(Bloomberg News) Ben S. Bernanke is signaling his willingness to double down on a three-year bet that's failed to revive housing, showing the extent of the Federal Reserve chairman's effort to wrest a recovery from the deepest recession.
Since the Fed started buying $1.25 trillion of mortgage bonds in January 2009, the value of U.S. housing has fallen 4.1 percent, and is down 32 percent from its 2006 peak, according to an S&P/Case-Shiller index. The central bank is poised to buy about $200 billion this year, or more than 20 percent of new loans, as it reinvests debt that's being paid off. Some Fed officials have said they may support additional purchases that Barclays Capital estimates could total as much as $750 billion.
Even as Bernanke and fellow U.S. central bankers consider expanding their efforts, they are acknowledging their inability to turn around the housing market without help from the rest of the government. Bernanke underscored the importance of residential real estate, which represents 15 percent of the economy, in a study he sent to Congress last week that said ending the slump is necessary for a broader recovery.
"They're definitely frustrated and disappointed," said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Pierpont Securities LLC and a former Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond researcher. "I'm sure they would have anticipated they would have gotten more bang for their buck."
While the Fed has helped push mortgage rates to record lows of less than 4 percent, home-loan borrowing in 2012 is forecast to decline to the least in 15 years. Americans who might refinance and buy properties are getting shut out by stricter lending standards or avoiding transactions as values tumble amid mounting foreclosures, according to the Fed study.
Bernanke's report urged Congress and President Barack Obama's administration to consider steps with short-term costs for taxpayers, such as widening the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-supported mortgage guarantors.
At the same time, the central bank's purchases of mortgage bonds with yields at record lows is increasing the risk of eventual losses for the Fed, said Anthony B. Sanders, a professor of real-estate finance at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
So far, the Fed is reporting record profits. It said yesterday it will pay $76.9 billion to the U.S. Treasury as part of an annual dividend bolstered by its holdings. Brian Sack, the New York Fed's markets group chief, said in October 2010 its goal in buying bonds would be to stimulate the economy not to generate profits and acknowledged it's taking on some risk.
David Skidmore, a Fed spokesman in Washington, declined to comment on potential losses.