The Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department are considering a program that would lend to banks at very low rates so long as those firms will re-lend the money in the form of consumer loans such as mortgages.
“We’re very interested in it,” said Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke during a press conference Wednesday.
The Bank of England said in June it would begin such a program, but concerns remain over the details, specifically how banks would take further risks and lend in such a low-interest, low-yield environment. The English Treasury said it will back the initiative to further reduce rates by banks that lend in the country. Because of Treasury involvement, Bernanke said the Federal Reserve is working on what type of role Congress would have to play in such a program stateside.
“It’s not just the Bank of England,” Bernanke said, “but it’s joint with the Treasury. So, the question here is, How much of a fiscal component is there? Throughout the crisis, we’ve been looking for new programs, new ways to stimulate lending.”
The U.S. Treasury gave out $700 billion under the Trouble Asset Relief Program during the height of the credit crisis to keep the financial sector afloat and to spur lending during a credit crisis. The Fed simultaneously has lent trillions of dollars to these banks at extremely low interest rates under the same notion.
But lending remains tight, and the economy remains in a slow, vulnerable growth mode.
The Fed revised downward much of its forecast Wednesday. GDP growth is expected to slow to between 1.9% and 2.4% for 2012, according to the June projections, down from between 2.4% and 2.9% estimated in April.
The unemployment rate is expected to remain between 8% and 8.2% for the year, revised upward from 7.8% and 8% projected in April.
Bernanke said European struggles and the possibility of a U.S. “fiscal cliff” could threaten the already fragile growth. He expressed concern Congress would once again be unable to work out a way to fund the government and thus throw markets and the overall economy into turmoil.
While Bernanke also called on Congress to help the Fed boost the economy and possibly help a housing market that is too slow to recover, he said there are still some tools he could use on his own.
“We welcome help from any other part of the government. Collaboration would be great,” Bernanke said. “I would not accept the proposition that the Fed has no more ammunition.”