After countless months of being ignorant of a significant problem in the U.S. economy, Ben Bernanke is getting down to business to combat inflation. Or so he says. The market isn't happy. And if ol' Ben reneges on his pledge to gain control of surging prices in order to keep stock prices buoyant and please his buddies on Wall Street, it's going to be a lengthy and sobering period before our economy sees the light of day again.
I told you so.
The story many of us here at the Fool predicted is beginning to play out. While Helicopter Ben was out throwing lifesavers to your fellow foolish American homebuyers and major banks like Bear Stearns by lowering interest rates, your American dollar was on its way to becoming worthless against other currencies, boosting prices left and right.
Now we're faced with some serious economic problems. Oil prices have doubled in the last year, leading to sky-high gas prices. And dairy prices have surged so rapidly that a slice of American cheese has become a delicacy in my fridge. It's about time one of our leaders steps in and finally acknowledges that something needs to be done. Of course, we knew it wasn't going to be our president, since he "hadn't heard" that gas had hit $4 a gallon, but it's at least comforting to know someone helping to run this country is finally aware of the problem. It sure took long enough.
On Monday, the Fed chairman announced his vow to crack down on the inflationary pressures that have plagued our nation. But I really question how committed he is to his word. With the ongoing effects of the housing bubble and escalating oil costs hindering growth, Bernanke is still hesitant to raise rates, which leads me to believe he is still oblivious to how economics really works.
Trying to save the inevitable
Don't you think we've already made enough of a mess trying to clean up the housing problems? Let's face it: Home prices and inventory are going to be a lingering problem. As Toll Brothers (NYSE: TOL ) , D.R. Horton (NYSE: DHI ) , Lennar (NYSE: LEN ) , and other builders went on a building spree over the past several years, we accumulated some serious inventory. Until supply and demand level out, prices are going to continue falling, which will induce sluggish growth for some time. We've got to let this issue work itself through the system and stop focusing on the effects of the burst bubble.
And ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) , ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) , and Sunoco (NYSE: SUN ) aren't gorged with profits from massively overcharging us to fill up our tanks. It's our bleeding dollar that's helping to provoke out-of-control oil prices.
So my question to Bernanke is this: If you are trying so desperately to help American people struggling with a stagnant economy and unaffordable mortgage payments, why are you putting swelling food and oil prices on the back burner? Won't that just make it even harder for people to make their monthly payments -- not to mention prolonging the housing and subprime lending debacle?
Bernanke's not the only one who doesn't get it. BMO Capital Market's Sal Guatieri suggested that "the Fed may be inclined to raise rates later this year if the economy doesn't remain weak." The thing is, our economy is going to be weak until someone steps up to the plate and firmly takes action to combat the real problems we have. Like I said, housing and banking problems aren't going away anytime soon, but we can't let the cost of everyday living rise to unaffordable levels in an attempt to avoid a period of lethargic growth from mistakes we made regarding those industries.
If we keep rates in order to spark some type of growth, we'll be waiting a very long time. True, hiking rates will make it more expensive for businesses that borrow to take on new projects -- which ultimately drives long-term growth. But how much can our economy grow in real terms with oil and food at record high prices?
One step at a time
Bernanke's realization that inflation is a problem is certainly a step forward, but I still don't believe he understands the severity of the issue. While inflation is now on his radar screen, he likely won't make a move with monetary policy tools until he sees the effects of the rate cuts and stimulus plan. (And of course, we already know the only stimulus that plan had was to, well, further stimulate inflation.)
The dollar has plunged 11.5% against the euro and 7.2% against the yen since September, when the Fed began to lower borrowing costs. The chain effect from this depreciation has been lengthy and detrimental to consumers in nearly every economic class. The reality is that this economy is going nowhere unless Bernanke snubs Wall Street, gets his economic priorities straight, and acts on his word.
For more on the economy: