WASHINGTON – Most American households are doing a good job managing their finances, although lower-income families — which generally have less of a financial cushion to deal with unexpected problems — face challenges, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Tuesday.
Bernanke made his observations as families are coping with higher borrowing costs and lofty energy prices. And, they must deal with an increasingly complex array of financial products that sometimes can seem bewildering when it comes to making smart financial decisions.
"U.S. households overall have been managing their personal finances well," Bernanke said. "On average, debt burdens appear to be at manageable levels and delinquency rates on consumer loans and home mortgages have been low," he noted.
Household net worth, which climbed to $53 trillion in the first quarter of this year, is at a fairly high level, Bernanke said.
Bernanke's remarks came at a conference here for local elected officials, education administrators, municipal representatives and others. The conference explored a wide range of issues — from health care to voting rights.
While most households are juggling their financial obligations well, families with lower incomes can face some difficulties, Bernanke pointed out.
"These families generally have less of a cushion to absorb unanticipated expenses or to deal with adverse circumstances, such as the loss of employment or a serious health problem," Bernanke said.
Households at the lowest income rung had a median net worth of only $7,500 in 2004, well below the median of $93,000 for all other respondents in a recent Federal Reserve survey on consumer finances. Median net worth is the middle point, where half are higher and half are lower.
Low income families were significantly less likely to have a checking or savings accounts. Almost 25 percent of these low income families were "unbanked" compared with less than 10 percent of families with higher incomes. Low income families also were less able than others to manage their debts, Bernanke said.
Bernanke said that financial education, programs that encourage savings and investment, community economic development initiatives and other things can help families of modest means build their assets and improve their economic well-being.
When asked after his speech what could be done to improve the teaching of financial literacy at high schools, Bernanke said that part of the challenge was trying to squeeze such courses into already crammed school schedules.
"I served six years on the local school board and one of the issues I was always pressing was to get more economics into the curriculum, including financial literacy. It was always a push," Bernanke recalled.
The Fed chief did not discuss the state of the U.S. economy or the future course of interest rates in his speech or in remarks afterward.
However, in a speech last week that sent stocks sinking around the world, Bernanke said rising inflation was unwelcome and signaled that interest rates are likely to move up again at the Fed's next meeting, June 28-29, to prevent inflation from spreading through the economy.
For two years, the Fed has boosted interest rates 16 times. That has left a key interest rate controlled by the Fed at 5 percent and the prime lending rate — used for certain credit cards, home equity lines of credit and many other consumer loans — at 8 percent. Both rates are at their highest points in just over five years.
Economists expect the Fed to bump up rates later this month by another quarter point, which would lift the Fed's rate to 5.25 percent and the prime rate to 8.25 percent.
Additional increases could come, depending on how inflation unfolds in the months ahead.
Oil prices, which hit a record high of more than $75 a barrel in late April, have retreated and are now hovering just over $69 a barrel. Gasoline prices have topped $3 a gallon in many areas.
Those high gasoline prices have especially pinched lower income households. Wal-Mart (WMT) Stores Inc., recently reported sales that were less than anticipated as their lower income customers tightened the belt.
The economy, which barreled ahead in the first quarter of this year, is expected to slow to a pace of around 2.5 percent in the current April-to-June quarter as consumers turn cautious.