I’ve been noting that the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented increase in the money supply will lead to inflation. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is claiming that just as soon as the economy starts to recover he’ll pull back the money supply Wizard of Oz style and – voila! – no inflation.
If inflation catches the Fed by surprise, are they really “able to quickly reverse the actions,” as Bernanke says? How could they do that?The Fed could certainly raise the interest rates on bank reserves the fed funds and discount rate which is how it makes money and credit tighter in normal times. But that rationing device would not prove so effective in times like these, because banks are already sitting on a mountain of untapped reserves. Besides, once expected inflation has begun to rise, the Fed has usually moved rates up in 25-basis steps increases so small that perceived real interest rates can continue to fall even as nominal rates rise.
To literally reverse the actions that doubled its assets since last September, the Fed would have to sell nearly a trillion dollars worth of IOUs. Unfortunately, they don’t have nearly that many Treasury securities to sell. And even if the Fed were willing sell off all of its Treasury bills and bonds, the remaining backing for Federal Reserve notes would be little better than junk bonds. Meanwhile, private and agency securities acquired since last September must be very hard to sell or else the Fed would not have felt obliged to buy them.
The Fed’s System Open Market Account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York holds $39.4 billion in inflation-protected Treasury bonds more than twice its $18.4 billion stash of short-term Treasury bills. Are they trying to tell us something?
Point 1 is that you shouldn’t believe Bernanke when he claims he can snap his fingers and put the kibosh on the inflationary dragon.
Point 2 is that Reynolds notes something I hadn’t considered.
To assume, as Bernanke does, that inflation cannot possibly accelerate until “the economy begins to rebound and financial markets stabilize” is to assume stagflation is impossible, though 1973-75 and 1979-82 proved otherwise.
I keep saying that we won’t have serious inflation until after the recovery begins, that the recovery can’t begin until we hit bottom, and that we’re a long way from hitting bottom. Sounds pretty pessimistic, doesn’t it? Thing is, just like Bernanke I wasn’t considering the possibility of stagflation (a stagnant economy combined with the inflation of a red-hot economy). If that happens things could be even worse than I imagined. Dangit.