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Rules can prevent new crisis, Bernanke says

Associated Press / January 4, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Stronger regulation is the best way to prevent financial speculation from getting out of hand and throwing the economy into a new crisis, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke said yesterday.

But he did not rule out higher interest rates to stop new speculative investment bubbles from forming.

The Fed chief’s remarks were his most extensive on the subject since the housing market’s tumble led to the gravest financial crisis since World War II - and perhaps the worst in modern history, in his view.

Critics blame the Fed for feeding that speculative boom in housing by holding interest rates too low for too long after the 2001 recession.

But Bernanke, in a speech to the American Economic Association’s annual meeting in Atlanta, defended the central bank’s actions. Extra-low rates were needed to get the economy and job creation back to full throttle after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and accounting scandals that rocked Wall Street, he said.

Bernanke said the direct links were weak between super-low interest rates and the rapid rise in house prices that occurred at roughly the same time. The stance of interest rates during that period “does not appear to have been inappropriate,’’ he said.

Still, the enormous economic damage from the housing bust - the longest and deepest recession since the 1930s and double-digit unemployment - shows how important it is to guard against a repeat, Bernanke said.

“All efforts should be made to strengthen our regulatory system to prevent a recurrence of the crisis, and to cushion the effects if another crisis occurs,’’ he said.

“However, if adequate reforms are not made, or if they are made but prove insufficient to prevent dangerous buildups of financial risks, we must remain open to using monetary policy as a supplementary tool,’’ he added. But speculative excesses are not easy to pinpoint in their early stages, he said, and using higher interest rates to combat them can hurt the economy.