The Fed's Benderread the entire essaySo Federal Reserve officials are whispering to reporters that they will consider a "pause" after another interest-rate cut this week. Perhaps we should be more respectful, but this sounds like the alcoholic who tells his wife he'll quit drinking next weekend, after one more bender. What Chairman Ben Bernanke needs isn't a gradual withdrawal from easy money but membership in Central Bankers Anonymous.Eight months into the Fed's most recent rate-cutting spree, the evidence is overwhelming that it has been a major policy mistake. Aggressive rate cutting – taking the fed funds rate to 2.25% from 5.25% last September – has had little effect on the banking crisis it was supposed to ease...Meanwhile, the Fed's decision to open the general monetary spigots has inspired a global commodity boom unlike any since the 1970s. Oil has climbed to nearly $119 a barrel today from $70 in late August, a 70% increase. Farm and other commodities have seen a similar surge, with corresponding increases in food prices leading to shortages and riots in Egypt and other places, and to rice hoarding even in Southern California...The practical impact has been to send energy and food prices soaring. This is a direct tax on both the world's poor and America's middle class. Just when the U.S. economy needs a resilient consumer given the fall in housing prices, these price increases have eviscerated consumer pocketbooks. In its attempt to help Wall Street and the financial system, Fed policy is punishing average Americans. The public is frustrated and angry with these price increases, and it has a right to be. Inflation is the thief of the thrifty middle class.The Fed's problem has been both political and intellectual. Politically, Mr. Bernanke has been unwilling to say no to Wall Street and the Beltway political class, which reflexively demand easier money in a crisis. This demand has become almost Pavlovian since Wall Street came to believe during the late 1990s in what was known, fairly or not, as the "Greenspan put." It takes character to resist this political pressure, but that is what Fed chairmen are supposed to have.
As for the intellectual problem, the Fed and much of Wall Street convinced themselves that the only inflation measure that matters is "core inflation," which excludes food and energy. The Fed's monks devised that measure to avoid an overreaction to commodity price movements, but instead they have used it to pretend that food and energy prices don't matter. Throughout this decade, they pointed to core inflation to argue that "inflationary expectations remain well anchored," even as the dollar and commodity price signals were telling us that the opposite was true. Americans don't buy gas and groceries with "core" dollars...As the Fed's open-market committee meets this week, what the world wants is a revival of American monetary leadership. It wants the Bernanke Fed to stop the global run on the dollar, and that means declaring an end to its rate-cutting mistake.