WASHINGTON — Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke broke with tradition on Wednesday, offering a rare glimpse into how the central bank makes it monetary policy, a process usually kept secret.
In the first-ever news conference held by the central bank, the Fed chairman's remarks revolved mostly around the Federal Open Market Committee's decision to keep the federal funds rates unchanged and its intent to complete a $600 billion bond purchase in June as anticipated.
Bernanke was not called upon to address questions about the banking industry, recent efforts by regulators to implement the controversial Durbin amendment or the less-than-robust lending practices by banks still ailing from a sluggish recovery.
Seated behind a mahogany desk throughout the press conference, Bernanke did offer further explanation behind the central bank's decision for greater transparency of an agency still cloaked in secrecy.
"It used to be that the mystique of central banking was all about not letting anybody know what you were doing," Bernanke said. "As recently as 1994 the Federal Reserve didn't even tell the public when it changed the target for the federal funds rate."
The Fed has been contemplating such a move since late last year after it was raised in a videoconference meeting on Oct. 15 with members of the Federal Open Market Committee. At that time, participants discussed whether it would be useful for the Fed chairman to hold "occasional press briefings to provide more detailed information to the public" on its assessment of U.S. economic outlook and policy decision-making.
"We thought this was a natural next step," said Bernanke, who said the medium would give him an opportunity to provide additional color and context in both the meaning and projections made by the committee.
"The counterargument has always been if there was a risk that the chairman speaking might unnecessarily create volatility in the financial markets or may not be necessary given all the other sources of information that come out of the Federal Reserve," he said.
But the benefits of speaking directly with the press, he said, outweigh some of the risks.
Bernanke now joins his counterparts Jean-Claude Trichet of the European Central Bank and Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa, who both hold a briefing after every policy meeting. Bank of England Governor Mervyn King holds quarterly briefings, and Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney has regular briefings as well.
Bernanke left open the possibility of even further steps, but did not spell out specifics.
"We will continue to look for additional things we can do to become more transparent, more accountable; but we think this is the right way to go, and I personally have always been a big believer in providing as much information as you can to help the public understand what you are doing and the markets understand what you are doing," said Bernanke.
During the press conference, Bernanke warned that tackling the deficit is by far the most pressing economic concern facing the country.
"I think it's the most important economic problem in at least the longer term that the United States faces," Bernanke said. "We currently have a fiscal deficit, which is simply not sustainable over the longer term, and if it's not addressed it will have significant consequences for financial stability, for economic growth and for our standard of living."
Last week, ratings agency Standard & Poor's gave a "negative" outlook on the U.S. AAA credit rating citing debt and an escalating budget deficit. The firm said there is "a material risk that U.S. policymakers might not reach an agreement on how to address medium- and long-term budgetary challenges by 2013."
Bernanke said the warning did not shed any light on the current economic situation, but may give policymakers the extra push to take action to correct the deficit problem in the U.S.
"In one sense S&P action didn't really tell us anything because everybody that reads the newspaper knows that the United States has serious long-term fiscal problems," said Bernanke. "That being said I'm hopeful that this event will provide at least one more incentive for Congress and the administration to address this problem."