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Bernanke calls for more housing help from Washington

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Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke delivered a speech Wednesday afternoon on emerging market economies, but it was his remarks about the state of the still-ailing U.S. economy in a Q&A after the speech that garnered the most attention. Calling long-term unemployment a "national crisis," Bernanke called on the government and Congress to act to solve a problem the Fed can't fix with its historic low interest rates. Roughly 6.2 million Americans — or 45.1% of all unemployed — have been jobless for more than six months, according to government stats. That total sits at its highest since the Great Depression. Bernanke called the numbers "unheard of," saying Americans "are losing the skills they had, they are losing their connections, their attachment to the labor force." His remarks came after a speech in Cleveland in which Bernanke said the U.S. "would do well to re-learn some of the lessons from the experiences of the emerging market economies." The Fed chairman also called on Congress to do more to help boost a U.S. housing market that remains, at best, in the doldrums. Bernanke said "strong housing policies to help the housing market recover" were needed to advance a tepid U.S. economy, along with a focus on jobs and solving budget imbalances. More than 6.3 million U.S. homes are 30 days or more behind on mortgage payments or in foreclosure, according to mortgage services firm Lender Processing Services (LPS). And while housing prices are improving month-over-month, prices remain well below year-ago levels — the most recent Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller housing price index found prices down 4.1% in July across 20 of the nation's largest metropolitan areas. Mortgage rates have touched historic lows in recent weeks, after the Fed introduced plans to buy $400 billion of Treasury bonds in an effort to lower long-term borrowing costs. The Fed also said it would invest reinvest principal payments from agency debt into additional agency mortgage-backed securities. But with jobs a looming concern, questions remain as to just how many borrowers will be able to take advantage of lower rates. Eric Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, hinted Wednesday in his own remarks at what sort of policy options might best for housing — arguing new policies were needed to allow underwater homeowners to refinance their loans. "Clearly getting more money into the hands of homeowners who spend it could help to fuel GDP growth," he said. "This would reduce one of the impediments to a more significant effect from the monetary policy actions taken to date." Write to Paul Jackson. Follow him on Twitter @pjackson.

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