Liquidity is improving, but U.S. cash markets continue to need careful prodding, says Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. He testified this morning before the House Committee on Financial Services on the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the Fed’s liquidity facilities

“The value of the TARP in promoting financial stability has already been demonstrated…Failure to prevent an international financial collapse would almost certainly have had dire implications for both the U.S. and world economies,” he says.

Nine U.S. financial institutions have received $125 billion in funding; more have applied. The FDIC plans to guarantee non-interest-bearing accounts, and the Fed is providing additional “backstop liquidity to the financial system.”

So far, credit-default-swap (CDS) spreads have improved. “Going forward, the ability of the Treasury to use the TARP to inject capital into financial institutions and to take other steps to stabilize the financial system—including any actions that might be needed to prevent the disorderly failure of a systemically important financial institution—will be critical for restoring confidence and promoting the return of credit markets to more normal functioning.”

As for consumer and business credit, “our recent actions have focused on the market for commercial paper, which is an important source of short-term financing for many financial and nonfinancial firms.”

To loosen the hoarding of cash, the Fed is:

-- “Allowing money-market mutual funds to sell asset-backed commercial paper to banking organizations, which are then permitted to borrow against the paper on a non-recourse basis from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Usage of that facility peaked at around $150 billion. The facility contributed importantly to the ability of money funds to meet redemption pressures when they were most intense and remains available as a backstop should such pressures reemerge.”

-- “Funding a special-purpose vehicle that purchases highly rated commercial paper issued by financial and nonfinancial businesses at a term of three months. This facility has purchased about $250 billion of commercial paper, allowing many firms to extend significant amounts of funding into next year.”

-- And, launching a third program next week to “provide a liquidity backstop directly to money-market mutual funds. This facility is intended to give funds confidence to extend significantly the maturities of their investments and reduce over time the reliance of issuers on sales to the Federal Reserve’s special-purpose vehicle.”

Signs that TARP’s efforts are working? Interbank short-term funding rates are falling, he says, “and we are seeing greater stability in money-market mutual funds and in the commercial-paper market. Interest rates on higher-rated bonds issued by corporations and municipalities have fallen somewhat, and bond issuance for these entities rose a bit in recent weeks.”

He adds, though, that “credit conditions are still far from normal, with risk spreads remaining very elevated and banks reporting that they continued to tighten lending standards through October. There has been little or no bond issuance by lower-rated corporations or securitization of consumer loans in recent weeks.”

He concludes that it “is imperative that all banking organizations and their regulators work together to ensure that the needs of creditworthy borrowers are met in a manner consistent with safety and soundness. As capital adequacy is critical in determining a banking organization’s ability and willingness to lend, the joint statement (of banking agencies on Nov. 12) emphasizes the need for careful capital planning, including setting appropriate dividend policies.”

TARP meeting minutes are available at Transcripts of Bernanke and other Fed officials’ speeches are available at

–Nissa Darbonne, Executive Editor, Oil and Gas Investor, A&D Watch, Today,,;