I have been forecasting with near certainty that QE2 would not be the end of the Fed's money-printing program. My suspicions were confirmed in both the Fed minutes on Tuesday and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's semi-annual testimony to Congress yesterday. The former laid out the conditions upon which a new round of inflation would be launched, and the latter re-emphasized - in case anyone still doubted - that Mr. Bernanke has no regard for the principles of a sound currency.
Tuesday's release of the Fed minutes contained the first indication that a third round of quantitative easing (QE3) is being considered. The notes described unanimous agreement that QE2 should be completed, along with the following comment: "depending on how economic conditions evolve, the Committee might have to consider providing additional monetary policy stimulus, especially if economic growth remained too slow to meaningfully reduce the unemployment rate in the medium run." Since the unemployment situation is deteriorating, and by all accounts will continue to do so, the Fed is essentially pledging to keep the spigot turned on. The committee also decided to look only at current "overall inflation" in making their judgments, as opposed to "inflation trends." Since new dollars take awhile to circulate around the economy and raise prices, this means the Fed is sure to be too late in tightening once inflation starts to run away, causing more dislocations in the American economy.
If anyone had lingering faith that Mr. Bernanke actually has a plan to end the US government's addiction to cheap money, the Chairman's semi-annual testimony to Congress should have washed it away. In addition to claiming that his money-printing has helped the US economy, Bernanke told Congress that gold is not money, people buying gold are not concerned about inflation, and the external value of the dollar has no influence on its domestic purchasing power. He even took a moment to stump for President Obama's plan to raise the debt ceiling.
By claiming that gold is not money, the Chairman demonstrates his ignorance of much of monetary history. He told Congressman Ron Paul that he had no idea why central banks hold gold, before speculating that it might have something to do with tradition. Yes, traditionally gold is money, which is precisely why central banks hold it. And gold is money because central bankers like Mr. Bernanke cannot be trusted with a paper substitute.
Bernanke further disputes the facts by claiming that the only reason people are buying gold is to hedge against uncertainty, or "tail risks" as he calls them. My advice to the Chairman is to ask the people who are actually buying it. As someone who has been buying gold myself for a decade, I can assure him that my gold buying has nothing to do with "uncertainty." In fact, it's just the opposite. I am buying gold because of what is certain, not what is uncertain. I am certain that Mr. Bernanke's incompetence will destroy the value of the dollar and unleash runaway inflation.
If it were true that people bought gold to protect themselves from market uncertainty, as the Chairman claims, then the metal should have spiked in the midst of the '08 credit crunch. Instead, it fell along with most other assets. People instinctively fled into US dollars and Treasuries because of their long record of stability. What Bernanke doesn't understand is that his irresponsible monetary policy is undermining that faith in US assets, built up over generations. That is what's driving gold: easy money, negative interest rates, and quantitative easing.
Finally, by claiming that the dollar's exchange rate has no effect on domestic prices, Mr. Bernanke demonstrates that he probably lacks the competence to be a bank teller, let alone Chairman of the Federal Reserve. A weaker dollar means Americans have to pay more for imported goods. But it also means domestic producers have to pay more for raw materials and imported components, which raises domestic production costs as well. It also means that more domestically produced goods are exported, reducing the supply and raising the price of what is left for Americans to consume. This is Econ 101.
Given the Chairman's confusion on the basics of economics, perhaps it's no surprise that he's put quantitative easing right back on the table, where, despite prior rhetoric, it has been all along. The Fed has always known that QE3 is coming; it's just looking for an excuse to launch it.
The problem is that fighting a recession with QE is like fighting a fire with gasoline. As the flames of recession reignite, more QE, while dousing it momentarily, will only produce an even larger economic inferno.
At one point, Bernanke said, "The right analogy for not raising the debt ceiling is going out and having a spending spree on your credit card and then refusing to pay the bill." He's got the analogy right, but his conclusions are completely wrong. Yes, Congress has gone on a spending spree and it's time to pay up. But raising the debt ceiling is like taking out a Mastercard to pay the Visa... it just makes the problem worse. If you or I go out one night, get drunk, and run up a huge credit card bill, we know that the way to fix it is to buckle down and pay it back. We might postpone vacation plans or put off buying a new car, we might cancel our cable TV subscription or gym membership. The point is that we would have to reduce current consumption to make up for the overspending in the past.
Obama claims that raising the debt ceiling is about getting a hold of the federal debt. Have you ever heard of anyone getting out of debt by taking on more debt? Has anyone ever reduced their debt without reducing current consumption? How can the Fed Chairman endorse such a preposterous idea?
Bernanke actually went a step further and warned against reducing current federal spending too sharply, claiming that such a move might impede the "recovery." He apparently believes that it is the role of the Congress to go on spending sprees, and his role to pay the mounting bills with freshly printed dollars. The fact that this formula has produced larger and larger economic crises does not seem to bother him. I guess ignorance is bliss.