SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A grim economic outlook highlights the need for the Federal Reserve to step up quantitative measures to boost growth, with official interest rates already effectively at zero, Charles Evans, president of the Chicago Fed, said on Saturday.
Evans said that based on the outlook for rising unemployment, falling industrial production and a wider output gap, economic models suggest rates should be below zero.
“If it were not constrained by zero, those models would want to push it below zero, but that’s not possible,” Evans told reporters after a panel at the American Economic Association’s meeting in San Francisco.
Quantitative easing, a way to flood the banking system with large amounts of money, “is a way to mimic below-zero rates and provide support to the economy,” he said.
The process often involves buying up large quantities of assets from banks, such as the Fed’s latest programs to buy mortgage-backed securities.
In December, the Federal Open Market Committee, the Fed’s policy-setting body, took the surprising step of lowering the federal funds rate to a range of zero to 0.25 percent. Cash fed funds had been trading below the previous 1 percent target rate for several weeks.
In his remarks, Evans, who is a voting member of the FOMC in 2009, said the Fed’s various lending programs should help cushion the impact of the year-old U.S. recession but a large traditional fiscal stimulus plan is also needed, even with the problems it could create over the longer term.
“I believe a big stimulus is appropriate,” Evans said. “But it is sobering to be deploying large amounts of taxpayer funds at a time when our fiscal balance sheet is already coming under significant stress.”
Without the Fed’s programs to help unfreeze credit markets and to-the-bone rate cuts, “the downturn — and its costs to society — would be even more severe than what we are currently facing,” said Evans.
Since the financial market crisis erupted, the Fed has created several new programs aimed at bypassing the traditional banking system and smashing through the credit-market logjam, including the direct purchase of mortgage-backed securities.
Even so, the U.S. jobless rate appears on pace to exceed 8 percent in 2009, from the most recent reading of 6.7 percent in November, Evans said.
Although the current recession started with the collapse of the U.S. housing market, Evans said many non-financial industries now face the risk of “long-term structural impairment.”
Evans said fiscal programs to support growth “must be large in order to be effective and to instill badly needed confidence” given the severity of the downturn.
President-elect Barack Obama has said that signing a major economic stimulus package will be his first priority when he takes office on January 20, with a goal of creating 3 million jobs over two years.
Evans also said the market crisis that erupted in 2007 showed huge holes in financial regulation.
“Significant weaknesses have been revealed in our system of financial regulation. ... These failures call for a reassessment of the roles of market discipline and our regulatory structures,” he said
Editing by Leslie Adler