A senior Federal Reserve official said on Sunday the central bank should keep alive a mortgage-backed securities buying program beyond a planned end-date to give policy-makers more flexibility as they help the economy recover from a painful recession.

I have advocated to keep the asset purchase program open but at a very low level, and wait and see what happens, and as information comes in about the economy we can adjust that program while the federal funds rate remains at zero, St. Louis Federal Reserve bank James Bullard said in an interview with Dow Jones newswire.

The Fed has committed to buying $1.25 trillion of mortgage-backed securities by the end of March. The Fed began buying MBS, mortgage agency debt and longer-term Treasury securities after it had cut rates to near zero but wanted to continue to provide a boost to the economy.

Bullard, who will be a voter on the Fed's policy-setting panel in 2010, said with rates near zero we'd be able to send signals to the markets about what we are thinking about the economy, and how much accommodation the economy needs at various points, by adjusting the asset purchases.

The Fed at its most recent meeting pledged to hold rates ultra-low for an extended period and most observers do not expect the central bank to hike rates until the middle of 2010 at the earliest.

Most observers expect the Fed's next move to begin withdrawing its extraordinary support for the economy, and several Fed officials worry that a delay in tightening financial conditions could spark inflation.


Diving into a contentious debate among members of Congress over the role of the Federal Reserve, Bullard said that the independence of the Federal Reserve is essential for credible monetary policy and doubts about the U.S. central bank's ability to do its job without political interference could hurt the nascent economic recovery.

Talk of eroding the Fed's independence can be counterproductive for economic recovery, the St. Louis Fed chief said in slides to accompany a presentation prepared for a panel discussion in New York.

Bullard said that non-independent central banks have historically been forced to finance large government budget deficits. This can be very inflationary, he added.

Last week, a U.S. congressional panel approved a measure to open the Fed's monetary policy decisions to government audits -- a surprise blow to the central bank's efforts to shield its independence and a signal of the frustration on Capitol Hill with the central bank.

The amendment was a further congressional slap at the U.S. central bank after a Senate regulatory overhaul proposed stripping the central bank of its regulatory authority.

Some lawmakers fault the Fed for failing to anticipate or prevent the financial crisis that pitched the economy into a deep recession.

Bullard batted back criticism that the Fed missed the brewing crisis, saying the central bank provided important warnings before the crisis began.

He noted that his predecessor at the St. Louis Fed, William Poole, argued in the early 2000s that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were ticking time bombs, while former Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Gary Stern published a book entitled Too Big To Fail, warning some financial firms were growing too large for proper supervision.

These types of warnings show that the Fed is well aware of systemic risk concerns in real time, Bullard said in his slides.

He argued the Fed needs a role in regulating institutions to whom it may lend if required to as the lender of last resort.

Bullard also said that to do its job of setting monetary policy effectively, the Fed needs to know the conditions of the financial system.

The need to know the status of financial markets has been underscored by recent events, Bullard said. The United Kingdom's model, in which the Financial Services Authority is in charge of regulation and the Bank of England is in charge of monetary policy did not work well during this crisis, he said.

The crisis in the UK has been even worse in some dimensions than in the U.S., Bullard said.

He also said that despite the current crisis, the Fed's track record of handling crises in the last 25 years has been reasonably good.