In today’s Wall Street Journal, David Wessel (“Capital” column, A5) revisits the question of whether current Fed policy is inflationary. He correctly states the Fed’s position is that inflation is caused by expectations. Inflation will stay low if people expect it to stay low. He quotes Fed Chairman Bernanke: “The state of inflation expectations greatly influences actual inflation and thus the central bank’s ability to achieve price stability.”
The Fed chairman of course has the causation precisely backwards. Fed policy systematically shapes inflation expectations. His statement is the product of the focus on the short-run and ephemeral over the long-run and permanent. In that, Ben Bernanke follows a long line of central bankers.
In A History of the Federal Reserve, Volume 1: 1913-51, Allan Meltzer summarizes the central bank mindset from the banking school writers like Thomas Tooke down to the Fed. Tooke “denied that money, credit, or base money bore any consistent relation to prices. Most Federal Reserve officials remained in this tradition in the 1920s. They denied that their actions affected prices” (57-58).
Unfortunately for defenders of Fed policy, today’s paper is filled with stories of rising inflation. In Singapore, consumer price inflation is running at 5.5%. In Vietnam, consumer price inflation is running at over 12%. There are food riots in India. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, George Melloan detailed the linkage between economics and turmoil in the Middle East. Consumer price inflation in Egypt rose to 18% annually in 2009 from 5% in 2006. In Iran, inflation rose from 13% in 2006 to 25% in 2009. As Melloan wryly observes, “about the only one failing to acknowledge a problem seems to be the man most responsible, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.”
Monetary policy is not the sole culprit in food price inflation. There have been supply shocks. Central bankers always point to supply shocks to explain rising prices. But it is not just food prices rising, but most commodity prices. Plus, as noted, broad measures of consumer prices around the world are signaling rising inflation.
The Bernanke’s response is two-fold. First, he questions the linkage between his policies and what is happening to global prices. Second, he argues other central banks are in a better position to mitigate the effects of Fed policy. Both arguments are disingenuous.
Commodities, plus most traded goods, are priced in dollars. The Fed creates base money. The more base money, the higher the dollar price of goods globally.
The Fed Chairman argues that foreign central banks can offset the Fed’s policy. As discussed here recently, this is true only to a limited extent if at all. Small, open economies have great difficulty in offsetting inflows of the global currency. If these central banks raise domestic interest rates and appreciate their currencies, they are likely to attract additional capital flows. If not, they risk sending their economies into recession.
Bernanke’s defense amounts to a restatement of Treasury Secretary John Connally’s quip to Europeans during the Nixon prequel to current dollar policy: “It’s our currency, but your problem.” The Fed inflates, and other central banks must mitigate.
Consumers purchase daily and weekly the goods whose prices are increasingly rapidly: food, energy and clothes. The goods whose real prices are falling, such as consumer electronics, are purchased infrequently. But they keep measures of consumer prices subdued. Marie Antoinette famously remarked that the French peasants rioting over bread prices could eat cake. Policymakers apparently believe US consumers can do the equivalent of eating microchips: stop eating and driving, and just buy more electronics. In reality, US consumers face the prospect of a falling standard of living. They can’t eat chips.