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Economy still in need of Fed support, Yellen says

(AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
(AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

(Bloomberg) -- Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, easing investor concern that interest rates may rise earlier than previously forecast, said the world’s biggest economy will need Fed stimulus for “some time.”

Yellen said today the Fed hasn’t done enough to combat unemployment even after holding interest rates near zero for more than five years and pumping up its balance sheet to $4.23 trillion with bond purchases.

“This extraordinary commitment is still needed and will be for some time, and I believe that view is widely shared by my fellow policy makers,” Yellen said at a community development conference in Chicago. “The scars from the Great Recession remain, and reaching our goals will take time.”

See also: Evans sees Fed raising interest rates in second half of 2015

Yellen spotlighted as evidence “real people behind the statistics,” describing how one person, Vicki Lira, lost two jobs, endured homelessness and now serves food samples part-time at a grocery store.

Stocks rose as Yellen underscored the Fed’s commitment to spur the economy and put 10.5 million unemployed Americans back to work. Share prices fell on March 19, when she said in a press conference that the Fed might start raising the benchmark interest rate above zero about six months after ending its bond purchase program. Yellen didn’t mention a timetable today.

‘Long time’

“It is an indirect pushback,” said Ward McCarthy, chief financial economist at Jefferies LLC in New York. “I don’t think she could directly contradict what she said at the press conference, so she did the next best thing, which was to paint a picture of a Fed that is going to be accommodative for a long, long time.”

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index advanced 0.8 percent to 1,872.34 as of the close of trading in New York. The yield on two-year Treasury notes, which are sensitive to changes in Fed policy, fell 0.03 percentage point, to 0.42 percent, near last week’s highest closing level in six months.

See also: Janet Yellen to the rescue?

Large numbers of partly unemployed workers, stagnant wages, lower labor-force participation and longer periods of joblessness show that “there remains considerable slack in the economy and the labor market,” Yellen said.

Today’s speech shows Yellen is inclined to press on with accommodation to boost employment because she focused on slack in the labor market and didn’t mention economic growth or “more hawkish themes” such as the risks from record easing, said Thomas Costerg, an economist at Standard Chartered Plc in New York.

‘Yellen-esque’

“It was dovish and Yellen-esque, but she didn’t explicitly backpedal on the six months comment so that’s a ghost that will stay in the background,” Costerg said. “She didn’t explicitly say ‘Oh, I made a mistake,’ she just stressed the other way, that we need accommodative policy for some time.”

At her press conference last month, Yellen emphasized that the timing for an increase in the main interest rate hinges on economic performance.

The Federal Open Market Committee needs “to see where the labor market is,” she said on March 19, adding that if inflation “is persistently below” the central bank’s 2 percent goal, “that is a very good reason to hold the funds rate at its present range for longer.”

Inflation decelerated to a 0.9 percent 12-month pace in February from 1.2 percent in January and has been below the Fed’s 2 percent target for almost two years.

Slack mentions

Yellen’s speech today included repeated references to “slack,” a term also used recently by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney to underscore a pledge to keep interest rates at a record low.

The Fed, which this month dropped its link between low interest rates and a specific unemployment rate, followed a similar move by U.K. policy makers, who in February tied their outlook for borrowing costs to spare capacity in the labor market and other more qualitative measures.

See also: Fed may pause tapering if weakness persists

“There remains scope to absorb slack further” before raising rates, the BOE said in its quarterly Inflation Report.

Yellen, 67, has focused on the labor market and the human cost of unemployment for much of her career as an academic and central bank official. Today she described two other individuals from the Chicago area along with Lira, saying they “shared their personal stories with me.”

Dorine Poole lost a claims-processing job and struggled to find work after two years of unemployment, while Jermaine Brownlee, a plumber and construction worker, “scrambled for odd jobs and temporary work” and still makes less than before the recession, Yellen said.

‘Real people’

“They are a reminder that there are real people behind the statistics, struggling to get by and eager for the opportunity to build better lives,” Yellen said. “Their experiences show some of the uniquely challenging and lasting effects of the Great Recession.”

Yellen was also clear about what labor-market indicators she is watching aside from the unemployment rate. She mentioned that 7 million people working part-time want to work full time, a share of the work force that is “very high historically.”

The Fed chief said low numbers of people are quitting jobs “because they worry that it will be hard to find another,” adding that gains in labor compensation have been “very low.”

The FOMC has kept the benchmark interest rate near zero since December 2008 and sought to cut borrowing costs and fuel growth through bond buying that has more than quadrupled its assets to $4.23 trillion.

Slower pace

While policy makers have slowed the pace of their monthly asset purchases over the past three gatherings to $55 billion from $85 billion, Yellen said the central bank’s “commitment is strong” to helping sustain progress in the job market.

“Recent steps by the Fed to reduce the rate of new securities purchases are not a lessening of this commitment, only a judgment that recent progress in the labor market means our aid for the recoveryneed not grow as quickly,” she said. “Earlier this month, the Fed reiterated its overall commitment to maintain extraordinary support for the recovery for some time to come.”

The FOMC said in a policy statement this month that rates will likely remain low for a considerable time after the bond buying program ends. The committee said it will weigh a “wide range of information,” including labor-market measures, in deciding when it will eventually begin raising rates.

Unemployment was 6.7 percent in February, up from the 6.6 percent level in January that was the lowest since October 2008. The economy added 175,000 jobs in February, more than economists projected, following the weakest two-month hiring gain in more than a year in December and January.

After the speech, Yellen toured Daley College in Chicago, including its facilities for preparing students for advanced manufacturing. She joined a discussion with students and employers that partner with the college, including Atlanta-based United Parcel Service Inc. She also donned protective face gear and watched a student weld.

--With assistance from Kim Chipman in Chicago and Peter Cook in Washington.

Copyright 2014 Bloomberg. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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