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Bernanke defends Fed stimulus as China, Brazil raise concerns

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke talks at the Economic Club of Indiana in Indianapolis October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Brent Smith
U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke talks at the Economic Club of Indiana in Indianapolis October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Brent Smith

By Timothy Ahmann

TOKYO (Reuters) - Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Sunday said it was far from clear that the U.S. central bank's highly stimulative monetary policy hurts emerging economies, defending a policy raising concerns in China, Russia and Brazil.

In a blunt call for certain emerging economies to allow their currencies to rise, he also said that foreign exchange intervention encouraged destabilizing inflows of foreign capital, but he did not specify China by name.

"The perceived advantages of undervaluation and the problem of unwanted capital inflows must be understood as a package - you can't have one without the other," Bernanke said in Tokyo.

Bernanke has often defended Fed actions against domestic critics, who argue the policy of keeping interest rates near zero while ramping up asset purchases hurts savers and risks future inflation.

But in the Tokyo speech, Bernanke addressed critics abroad, saying stronger growth in the United States bolsters global prospects as well, countering the likes of Brazil's Finance Minister Guido Mantega who has labeled the Fed's latest stimulus effort "selfish".

Critics say the Fed's unorthodox policies weaken the U.S. dollar and boost the currencies of developing countries, hurting their ability to export.

"It is not at all clear that accommodative policies in advanced economies impose net costs on emerging market economies," Bernanke said at an event sponsored by the Bank of Japan and the International Monetary Fund. While the speech was delivered in private, the Fed provided a text to the media.

Restating a theme that he has addressed in the past, the Fed chief also said that if emerging economies stopped intervening and allowed their currencies to rise, this would help insulate their financial systems from external pressure.

"Under a flexible exchange-rate regime, a fully independent monetary policy, together with fiscal policy as needed, would be available to help counteract any adverse effects of currency appreciation on growth," Bernanke said.

The Fed last month announced a new program of open-ended bond purchases that will be continued until there is substantial improvement in labor market conditions, barring a sustained and unexpected spike in inflation.

To start off, the central bank will buy $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities per month.

"This policy not only helps strengthen the U.S. economic recovery, but by boosting U.S. spending and growth, it has the effect of helping support the global economy as well," he said.

FRIEND OR FOE

In 2010, when the Fed launched its second round of monetary policy stimulus, known as quantitative easing, many finance ministers around the world accused the United States of pursuing a beggar-thy-neighbor policy.

Criticism of the current round of bond purchases, known as QE3, has been more muted, but nonetheless evident.

Brazil's Mantega told the IMF's 188 member countries in Tokyo on Friday that the policy was "selfish" and harming emerging markets both by stealing their share of exports and by spurring destabilizing capital flows and currency movements.

"Advanced countries cannot count on exporting their way out of the crisis at the expense of emerging market economies," he told the IMF's governing panel. "Brazil, for one, will take whatever measures it deems necessary to avoid the detrimental effects of these spillovers."

In opening remarks at the conference that Bernanke addressed on Sunday, IMF chief Christine Lagarde said aggressive steps by the Fed, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan were "big policy actions in the right direction."

But she took note of the distress those policies were causing elsewhere and called for central banks to step-up their dialogue and cooperation.

"Accommodative monetary policies in many advanced economies are likely to entail large and volatile capital flows to emerging economies," she said. "This could ... lead to (economic) overheating, asset price bubbles and the buildup of financial imbalances."

Critics of the Fed's policy, both foreign and domestic, contend it is likely to do little to help the U.S. economy, while risking unwanted inflation.

Central banks "should consider draining excessive liquidity injected into the market and eliminate inflationary pressure in the long-term," People's Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan was quoted as saying by the official state news agency Xinhua, which cited the Journal of Public Research, a PBOC magazine.

Russia also is worried.

"Everything is getting done, from my perspective, blindly, without regard to the consequences it could have," Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov told reporters in Tokyo.

"NO PANACEA"

For his part, Bernanke stressed that inflation in the United States was projected to run below the Fed's 2 percent goal over the next few years.

And while he admitted that QE3 was "no panacea," he argued the open-ended nature of the third round of bond buying makes the program more flexible and should make people feel more certain that U.S. economic growth, which registered a paltry annual pace of 1.3 percent in the second quarter, will pick up.

"An easing in financial conditions and greater public confidence should help promote more rapid economic growth and faster job gains over coming quarters," Bernanke said.

In response to the financial crisis and deep recession of 2007-2009, the Fed cut overnight interest rates to near zero and bought some $2.3 trillion in mortgage and U.S. Treasury securities to try to stimulate spending and boost employment.

U.S. job growth remains lackluster, but the unemployment rate did fall to 7.8 percent in September, its lowest in nearly four years.

For Bernanke, what is good for the world's largest economy is ultimately good for the world as well.

"Assessments of the international impact of U.S. monetary policies should give appropriate weight to their beneficial effects on global growth and stability," he said.

(Writing by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa in Washington and Tim Ahmann in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Anna Yukhananov in Tokyo and Alister Bull in Washington: Editing by Theodore d'Afflisio)

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