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Despite criticism of Ben Bernanke, inflation fears fall flat

NEW YORK — The numbers are proving Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's critics wrong.

More than a year after Republicans from House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio to presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas warned that the Fed's second round of asset purchases risked a sharp acceleration in prices, the surge has failed to materialize. The personal-consumption-expenditures price index rose 2.4 percent for the 12 months ending in December, near the central bank's 2 percent target.

"The statements were politically motivated," said John Lonski, chief economist at Moody's Capital Markets Group in New York. With unemployment stalled above 8 percent for three years, "I don't see how anybody in their right mind could form a strong argument for persistent, rapid inflation in the United States without the participation of the labor market."

Even though the economy is showing signs of strengthening and inflation appears in check, Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, candidates for president, have said they wouldn't keep Bernanke, 58, when his second four-year term as Fed chairman expires on Jan. 31, 2014. Gingrich said in September that Bernanke has been "the most inflationary, dangerous and power-centered chairman" in the central bank's history.

"The criticism about the Fed being inflationary is not fact-based," said Mark Gertler, an economics professor at New York University who has co-written research with Bernanke.

During Bernanke's tenure, the U.S. consumer price index has risen an average of 2.4 percent, lower than the 3.1 percent average for Alan Greenspan and the 6.3 percent for Paul Volcker. Greenspan was chairman from 1987 to 2006; Volcker was Fed chief from 1979 to 1987.

The Fed has taken unprecedented measures to spur growth in the aftermath of the worst recession since the Great Depression, leaving the federal funds rate that banks pay each other on overnight loans near zero since December 2008 and buying $2.3 trillion of bonds in two programs of so-called quantitative easing.

The second round of asset purchases, which ran from November 2010 through June 2011 and was dubbed QE2 by analysts and traders, sparked the harshest political backlash against the U.S. central bank in three decades. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, called it a "dangerous experiment" in November 2010.

The test on inflation will come when the central bank must withdraw its record stimulus, said Peter Hooper, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities in New York. The policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee said last month it plans to keep its benchmark interest rate "exceptionally low" until at least late 2014.

Hooper said Bernanke has the tools to contain inflation when it comes time to exit.

"If it looks like the economy is going to overheat, the Fed has a tremendous amount of ammunition," such as selling assets or raising the interest rate on excess reserves, Hooper said.

The unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent in January, the lowest rate since February 2009, according to a Labor Department report last week. Payrolls rose by 243,000, exceeding the most optimistic forecast in a Bloomberg News survey. The U.S. economy is forecast to grow at a 2.3 percent rate this year, up from 1.7 percent in 2011, according to a Bloomberg News survey of 70 economists last month.

Meanwhile, prices appear under control, Hooper said. So-called core inflation, stripped of energy and food costs, climbed 1.8 percent in the 12 months ending in December, the personal-consumption-expenditures price index shows.

"It just doesn't look like there's any evidence right now" of an inflation surge, Hooper said. "There are no alarm bells going off in terms of the current picture."

Despite criticism of Ben Bernanke, inflation fears fall flat 02/08/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 8, 2012 8:04pm]
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