Last month, the U.S. economy added a solid 175,000 jobs. But the unemployment rate was 7.6 percent. Economists tend to regard the job market as healthy when unemployment is between 5 percent and 6 percent.
Since Bernanke's vague public comments May 22, the Dow Jones industrial average has fluctuated sharply and shed about 3 percent of its value. But the bigger shock has been in the bond market. The rate on the benchmark 10-year Treasury has jumped from a low of 1.63 percent in early May to 2.13 percent.
By historical measures, the rate on the 10-year Treasury is still extraordinarily low. It would have to rise dramatically, for example, to return to where it was during the 2000s, when it ranged mainly between 4 percent and 6 percent.
Still, higher rates ripple through the economy by making mortgages and other loans costlier. The average rate on the 30-year fixed mortgage, which tends to track the 10-year Treasury yield, reached 3.98 percent last week, according to Freddie Mac. That's its highest level since April 2012.
Just as cheap mortgages have helped feed a housing recovery, higher rates might slow it. Refinancings have declined since Bernanke's comments led to higher mortgage rates: Refinancings are 36 percent below their recent peak at the start of May, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
Compounding the confusion stirred by Bernanke's remarks have been comments from other members of the Fed's policy committee. Minutes of the previous meeting suggest a sharp division: Some, like Bernanke, still stress the need to fight high unemployment with low rates. Others warn that rates kept too low for too long raise the risk of high inflation and financial instability later.
The Fed's investment purchases have swollen its portfolio to $3.4 trillion â¿¿ a four-fold increase since before the 2008 financial crisis. Eventually, the Fed will need to gradually sell its portfolio. Doing so would likely lead to higher rates. Yet some think it would also defuse some risks to the financial system.