WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said on Tuesday it is too soon to declare victory in the U.S. economic recovery, warning against complacency in policymaking as the outlook brightens.
“We haven’t quite yet got to the point where we can be completely confident that we’re on a track to full recovery,” Bernanke told ABC News in a rare on-the-record interview.
The Fed chairman welcomed a decline in the unemployment rate and signs financial strains in debt-stricken Europe were easing. But he said joblessness was still at a troubling high and housing markets still weak.
“I think it’s really important not to be complacent. We have a long way to go, a lot of work to do, and we’re going to keep doing that.”
Asked whether the Fed was considering further action to stimulate growth, Bernanke said the central bank would take no options off the table. However, he did not suggest a further round of bond buying was imminent.
The Fed has kept interest rates near zero since December 2008 and has bought $2.3 trillion of debt through two bond-purchasing programs to stimulate growth.
In a speech on Monday, Bernanke said the U.S. economy would need to grow more quickly to ensure continued progress in reducing the jobless rate. Those comments drove stock prices higher as investors bet a further round of monetary stimulus might be planned.
Stocks rose Monday on optimism Bernanke’s remarks signaled the Fed will do more to lower borrowing costs. Traders pushed out bets for a first Fed rate hike to October 2013, from July 2013 just a week earlier.
The U.S. unemployment rate has dropped from 9.1 percent in August to 8.3 percent last month, a decline Fed officials see as out of step with a still-sluggish pace of growth.
Dallas Federal Reserve Bank President Richard Fisher, a monetary policy hawk, on Tuesday agreed that faster growth is needed to boost jobs, although he made clear he is opposed to a further easing of monetary policy.
Eric Rosengren, a policy dove who leads the Boston Fed, said the central bank should ease further if growth slows more than expected. Neither official has a vote this year on the Fed’s policy panel.
Another official who is supportive of loose monetary policies, New York Fed President William Dudley, told a congressional panel financial strains in Europe have eased although the Fed continues to monitor the situation carefully.
After its last two meetings, the Fed said it would likely keep overnight borrowing costs near zero at least through late 2014. Bernanke said that was the central bank’s best estimate, not a guarantee.
A quickened pace of job creation - the economy has created more than 200,000 jobs in each of the last three months - has fueled speculation the central bank might raise rates sooner.
In both his speech on Monday and the interview on Tuesday, Bernanke appeared to be pushing back against those expectations.
“It’s far too early to declare victory,” Bernanke told ABC News. “We need to be cautious and make sure this is sustainable.”
One drag on growth is likely to come from gasoline prices that have drifted higher on geopolitical worries, Bernanke said.
“That will be a hit on growth,” he said. “But at this level ... we don’t think it’s going to be anything that’s going to stall the recovery.”
Rising fuel costs are shaping up as one of the biggest issues in the 2012 presidential campaign, as U.S. gasoline prices have jumped about $0.30 per gallon to just over $3.90 within the past month.
Bernanke’s ABC News appearance marks the third time the Fed chairman has given an extensive on-the-record, on-camera interview. It was part of a barrage of recent public exposure that has included a profile in a national magazine and a series of college lectures on the Fed and the recent financial crisis.
Bernanke’s stepped-up visibility, on top of the launch of news conferences four times a year, appears aimed at counter-balancing some of the harsh criticism leveled at the Fed by Republican presidential candidates. Critics say the Fed’s policies have weakened the dollar, hurt savers, and are likely to generate inflation.
Additional reporting by Ann Saphir in Choudrant, Louisiana, Jonathan Spicer in New York, David Milliken and Sven Egenter in London and Pedro da Costa, Glenn Somerville and Lucia Mutikani in Washington; Writing by Ann Saphir, Mark Felsenthal and Tim Ahmann; Editing by Dan Grebler and Andrew Hay