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Fed’s Ben Bernanke defends stimulus policies

Does not foresee a currency war

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke backed low interest rates during his speech at the London School of Economics Monday.

EPA/JASON ALDEN /POOL

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke backed low interest rates during his speech at the London School of Economics Monday.

WASHINGTON — Chairman Ben Bernanke said Monday that the Federal Reserve’s low-interest-rate policies are helping to boost growth around the world, rejecting criticism they could lead to a global currency war.

In a speech at the London School of Economics, Bernanke staunchly defended the Fed’s policies and similar stimulus efforts pursued by other central banks since the 2008 financial crisis.

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Last week, the Fed stood by its policies to keep borrowing costs at record lows, saying the US economy still required the support to help lower high unemployment.

Critics have argued that the low-interest-rate policies could lower a country’s currency value and make its products more competitive on global markets.

Some have blamed such policies for making the Great Depression worse during the 1930s. Countries devalued their currencies and raised tariffs, which made foreign-made goods more expensive and stunted trade. They became known as ‘‘beggar-thy-neighbor’’ policies.

Bernanke argued the situation is different today because the low-interest-rate policies have the primary aim of boosting domestic growth, not trying to lower the value of a nation’s currency.

‘‘Because stronger growth in each economy confers beneficial spillovers to trading policies, these policies are not ‘beggar-thy-neighbor’ but rather . . . ‘enrich-thy-neighbor’ actions,’’ Bernanke said.

The current efforts should support stronger trade flows, Bernanke said. By boosting growth in major economies, consumers can buy more imported goods from developing countries.

In addition to concerns about currency wars, critics have said the policies adopted by the Fed and other central banks could increase the risk of inflation and destabilize financial­ markets.

Panelist Axel Weber, a former president of Germany’s central bank and now chairman of the board of the Swiss bank UBS, spoke to those concerns. He said central banks will be pressed to develop policies that wind down their stimulus without triggering ‘‘even bigger problems.’’

During a question-and-answer session after the speech, Bernanke neither addressed Weber’s concerns directly nor offered any hints about the direction of US interest rates.

But a former US Treasury secretary, Larry Summers, another member of the panel and a supporter of the Fed’s policies, said the biggest threat to the economy now is high unemployment.

‘‘The risks of stagnation are an inherently greater concern than inflation,’’ Summers said.

The Fed’s policies are aimed at lowering unemployment, which has fallen to 7.7 percent but is still above healthy levels.

After its two-day meeting last week, the Fed said it would stick with its plan to keep short-term interest rates at record lows at least until the unemployment rates falls to 6.5 percent.

Bernanke told reporters that the Fed saw the 6.5 percent level as a threshold and not a ‘‘trigger’’ for a possible rate increase.

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