WASHINGTON – Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Friday predicted a stronger year for the U.S. economy in 2014, saying several factors that have held back growth appear to be abating.
Americans’ finances have improved and the outlook for home sales is brighter, Bernanke said. He also expects less drag from federal spending cuts and tax increases.
The combination “bodes well for U.S. economic growth in coming quarters,” Bernanke said during a speech to the annual meeting of the American Economic Association in Philadelphia.
Bernanke made a similar assessment of the economy at a Dec. 18 news conference after the Fed’s last meeting. At the meeting, the Fed announced it would begin in January to reduce its monthly bond purchases from $85 billion to $75 billion, noting signs of an improving economy.
The bond purchases are intended to keep long-term interest rates low and encourage more borrowing and spending.
Friday’s appearance was expected to be one of Bernanke’s final speeches as Fed chairman. He is stepping down at the end of this month after eight years leading the central bank.
The Senate is expected to confirm Janet Yellen on Monday to be the next Fed chairman. She would take over on Feb. 1.
In his speech, Bernanke said that he tried to make the Fed more transparent and accountable while at the same time combating a deep recession and severe financial crisis.
Making the Fed more transparent was an important goal for him when he took over in 2006. He cited his participation in more television interviews, his efforts to hold more town hall meetings and his visits to universities. Bernanke also added a quarterly news conference after four of the Fed’s eight policy meetings.
“We took extraordinary measures to meet extraordinary economic challenges and we had to explain those measures to earn the public’s support and confidence,” Bernanke said.
Bernanke said while the financial crisis has passed “the Fed’s need to educate and explain will only grow.”
Bernanke also used his speech to make some pointed remarks at Congress. He said “excessively tight” budget policies had been counterproductive.
“With fiscal and monetary policy working in opposite directions, the recovery is weaker than it otherwise would be,” Bernanke said.
Bernanke also defended the central bank against critics who say the Fed’s massive bond purchases have had little effect on jumpstarting the recovery.
“Economic growth might well have been considerably weaker, or even negative, without substantial monetary policy support,” Bernanke said. He noted economic research that supported the benefits of the Fed’s bond purchases.
In response to an audience question, Bernanke criticized legislation pending in Congress that would allow the Government Accountability Office to expand its audits of the Fed to look at decisions on interest rates. The GAO, the auditing arm of Congress, can currently conduct audits of the Fed. But it is prohibited from investigating its interest rate decisions.
Bernanke said passage of this legislation would be a bad idea because it would harm the Fed’s independence. He said such independence is necessary to assure markets that the Fed is not being swayed by political interests.
Associated Press reporter Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia contributed to this report.