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Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Will continued low interest rates lead to inflation? Some money managers don't think so.
The Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee announcement Wednesday wasn't a big surprise on the interest-rate front. The Fed has stated it intends to keep short-term rates low for the foreseeable future, in an effort to stimulate the economy and push investors into riskier assets, like stocks. A continued low-interest rate environment will also continue to bolster the housing market, where mortgage rates are at historic lows.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and the rest of the FOMC annouced that they will keep rates low until unemployment falls to 6.5 percent. It will also continue to buy up mortgage-backed securities, at roughly the same rate it has been (so-called "Quantitive Easing," installment 3, or "QE3").
[UPDATE: I slightly misinterpreted what the Fed is doing on the bond-buying side. It's also worth noting that the Fed is now saying that it will keep interest rates low until unemployment hits a specified level. This is a policy departure from saying that rates will stay low until the economy improves. But anyway, bond-buying: the Fed is going to double what it's doing in the QE front and change "Operation Twist" into an extension of QE3. The older aspect of QE will still involve buying MBS. But the additions to QE3 will entail buying long-term U.S. Treasuries without selling short-term bonds. This is important as it means the Fed will be adding $85 billion per month to its balance sheet — under Operation Twist, it hadn't grown much, which was viewed as an way to "sterilize" against inflation. Former Dallas Fed President Bob McTeer has a good post about the FOMC decision at Forbes.]
Resistance to Fed policy is futile, Professor Krugman.
Over the weekend, we got a preview of Paul Krugman's new book, which has the not-very-subtle title "End this Depression Now!" Yep, that's an exclamation point, perhaps the first ever in the title of a book by a Nobel Prize winner. And yep, Krugman doesn't think we're in a recession. He's calling it a Depression, and yes, I've dutifully capitalized that scary word.
The excerpt appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the pages of which Krugman has taken to from time to time when he wants to lay out a more involved argument than the column inches he's allotted on the NYT's op-ed page will allow. It also appeared just a few days before the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee met to decide on the direction of U.S. monetary policy.
Bernanke effectively hired Krugman, when Bernanke ran the economics department at Princeton. And Krugman clearly thinks that Princeton Bernanke was a much different economics guy than Chairman Ben. And when I say "much different," what I mean is that Krugman has no qualms about going out on a very long limb here. Like far enough to bring out the "Star Trek" comparisons.
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WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 29: Federal Reserve Bank Board Chairman Ben Bernanke testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on Capitol Hill February 29, 2012 in Washington, DC. Bernanke was testifying about the Fed's Semiannual Monetary Policy Report. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testified this morning in front of the House Financial Services Committee. Reuters has a nice, brisk summary of his main responses to questioning from members of Congress. There were two very interesting exchanges, resulting in some cryptic replies from Big Ben. Here's the first, on interest rates, which the Fed wants to keep as low as possible through 2014:
It is arguable that interest rates are too high, that they are being constrained by the fact that interest rates can't go below zero. We have an economy where demand falls far short of the capacity of the economy to produce. We have an economy where the amount of investment in durable goods spending is far less than the capacity of the economy to produce. That suggests that interest rates in some sense should be lower rather than higher. We can't make interest rates lower, of course. (They) only can go down to zero. And again I would argue that a healthy economy with good returns is the best way to get returns to savers.
There's probably no more dogged critic of the Federal Reserve than Ron Paul, the Texas Republican congressman who's also running — and running, and running — for President. Paul had a halfway decent showing in the most recent primaries and caucuses. And there's a school of political thought that figures his staunch base and need to spend very little money to stay in the race will keep him hanging around long after more legitimate contenders had dropped out. Plus, he has an heir in his son Rand Paul, a Kentucky Senator.
Ron Paul is the most economic of the current crop of Republican presidential candiates. There are times when his entire campaign seems based not on solving domestic problems, nor pursuing America's foreign policy, but on getting rid of the twin evils of paper money and the Federal Reserve. A lot of people find Paul sort of daffy. See the video I've embedded above, in which he meanders through a host of very Ron Paulist conspiracy theories, laconically foiled by the Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke.
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Secretary of the Treasury Timothy F. Geithner (L) and William C. Dudley (R), President and Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, listen to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke (C) speak during a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee on Capitol Hill March 24, 2009 in Washington, D.C.
The fourth quarter of 2011 was much better for the U.S. economy than the year as a whole. But if you can believe it, it actually disappointed many economists. The economy grew at a rate of 2.8 percent, a vast improvement over the sub-2-percent growth that typified the year. But we were looking for 3 percent GDP growth.
I know, I know — 0.2 percent doesn't sound like such a big deal. Unless your yearly GDP is $14.5 trillion and you need to add something like 350,000-400,000 jobs each and every month to bring unemployment down to pre-crisis levels (nationally, it's at 8.5 percent now).
The Fed on Wednesday said it expected to keep interest rates at rock bottom levels at least through late 2014, and Chairman Ben Bernanke said the central bank was mulling further asset purchases to speed the recovery.
The central bank warned the economy still faced big risks, a suggestion the euro zone debt crisis could still hit hard.
"We're still repairing the damage done by the financial crisis. On top of that we face a more challenging world. We have a lot of challenges ahead in the United States," U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Prospects of sluggish growth could hurt President Barack Obama's chances of re-election in November.
The economy grew 1.7 percent in 2011 after expanding 3 percent the prior year, and the unemployment stood at a still-high 8.5 percent in December.