After his recent Capital Hill rounds and a new year off to a good start with strong market and employment numbers, many of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s critics may want to start thinking about eating their words after last year’s dark days.
It was just over a year ago that the Fed’s asset purchases flirted with the potential for rising prices. Round two of asset purchases, (called QE2), took place beginning in November 2010 to June 2011. It drew the largest backlash against the Federal Reserve in almost 30 years.
A few months later in September, the FOMC sought to replace $400 billion of short-term debt in its portfolio with longer-term Treasuries to further decrease borrowing costs. On Tuesday, the 10-year Treasury note yield sat at 1.97, down from September’s 2.13 percent.
Good news, right? While the QE2 actions can offer one explanation for recent U.S. economy activity news beating expectations but so do economic numbers. The personal consumption expenditures price index increased 2.4 percent for the year ending in December; this is slightly above the Fed’s targeted 2 percent. Unemployment dropped to 8.3 percent in January, its lowest level since February 2009.
Let the Criticisms Begin
The above numbers are some cold hard facts but unfortunately two of Bernanke’s vocal critics, Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, both may have missed these good numbers. It hasn’t stopped them from saying they will not give Bernanke an extension after his current term expires on Jan. 31, 2014.
Gingrich has gone so far as to to call Bernanke, “the most inflationary, dangerous and power-centered chairman” in the central bank’s history.
But if the famous historian took a look at Bernanke’s predecessors and their inflation numbers, he may want to retract that statement. According to Bloomberg, with Bernanke at the helm, the U.S. consumer price index rose an average of 2.4 percent. Alan Greenspan had a 3.1 percent average and Paul Volcker was higher at 6.3 percent.
This covers a lot of years: Greenspan was the chairman from 1987-2006 with Volcker in charge from 1979- 1987.
Another area of criticism has been that Bernanke would forgo his inflation goal to increase employment. He staunchly defended price stability last week in front of the House Budget Committee. He said after being questioned, “Over a period of time, we want to move inflation always back toward 2 percent. We’re always trying to bring inflation back to the target.”
Congress and the presidential candidates may not believe Bernanke, but bond market does. Traders have predicted the Fed will almost achieve this 2 percent goal with five-year Treasury Inflation Protected Securities. On Tuesday, the yield difference between the inflation-linked debt and comparable-maturity Treasuries, hit1.91 percentage points on Tuesday, according to Bloomberg.
Misinformation has been driving the inflation story and in January, the Fed dropped its price acceleration estimates. Inflation in 2011 will range from 1.4 percent to 1.8 percent, followed by 1.4 percent to 2 percent next year. This didn’t really change from November forecasts that had inflation predictions at 1.4 percent to 2 percent this year and 1.5 percent to 2 percent in 2013.
So what’s next for the Fed to show their numbers tell a good, true story?
A true picture will emerge when the Fed takes away its record stimulus, said Peter Hooper, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. in New York. In January, the Federal Open Market Committee said its benchmark interest rate will remain “exceptionally low” through late 2014.
Should the economy change course and start heating up, the Fed has a lot of tools to cool things off, but for now, the economy still needs to get back on track.
It is headed in that direction, prices seem under control. Core inflation, sans energy and food costs, rose 1.8 percent in the year ending in December, as evidenced by the personal consumption expenditures price index. With these numbers, it doesn’t like inflation is going to quickly rise.
But also keep in mind, one story may not be the criticisms against Bernanke but rising food and energy costs. Who is going to tackle that middle class story?