Republican presidential candidates want his head. Inflation hawks on the Federal Reserve board think his policies go too far, and advocates for the unemployed think they stop too short. Fed chair Ben Bernanke seems to be ticking off economy-watchers at every turn. But while some of Bernanke’s policies have certainly been unconventional, are the critics right about them being ‘inflationary’?
Take Newt Gingrich. He has called Bernanke “the most inflationary, dangerous and power-centered” Fed chairman in history and said he would sack Bernanke pronto. Texas Governor Rick Perry called Bernanke’s “money printing” (in other words, monetary easing through bond-buying schemes like quantitative easing) “treasonous.” And GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney thinks Bernanke has “over-inflated the amount of currency he’s created.”
These attacks get at several issues, none well explained. One is the idea that we are experiencing higher inflation than under any other Fed chairman in history. According to this chart by Jodi Beggs (care of WonkBlog’s Brad Plumer), that allegation appears to be false. The average annual inflation rate during Bernanke’s term is lower than any Fed chair since 1970.
The other issue is whether Bernanke, by increasing the money supply, is creating dangerous conditions that would stoke inflation down the road. Fortunately, Beggs sheds some light on that notion, too. Compared to other Fed chairs throughout history, Bernanke hasn’t been the biggest expander of the money supply either (M1 and M2 are different measure of money supply):
Finally, there is the issue of our currency being “over-inflated” (in Romney’s words). This seems to hint at the idea that, due to low U.S. interest rates and an expanding money supply, our money is losing value abroad. The falling dollar, after all, guts the purchasing power of U.S. consumers internationally, making that vacation to the Swiss alps and the price of imports like oil more expensive. But while it’s true that the Fed’s quantitative easing program affects the dollar’s value, there are many other factors weighing in. The dollar has been falling on a trade-weighted basis (meaning against a basket of other major currencies) for the past decade. And dollar holders tend to move into other currencies with higher yields when markets are hungry for risk. Risk appetites go up and the dollar goes down. Risk appetites fall and the dollar rebounds. Foreign investors also tend to sell dollars when they feel the U.S. economy’s fundamentals are in question. And what raised the biggest red flag about the U.S. economy this year? It wasn’t Ben Bernanke and his quantitative easing campaign. It was the debt-ceiling debate and the Congressional gridlock over whether to keep paying the U.S.’s bills, which led countries like China and South Korea to announce they were doing all they could to get out of the dollar.
(SPECIALS: Grading the Stimulus)
There is certainly an important conversation to be had about inflation, the dollar’s value, and our debt. But the more complicated the economic issue (and the drivers of inflation and currency values are about as complicated as they get), the easier it is for politicians to win voters’ hearts by muddying up the facts.