranging defense Monday of the Federal Reserve's aggressive policies to stimulate the still-weak U.S. economy.

The Fed needs to drive down long-term borrowing rates because the economy isn't growing fast enough to reduce high unemployment, Bernanke said in a speech to the Economic Club of Indiana. The U.S. unemployment rate is 8.1 percent.

Low rates could also help shrink the federal budget deficit by easing the government's borrowing costs and generating tax revenue from stronger growth, Bernanke argued.

The chairman cautioned Congress against adopting a law that would allow it to monitor the Fed's interest-rate discussions. The House has passed legislation to broaden Congress' investigative authority over the Fed — authority that would include a review of interest-rate policymaking. The Senate hasn't adopted the bill.

Bernanke warned that such a step would improperly inject political pressure into the Fed's private deliberations and affect the officials' decisions.

His speech follows the Fed's decision at its Sept. 12-13 meeting to launch a new mortgage-bond buying program. The goal is to try to drive low mortgage rates even lower to encourage home buying. Increased home sales could help spur hiring and accelerate economic growth.

The average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is already 3.4 percent, a record low. But some economists think home loan rates could fall further, in part because long-term Treasury yields are much lower. The rate on the 10-year Treasury is just 1.62 percent.

After its September meeting, the Fed said it would keep buying mortgage bonds until the job market showed substantial improvement. It also decided to keep its benchmark short-term rate near zero through at least mid-2015.

In his speech Monday, Bernanke sought to reassure investors that the Fed's timetable for keeping its short-term rate ultra-low “doesn't mean we expect the economy to be weak through 2015.” Rather, he said the Fed expects to keep rates low well after the economy strengthens.

Bernanke spoke two days before President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will hold a debate in which the economy is the central theme. And on Friday, the government will release its September jobs report. Economists expect only modest hiring and continued unemployment above 8 percent.

The U.S. economy is still struggling more than three years after the Great Recession ended. Persistently high unemployment and weak pay growth have kept spending by consumers weak. That, in turn, has hurt manufacturing and slowed broader economic growth.

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In this Sept. 13 file photo, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke speaks during a news conference in Washington. On Monday, Oct. 1, Bernanke offered a sharp defense of the Federal Reserve's bold policies to stimulate the weak economy, while cautioning Congress to respect its private discussions. (AP)

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