Fed up with the Fed?

chart_buzz010410b.top.gifBy Paul R. La Monica, editor at large


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Ben Bernanke and the rest of the Federal Reserve may think that low interest rates can continue to be just what the economy needs to get back on track.

But many disagree, including one of Washington's other big financial power brokers.

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Sheila Bair, the influential chairman of the FDIC, testified earlier this week in front of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that "low interest rates encouraged consumer borrowing and excessive leverage in the shadow banking sector."

Bair also made a point to cite "stimulative monetary policies" first in a list of what she described as "numerous problems in our financial markets and regulatory system" that have come to light since the crisis began. Take that Ben!

Sure, Bernanke may be able to point to the government's latest consumer price index figures, which show that inflation appears to be under control, as evidence that there is no need to raise rates just yet.

Consumer prices rose just 2.7% during the past 12 months and a scant 0.1% in December. The core CPI, which strips out the price of food and energy, was up just 1.8% for the year and also 0.1% in December.

These numbers are relatively mild and were roughly in line with economists' expectations. So that should, in theory, give the Fed room to keep interest rates super-duper low for some time longer.

Kurt Karl, chief U.S. economist with Swiss Re, said that the low inflation outlook, combined with a persistently high unemployment rate, will keep the Fed on the sidelines until the end of this year. He said he does not think the central bank will raise rates until December.

But would that really be the right move?

The Fed has been maintaining what economists dub zero interest rate policy -- or ZIRP if you're into funny-sounding acronyms -- since December 2008.

While ZIRP has arguably helped to stabilize the banking system and economy as a whole, some worry that the current Fed may be on the verge of repeating some of the same mistakes made by Alan Greenspan in response to the 2001 recession.

Bernanke vigorously defended his predecessor in a speech earlier this month, arguing that low rates did not sow the seeds for the housing boom and credit crisis, tacitly implying that keeping rates at zero now will not create the next big asset bubble.

Of course, nobody in their right mind should expect the Fed to start drastically boosting rates anytime soon. Still, it may be a mistake to completely reject the possibility of inflation as a threat.

Even though overall consumer prices only rose slightly in December, anyone taking a trip to the local gas station lately is aware that gas prices are alarmingly on the rise again this month.

And after a disastrous year for milk producers in 2009, there are many reports about how milk prices could spike higher this year.

Economists may often choose to exclude volatile energy and food costs when looking at inflation numbers. But that's a classic (and silly) case of scholarly research trumping reality.

How can anyone with a straight face say that inflation is under wraps as long as you factor out such trivial expenses like eating, driving and heating your house?

Inflation doesn't have to run wild to be a problem

Keith McCullough, CEO and founder of Hedgeye Risk Management, an investment research firm, said that he thinks that the rate of inflation fell as low as it could go last summer.

McCullough said he doesn't think a return to the nightmarish levels of inflation from the 1970s are on the horizon. But he pointed to both the recent rises in the price of oil -- which could hurt consumers -- and copper -- which could hit industrial businesses -- as signs of inflation that the Fed shouldn't dismiss.

"Even with annual core inflation at just 1.8%, interest rates at zero are unreasonable and unsustainable," he said. "Is the Fed ignoring potential inflation risks? Absolutely. That's what they do."

To be fair, rising labor costs are usually the biggest contributing factor to inflation -- and the weak job market has kept salaries in check. So it's understandable that the Fed may be reluctant to start worrying about inflation until there is a return to job growth and a noticeable decline in unemployment.

But the thing about inflation is that it also has a tendency of being tough to bring under control once that cat's out of the bag. Bernanke and other Fed members may argue that they can combat pricing pressures fairly easily by raising rates once they see signs of inflation, but it may not be that simple.

In fact, Kevin Kliesen, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, wrote in a quarterly review piece earlier this month that by keeping rates low for an extended period of time, "there might still be a danger of inflating asset prices" because low rates could fuel more speculative investments.

Kliesen also pointed to "the exploding budget deficit" as a concern and concluded that because of "the magnitude of the policy responses to the financial crisis and the Great Recession", the Fed's "margin of error seems much smaller than at any time in the Fed's history."

That's a sober warning that is worth taking seriously. It's one thing for a member of the growing chorus of Fed bashers in Congress to be expressing concern about Bernanke's monetary policy. But when an economist who works for one of the Fed's regional banks, in addition to Bair, are worried about rates, it's time to pay attention.

The Fed can't keep claiming that inflation is nowhere to be found and that rates could stay at zero for years without having some consequences.

Reader comment of the week: I'm going to try include more feedback from readers of the Buzz and interact with you even more this year. The video version of the Buzz, which features my take on reader comments about the columns will return shortly -- and with a vengeance.

Time permitting, I'm going to also try and get involved more in the Facebook Connect discussions and actually post comments of my own.

Finally, every Friday I'm going to highlight my favorite reader response of the week. I'm even going to resist the urge to put my editor hat on and will cut and paste them verbatim without correcting unsightly spelling or grammar mistakes. (RIP, English language. Sigh.) And If I'm in a magnanimous mood, I may even give a shout-out to two readers.

So who's the winner this week? Yuan Zeng, come on down! He wrote the following in response to Wednesday's column about Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) possibly leaving China. "Now if google really leaves, China will leave the world! Thats something I do not wish to see. GreatWall didnt protect us in the past, nor will the Great Firewall protect its people."

Well said. One can only hope that Google's tough stance will make a difference in China. To top of page

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