WASHINGTON (AP) - Ben Bernanke said declines in home prices have forced many Americans to cut back sharply on spending and warned that the trend could continue to weigh on the U.S. economy for years.
The Federal Reserve chairman drew the connection between home values and consumer spending, which fuels 70 percent of economic activity, on Friday during a speech to the National Association of Home Builders in Orlando, Florida.
Bernanke says the broader economy won't fully recover until the depressed housing market turns around. People are spending less because they are stuck in "underwater" homes, which are worth less than what is owed on the mortgage. And home values are falling because of foreclosures and tight credit - even in areas with lower unemployment.
"Recent declines in housing wealth may be reducing consumer spending between $200 billion and $375 billion per year. That reduction corresponds to lower living standards for many Americans," Bernanke said.
The Fed chairman said there's no "silver bullet" to rescue the housing market. Renting out foreclosed homes and reducing or modifying mortgages are among steps that could help.
"Low or negative equity creates additional problems for households," Bernanke said. "It reduces financial flexibility: Homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages cannot tap home equity to pay for emergency health expenses or their children's college educations.
There have been modest signs of improvement in recent months. Sales of previously occupied homes rose in the last three months. Homebuilders are more optimistic after seeing more people express interest in buying this year. And home construction picked up in the final quarter of last year, which helped housing contribute to broader economic growth.
Still, last year was the weakest for new-home sales on records dating back to 1963.