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The Daily Reckoning

More inflation to come?

Inflation could get much, much higher, and the stakes aren't getting any lower.

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This upward adjustment of prices to the cheaper dollar is beginning to flow through to the consumer. For the past 3 months, the seasonally adjusted annualized rate of advance in the CPI is up to 3.9%, with food and energy prices – the items that have the greatest short-term impact on a family’s budget – accelerating to 3.1% and 27% over the same 3 months. Given the relative magnitudes of the dollar’s devaluation against gold, it is reasonable to expect consumer prices to be rising at a 5% plus annualized rate in the months ahead.

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Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s assurance during last December’s interview on 60 Minutes that he was “100% certain” the Fed could control an outbreak of inflation above 2% was hubris. These data show that inflation has already broken out, and that there is little the Fed can do to stop the price indices from reflecting the dollar’s devaluation of the past two years. And, his statement last Friday in Paris at a meeting of the finance leaders of the Group of 20 that “resurgent demand in the emerging markets has contributed significantly to the sharp run-up in global commodity prices” ignores the central role of the dollar’s devaluation on rising global inflation.

Moreover, Bernanke’s promise to respond to higher inflation by raising the Fed Funds rate carries with it significant additional risks. Slowing the economy reduces the supply of goods and services relative to the supply of money, which itself can be inflationary. In addition, higher short-term interest rates increase the opportunity cost of holding currency and checking accounts, and therefore will lead to an increase in the turnover or velocity of money. That too will add upward pressure to prices.

The experience of the 1970s illustrates the danger. The Fed raised the Fed Funds rate from a low of 3.3% in February 1972 to more than 10% in July 1973. But consumer price inflation continued to accelerate for the next year.

To avoid another extended period of high inflation and interest rates, the Fed and the Obama Administration need to acknowledge that the current, paper dollar system is deeply flawed and prone to error and instability. The alternative is a rules-based system in which the Fed begins to use quantitative tightening and easing to steady the value of the dollar as represented by the price of gold. A monetary system in which the dollar is as good as gold – for all of its imperfections – would quickly deliver price stability, low and stable interest rates, and increased financial security to the American people.

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