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Fed Stirs Nightmares of Return to ’70s

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/bernanke.jpgFed Chairman Ben Bernanke (WDCpix)

The press release announcing the Federal Reserve Bank’s latest interest rate reduction on April 30 had the ominous sentence, “uncertainty about the inflation outlook remains high.” That is an unusual warning in a period of anemic growth. For anyone who can remember back 30 years, it stirs deep-seated fears.

Inflation is usually a by-product of overly ebullient markets. The absurd run-up in house prices during the first half of the 2000s is a classic example of an inflationary bubble. But there have been times when loose monetary policy overflowed into rapid price inflation even as the economy was slipping. The most notorious case is the devastating 1970s period of “stagflation,”’ when consumer prices jumped by double-digit rates amid a nasty recession.

The visible rise in inflation in the wake of the Fed’s aggressive monetary easing is stirring nightmares of a return to the 1970s stagflation hell. The broad money supply expanded by a 12.6 percent annual rate in the first quarter. The March-to-March growth in the consumer price index was 4 percent, and an uncomfortable 2.4 percent, even after excluding food and energy costs. That’s hardly stagflation territory, but still well above the Fed’s comfort zone.

Debt-150x150_3449.jpg
Debt-150x150_3449.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

There is, in fact, little question that the Fed’s high-wire bank rescues have increased inflation risks. But the mechanisms are complicated and require some untangling.

For years, America’s biggest export has been the dollars it sends overseas to buy real goods and services – more than $700 billion, net, in 2007, only modestly down from the all-time record the previous year. The huge buildup of dollars in foreign hands pushes down the value of the dollar in currency markets, and drives global price increases in dollar-denominated goods like oil.

More subtly, the build-up of dollars fuels inflation in states, like most of the Asian exporters and most of the Gulf states, that try to keep their currency value “pegged to the dollar. When Washington lowers interest rates, they are forced to do the same; otherwise their higher local interest rates would attract currency traders and push up their exchange rates relative to the dollar. America’s second biggest export after dollars, in short, is local inflation.

The best defense against imported dollar inflation is to let the local exchange rate rise to its economic level. Countries resist doing so for a variety of reasons. China isn’t yet ready to disrupt its U.S. trade bonanza, while the Saudis fear being left on their own to deal with fractious local Shiites. But even the steadfast Chinese are showing signs of cracking. Some Chinese goods are being priced in euros rather than dollars, while cost inflation at home is starting to work its way into Chinese export prices. Having sent its inflation abroad for so long, the United States is now importing some of it back.

The devastating run-up in oil prices is partly the result of a real shift in demand, as consumers in newly wealthy markets like China and India discover the joys of driving. But it is also, substantially, a monetary phenomenon. The president of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries recently said that a 1 percent fall in the dollar works through0 as a $4 rise in the price of a barrel of oil.

But subtler unintended consequences of the Fed’s monetary easing are also driving oil markets. Oil companies normally sell futures – in which buyers contract to take oil at a specific price at a future date – to stabilize revenue streams. Since futures buyers are protecting oil companies against price drops, they usually get contract prices somewhat lower than current-market or ‘spot’ prices.

Over the last few years, however, Wall Street has been advising their wealthy clients to diversify their holdings into commodities, especially oil. Speculative oil futures buying by outsiders has pushed futures prices higher than the spot markets – an unusual position called “contango.” With high futures prices and low interest rates, it now makes sense for speculators to sell oil futures and lock in their profit by buying the oil now and storing it for future delivery. As a consequence, the rapid run-up in crude oil prices has been accompanied by increases in inventories, which is very unusual. Interest rate-driven oil speculation, in short, is making the oil squeeze worse (pdf).

The price of grain, the world’s most important food staple, has been rising at about the same clip as oil prices. It’s hard to blame the grain price run-up on the Fed, since it seems mostly a reflection of real supply constraints. The same emerging market consumers that are buying cars are shifting to richer, meat-based diets that require far larger grain inputs.

But the nutty U.S. corn-based ethanol program is a big contributor too – despite the farm lobby’s insistence to the contrary. (Corn-based ethanol offers little or no advantage in energy and climate terms over gasoline.) The World Bank points out that from 2004 through 2007, global maize (corn) production increased by 51 million tons, but virtually all of it – 50 million tons – went to the U.S. ethanol program. All other maize consumption rose by 33 million tons, causing a drop of about 30 million tons in global stocks. More unintended consequences (pdf).

The biggest difference between the 1970s and the current price run-up is that workers aren’t getting any of the inflationary upside. In those benighted days, workers usually had cost-of-living escalators, so their pay kept pace with expenses. Now, worker productivity is rising, but hours worked and real incomes are falling.

For Wall Street, that’s the ideal inflation firewall.

*Charles R. Morris, a lawyer and former banker, is the author of **“The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers and the Great Credit Crash.” ***His other books include ***“The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould and J.P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy” *and “Money, Greed, and Risk: Why Financial Crises and Crashes Happen.”

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