The Fed made history today by announcing an open-ended money printing policy - a policy heretofore unseen outside of history's hyperinflation havens. The news conference that followed the announcement revealed a central bank acting out of extreme desperation.
While the Fed is doing another round of quantitative easing, QE3 is not the same as QE2. The previous QE involved the purchase of U.S. Treasuries. This time around, the Fed is buying MBSs (MBB - News) (mortgage-backed securities). In QE1, various types of securities were bought. The previous QEs also had specific limits to the amount of money that was going to be printed whereas QE3 doesn't. QE3 is supposed to be ongoing until somewhat after the economy and employment situation have been improving for a while. How long that will be is anybody's guess.
Despite several questions in the press conference that followed the announcement, Bernanke made only vague statements about how the Fed would determine when enough money printing was enough. The purchase of mortgage-backed securities is likely to continue for some time because doing so is supposed to reduce unemployment. How that will work is not clear other than perhaps reducing unemployment in the construction industry. The Fed's actions should lower already historically low mortgage rates and Bernanke specifically stated more than once that getting the price of homes up was one of his major goals (he seems to have forgotten that the global financial collapse in 2008 was the result of the collapse of the housing bubble).
Anticipating the obvious objections, Bernanke tried to head off the major criticisms of the Fed's new plan at the beginning of his news conference. While he admitted that the Fed's action hurt savers and would make it difficult to prepare for retirement, he said that if you don't have a job you wouldn't have any money to save anyway. So, apparently the large majority of people who have a job should risk having their retirement unfunded in order to pursue Bernanke's high risk policies that have been tried for the last five years, but haven't worked. I wouldn't have been surprised if a couple of retired people were brought up to the podium and Bernanke kicked them a few times to emphasize his point.
Bernanke also denied that the new round of money printing will cause inflation. The basis of his argument was that the members of the FOMC aren't prediction inflation in their projections, so obviously it's not going to happen (these are the same people that failed to foresee the subprime crisis coming). Also Bernanke claimed inflation has been around 2% for years, so there is no problem. Even a casual perusal of commodity prices since 2009 shows increases of 100%, 150%, 200% and sometimes more however. It is true the government isn't reporting inflation, but that isn't the same as it doesn't exist. The head of the Weimar German central bank also claimed inflation wasn't a problem as he printed more and more money. Eventually, inflation reached 300 million percent.
One of the real eye-openers of the Bernanke news conference was his admitting the impotency of the Fed and monetary policy. Over and over again Bernanke stated that the Fed's actions were, "not a panacea". He said that, "We [the Fed] can't solve the problems by ourselves". He also emphasized that the Fed's, "tools are not so powerful that they can solve the problem". If the chances of success are so limited, why is the Fed taking a course of action that could have serious negative consequences for the American people?
In addition to his desire to reinflate the housing bubble, Bernanke was also proud that when the Fed speaks, economic forecasters change their numbers and that, "markets respond to [the Fed's] guidance". This was a blatant admission that the Fed purposely manipulates the stock and bond markets and financial news. Obviously, this destruction of free market mechanisms is not something that he considers shameful, even though this represents a major power grab on the part of the Fed.
Bernanke was much more coy however when the question of whether or not the Fed's money printing decision was base on political considerations. One reporter mentioned that Romney was not planning on reappointing Bernanke and asked if the policy shift was an attempt to help reelect President Obama. Bernanke denied this of course, his voice almost breaking when he stammered out, "our decisions are based entirely on the state of the economy." I must admit that I am personally surprised that the Fed did this before the election because this question is only going to be the beginning and the Fed has now made itself an ongoing issue in the presidential campaign. I didn't think Bernanke was so foolish to take this risk, but obviously I overestimated his political awareness.
Earlier this month, ECB head Mario Draghi promised unlimited bond buying. This is different from what the Fed is doing because those purchases are supposed to be sterilized (new liquidity put in is neutralized by liquidity being removed). Many people however believe that the ECB will have to engage in money printing despite its claims. Added to the Fed, this means inflation investments will have a bid under them for some time to come. Investors should be looking at gold and silver, energy and agriculture. Ironically, shorting Treasury bonds also look like a good bet now as well, since the Fed is not buying them as part of its QE program (Operation Twist though will be going on to the end of 2012 however and this acts to lower interest rates around the 7 to 10-year maturity level so be careful). Keep buying as long as the Fed keeps printing.
Daryl Montgomery is the Author of "Inflation Investing - A Guide for the 2010s" and Organizer, New York Investing Meetup
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