Banks' borrowing from the Federal Reserve's emergency lending program declined further over the past week as strains from the credit crisis ease.
The Fed reported Thursday that daily borrowing from its emergency loan program averaged $10.75 billion for the week that ended Wednesday. That is down by $739 million from the $11.49 billion average borrowing in the previous week.
At the height of the financial crisis, emergency borrowing from the Fed's discount window exceeded $100 billion a day.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress that low interest rates are still needed to bolster the economic recovery, reaffirming the Fed's decision last week to keep its target for overnight loans between banks at a record low of zero to 0.25 percent.
Bernanke's comments came at a House Financial Services Committee hearing called to examine the Fed's strategy to wind down the extraordinary support it provided to the economy during the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.
Economists saw Bernanke's remarks as the latest evidence that the Fed does not contemplate raising rates until the economy is on much more solid footing, with unemployment starting to come down on a sustained basis.
While the Fed has kept the key federal funds rate unchanged, it has begun wrapping up a number of other financial support programs put in place at the height of the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. The small levels of activity in many of those programs were evidence in the Fed's latest balance sheet report.
However, the report did show that the central bank is on track to meet its goal of purchasing $1.25 trillion in mortgage backed securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by the end of this month. For the week ending on Wednesday, the Fed's holdings of those securities averaged $1.07 trillion, up by $6.69 billion from the previous week, the new report showed.
The report showed that the central bank's balance sheet stood at $2.32 trillion as of Wednesday, more than double where it stood before the financial crisis began.
Bernanke told the committee that the Fed will monitor closely how mortgages react after the Fed's purchase program for mortgage-backed securities wraps up at the end of the month. The central bank has left the door open to reviving the program if the housing industry needs further support.
Freddie Mac reported Thursday that mortgage rates moved slightly higher this week with the average rate on a 30-year mortgage inching up to 4.89 percent, compared to 4.96 percent last week.
Some economists have expressed worries that once the Fed's purchase program of mortgage-backed securities ends rates could start climbing, but other analysts believe that the struggling housing market will keep demand for mortgages and rates at low levels.
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