The numbers are proving Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s critics wrong.
More than a year after Republicans from House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio to presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas warned that the Fed’s second round of asset purchases risked a sharp acceleration in prices, the surge has failed to materialize. The personal-consumption-expenditures price index rose 2.4 percent for the 12 months ending in December, near the central bank’s 2 percent target.
“The statements were politically motivated,” said John Lonski, chief economist at Moody’s Capital Markets Group in New York. With unemployment stalled above 8 percent for three years, “I don’t see how anybody in their right mind could form a strong argument for persistent, rapid inflation in the United States without the participation of the labor market.”
Even though the economy is showing signs of strengthening and inflation appears in check, Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, who also are running for president, have said they wouldn’t keep Bernanke, 58, when his second four-year term as Fed chairman expires on Jan. 31, 2014. Gingrich said in September that Bernanke was “the most inflationary, dangerous and power-centered chairman” in the central bank’s history.
“The criticism about the Fed being inflationary is not fact-based,” said Mark Gertler, an economics professor at New York University who has co-written research with Bernanke. “In terms of an inflation record, the facts are the Fed has been as close to impeccable as you can possibly get.”
During Bernanke’s tenure, the U.S. consumer price index has risen an average of 2.4 percent, lower than the 3.1 percent average for Alan Greenspan and 6.3 percent for Paul Volcker. Greenspan was chairman from 1987 to 2006; Volcker was Fed chief from 1979 to 1987.
Sacrifice Inflation Goal
Bernanke last week defended his commitment to price stability before Congress in Washington, rejecting suggestions that he would sacrifice his inflation goal to boost employment.
“Over a period of time, we want to move inflation always back toward 2 percent,” Bernanke said Feb. 2 in response to questioning from Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee. “We’re always trying to bring inflation back to the target.”
Bond traders predict the Fed will come close to achieving that goal. The break-even rate for five-year Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, the yield difference between the inflation-linked debt and comparable-maturity Treasuries, was 1.91 percentage points yesterday. The rate, a measure of the outlook for consumer prices over the life of the securities, has fallen from 2.47 points on April 29 as commodity prices have declined.
“There’s been an extraordinary amount of misinformation about inflation circulating,” Gertler said. “We have not had any sign of sustained inflation.”
In January, Fed officials lowered their projections for price acceleration, with inflation ranging from 1.4 percent to 1.8 percent this year, and 1.4 percent to 2 percent in 2013. In November, they predicted inflation of 1.4 percent to 2 percent in 2012, and 1.5 percent to 2 percent next year.
Bernanke deflected a question from a reporter at his Jan. 25 press conference about whether he’d resign if a Republican were elected president in November and asked him to do so.
“I’m not going to get involved in political rhetoric,” Bernanke said. “As long as I’m here, I will do everything I can to help the Federal Reserve achieve its dual mandate of price stability and maximum employment.”
The test on inflation will come when the central bank must withdraw its record stimulus, said Peter Hooper, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. in New York. The policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee said last month it plans to keep its benchmark interest rate “exceptionally low” until at least late 2014. Hooper said Bernanke has the tools to contain inflation when it comes time to exit.
“If it looks like the economy is going to overheat, the Fed has a tremendous amount of ammunition,” such as selling assets or raising the interest rate on excess reserves, Hooper said. “Right now the emphasis is on, ‘Hey, the economy is still weak. Let’s focus on getting that back to the norm.’”
The Fed has taken unprecedented measures to spur growth in the aftermath of the worst recession since the Great Depression, leaving the federal funds rate banks pay each other on overnight loans near zero since December 2008 and buying $2.3 trillion of bonds in two programs of so-called quantitative easing.
Harshest Political Backlash
The second round of asset purchases, which ran from November 2010 through June 2011 and was dubbed QE2 by analysts and traders, sparked the harshest political backlash against the U.S. central bank in three decades. 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin called it a “dangerous experiment” in November 2010, saying it wouldn’t “magically fix economic problems.”
In September of last year, the FOMC voted to replace $400 billion of short-term debt in its portfolio with longer-term Treasuries in an effort to further lower borrowing costs. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note was 1.97 percent yesterday, down from 2.13 percent on Sept. 1.
This move and QE2 help “to explain why some of the recent news on U.S. economic activity has been better than anticipated,” Lonski said.
The unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent in January, the lowest since February 2009, according to a Labor Department report last week. Payrolls rose by 243,000, exceeding the most optimistic forecast in a Bloomberg News survey. The U.S. economy is forecast to grow at a 2.3 percent rate this year, up from 1.7 percent in 2011, according to a Bloomberg News survey of 70 economists last month.
Meanwhile, prices appear under control, according to Deutsche Bank’s Hooper. So-called core inflation, stripped of energy and food costs, climbed 1.8 percent in the 12 months ending in December, the personal-consumption-expenditures price index shows.
“It just doesn’t look like there’s any evidence right now” of an inflation surge, Hooper said. “There are no alarm bells going off in terms of the current picture.”