So much for the inflation warnings.
Two years ago, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke suggested he would embark on a second round of asset purchases, sparking criticism in the U.S. and abroad that he risked a rapid acceleration in prices. Since then, inflation has held near the Fed’s goal of 2 percent, and bond traders predict prices will accelerate at about that rate during the next five years.
“There are other problems to worry about other than inflation,” said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I’m worried about the European situation and the fiscal cliff” -- which includes the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts at year-end.
While central bankers are close to achieving their goal of price stability, their record stimulus has failed to bring the unemployment rate below 8 percent in 42 months. The policy-making Federal Open Market Committee said Aug. 1 it will “provide additional accommodation as needed” in an effort to create jobs, as the sovereign-debt crisis in Europe and fiscal constraint in the U.S. weigh on the economy.
The central bank is evaluating additional steps to reverse an economic slowdown, including a third round of asset purchases or changing the language on its outlook for interest rates, Bernanke said in congressional testimony last month.
“I just don’t see the Fed leaning back or restraining their policy at all” because of inflation risk, Silvia said.
Policy makers in June predicted inflation of 1.2 percent to 1.7 percent at year-end, and 1.5 percent to 2 percent in 2013. Prices accelerated at a 1.5 percent rate for the 12 months through June, down from a 2.9 percent pace in September, according to the personal-consumption-expenditures price index.
The data didn’t stop Republicans, including Representative Ron Paul of Texas, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and 2012, from accusing Bernanke at congressional hearings last month of sparking inflation.
“If you destroy the value of currency through inflation, you transfer the wealth of the middle class and it gravitates to the very wealthy,” Paul, who wrote the book “End the Fed,” said July 18. “The Federal Reserve is the facilitator.”
The U.S. dollar has climbed about 9 percent against a basket of six developed-nation currencies since Nov. 4, 2010, the day after the Fed announced its second round of so-called quantitative easing, IntercontinentalExchange Inc.’s Dollar Index shows. The stimulus sparked the harshest political backlash against the central bank in three decades.
Fed critics are sticking to their prognostications for a surge in prices. Allan Meltzer, a professor of political economy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said that while his forecast hasn’t yet come to fruition, it will within the next two years.
“Our ability to predict the timing of these things is not very precise,” said Meltzer, who has written a history of the Fed. “I see lots of signs that inflation is coming.”
The Fed is “doing exactly the same foolish things it did in the 1970s” that led to surging inflation, and there’s nothing central bankers can do to boost growth because the economy’s problems aren’t monetary in nature, he said. Accommodative monetary policy 40 years ago led to a plummeting dollar and a jump in prices that prompted the central bank to raise its benchmark rate as high as 20 percent in 1980.
The Fed has kept the federal funds rate near zero since December 2008, and its two rounds of asset purchases have swelled its balance sheet to a record of almost $3 trillion.
The U.S. “is slowing picking up, productivity growth has slowed, asset prices are rising all over the world, land prices are rising,” Meltzer said. “Those are signs people are hedging inflation, moving out of money and into real assets to protect themselves.”
Bond traders predict prices will continue to accelerate near the Fed’s goal of 2 percent, with the break-even rate for five-year Treasury Inflation Protected Securities at 1.86 percentage points on Aug. 17. The rate, a yield difference between the inflation-linked debt and comparable maturity Treasuries, is a measure of the outlook for consumer prices over the life of the securities.
Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in New York, said he doesn’t think the Fed should announce a third round of quantitative easing because the economy continues to expand, though he isn’t concerned that prices will accelerate rapidly if policy makers do. Gross domestic product grew at a 1.5 percent annual pace in the second quarter after a 2 percent gain during the first three months of the year, Commerce Department data showed last month.
“I don’t think inflation is a problem at this stage, and I’m not worried about additional QE causing an inflation surge,” Rupkey said. “I am not a big buyer of the idea that QE putting out too many dollars” causes prices to jump.
Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, criticized the announcement of QE2 in 2010.
“It’s time for us to ‘refudiate’ the notion that this dangerous experiment in printing $600 billion out of thin air, with nothing to back it up, will magically fix economic problems,” she wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal.
Representative John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who is speaker of the house, also voiced concern that the program would make prices climb quickly.
Inflation has fallen in the last few months as commodity prices have declined, and central bankers are more worried about meeting their goal of full employment than price stability, Rupkey said. The unemployment rate is “very visible,” particularly as the U.S. presidential election approaches, he said.
Joblessness climbed to a five-month high of 8.3 percent in July and has held above 8 percent since February 2009, the longest stretch in the post-World War II era.
“In order to have broad-based inflation, you need wage pressures, and those you’re not seeing right now,” said Dana Saporta, U.S. economist in New York at Credit Suisse Group AG. “The concern remains the high unemployment and the length of unemployment.”
The average duration of joblessness soared to a record 41 weeks in November and remains at 39 weeks, more than double the 15-week average since the U.S. began collecting the information in 1948, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data compiled by Bloomberg.
Saporta assigns 50-50 odds Fed officials will announce another round of asset purchases at the conclusion of their September meeting. Criticism that Bernanke’s policies are inflationary may be more muted this go around, she said.
“The fears of inflation turned out to be unfounded,” Saporta said. “Even if the Fed were to expand its balance sheet further, I don’t think there would be as much worry about inflation because of the last episode; though there will always be those who will argue eventually it will become an inflationary operation.”