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Analysis: Fed stance on inflation unlike other central bankers

Oil up 23 percent this year. Silver up 31 percent. Corn up 22 percent.

Are these disturbing numbers? The European Central Bank thinks so. Citing the need to battle inflation, ECB policymakers raised their key short-term interest rate last week for the first time since mid 2008 (not incidentally, the last time commodity prices were going wacko).

It wasn't much of an increase — from 1 percent to 1.25 percent — but it made the point: The ECB worries that money has been kept too easy for too long.

The bank's decision heightens the debate over the Federal Reserve's official stance, which is that inflation isn't yet a serious threat in the United States and that monetary policy should stay loose to keep the economic recovery on track.

The latest jump in commodity prices will put the Fed further on the defensive. So might the eroding dollar, which slumped last week against a host of other currencies.

The Fed not only is steadfastly holding its benchmark short-term interest rate near zero, but since November it has also committed to buying $600 billion of Treasury bonds through June in an effort to hold down longer-term rates.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has become odd man out among the world's central bankers. The People's Bank of China last week raised interest rates for the fourth time since October.

Bernanke called inflation pressures "transitory." But the commodity markets seem to be mocking him. U.S. crude oil prices rose 4.5 percent last week amid fears about the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa.

If this is transitory, when will the transition to lower prices at the gas pump begin?

Bernanke's views have held sway over Fed policy, but he increasingly has been challenged by some of his peers at the central bank who think the time has come to pull back on monetary stimulus for the economy.

"Having done our job, I see many risks to the Fed overstaying its welcome," Richard Fisher, president of the Fed's Dallas branch, said in a speech Friday.

Bernanke has stressed that Congress gave the Fed two mandates. Keep inflation under control and boost employment. With the U.S. jobless rate at 8.8 percent, the central bank's work on employment isn't done, the Fed chief has said repeatedly.

The ECB, by contrast, has only one mandate: suppress inflation, which in the euro zone countries was up 2.6 percent in March from a year earlier, significantly above the ECB's target of about 2 percent.

Many economists side with Bernanke on the idea of holding off from credit-tightening moves. Carl Weinberg, founder of High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y., contends that it's ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet who is wrong-headed on policy, not Bernanke.

Raising interest rates to try to beat back food and energy prices is ludicrous, Weinberg said. People have to eat and they have to use energy, and they typically don't borrow money to do either.

What's more, higher inflation can't take root unless it spreads to wages, and in the United States, the glut of labor ensures we're a long way off from rapid wage inflation, Weinberg said.

That makes rising food and energy costs potentially deflationary for the rest of the economy, he said: The more you spend to eat and drive, the less you have to spend elsewhere.

Fed critics, however, insist that by keeping short-term interest rates near zero and by flooding the financial system with more money via Treasury-bond purchases, the Fed risks stoking inflationary fires that could be difficult to snuff out.

.Fast facts

Inflation not main worry

Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve's vice chairwoman, said Monday that the economy is not strong enough for the Fed to begin tightening credit, countering a vocal minority of members who argue the central bank's stimulus programs are contributing to higher inflation. Yellen said the Fed's $600 billion Treasury bond-purchase program and record-low interest rates are necessary to help lower unemployment, which was 8.8 percent last month. A few Fed members have raised concerns that the Fed's programs could spur higher inflation.

Associated Press

Analysis: Fed stance on inflation unlike other central bankers 04/11/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 11, 2011 10:37pm]
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