WASHINGTON Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke signaled Tuesday that further interest rate cuts are unlikely because of concerns about inflation. High oil prices are a double-edged sword that can both put a damper on already weak growth and spread inflation, he said.
Bernanke, in prepared remarks delivered via satellite to an international monetary conference in Spain, said that the Fed's powerful doses of rate reductions that started last September along with the government's $168 billion stimulus package, including rebates for people and tax breaks for businesses, should bring about "somewhat better economic conditions" in the second half of this year.
To help brace the economy, the Fed last month dropped its key rate to 2 percent, a nearly four-year low, but hinted that could be the last reduction for a while. Bernanke drove that point home again on Tuesday.
"For now policy seems well positioned to promote moderate growth and price stability over time," he said.
The Fed's juggling act has gotten harder. It is trying to right a wobbly economy without aggravating inflation.
Many economists believe the Fed will hold rates steady at its next meeting on June 24-25 and probably through much, if not all, of this year. A few believe that inflation could flare up and force the Fed to begin boosting rates near the end of this year.
Bernanke, however, suggested that leaving rates at their current levels should be sufficient to accomplish the Fed's twin goals of nurturing economic growth while preventing inflation from taking off.
Economic growth in the current quarter, he acknowledged, is "likely to be relatively weak." Even as he reiterated the Fed's hope for a pickup in growth in the second half of this year and into 2009, Bernanke said the economy continues to battle against a trio of negative forces a housing slump, credit problems and fragile financial markets.
Until the slumping housing market and falling home prices show "clearer signs of stabilization," there will continue to be threats to the economic growth getting back to full throttle, he said. Moreover, recent increases in oil prices pose "additional downside risks to growth," he said.
At the same time, if already lofty oil prices, now hovering past $127 a barrel, continue to rise, that could worsen inflation, Bernanke warned.
The Fed's aggressive rate-cutting campaign has contributed to a lower value of the U.S. dollar. That, in turn, has helped to push up the prices for imported goods flowing into the United States and fuel a rise in consumer prices. Bernanke called that development "unwelcome." He said the Fed is "attentive to the implications of changes in the value of the dollar for inflation and inflation expectations."