The Fed’s In A Tough Spot

The Federal Reserve voted today to leave its federal funds rate steady at 2%.  In addition, in its statement, the Fed gave no real indication of which way rates will go in the future because I’m sure they really don’t know at this point what’s the greater risk … runaway inflation or a severe recession?  Inflation hawks, including Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher, want the Fed to preemptively raise rates to cut off any chance of inflation.  Others feel that by raising rates too soon, any nascent recovery in the credit markets, as well as the broad economy, might be stifled and that leaving rates at current, historically low levels is the prudent course.

It seems at this juncture that with the exception of Mr. Fisher, who cast the lone dissenting vote, the Fed feels that the risks are equally balanced between inflation and recession and that, over time, one clear economic theme will most likely predominate.

If there’s one job I would NOT WANT in this world right now, no matter how much money you offered me, its the head of the Federal Reserve.  Mr. Bernanke and his fellow Fed board members are in a truly tough spot.

Over the last two weeks, we’ve seen some signs that inflation is moderating as the world economy slows.  Oil has come off its all-time high, as have other commodities like corn and copper, in response to what is clearly a slowing world economy.  If those trends continue, in the ensuing weeks that should translate into lower costs for gas, food and other goods as lower fuel and input costs work their way through the system.

While cooling commodity prices are encouraging, the Fed can’t become too complacent.  If they keep rates low for too long real inflation could take root and we’d have a repeat of the 1970’s ‘stagflation’.  It’s a case of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t.’

It’s becoming increasing obvious that any economic recovery won’t happen in 2008 and may not happen until mid-to-late 2009 the Fed is taking a prudent course until there is enough evidence one way or the other how to proceed.

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