By David Zeiler
Associate Editor, Money Morning
U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke did what most everyone expected Wednesday at the culmination of the Federal Open Market Committee's (FOMC) two-day meeting - he left average Americans vulnerable to the pangs of higher prices and soaring inflation.
Indeed, as yet another FOMC meeting drew to a close without any significant policy changes, the central bank, as many predicted, kept interest rates at 0% to 0.25%, where they've been since December 2008.
And citing weaker than expected economic growth, the FOMC vowed to remain in an "accommodative stance" by retaining its huge $2.832 trillion portfolio of securities and loans.
The Fed will do this by using the money from maturing bonds and principal payments from its securities holdings to buy more bonds "according to a distribution that is nearly identical to that executed under the Treasury purchase program," according to the New York Fed statement - an extension of the quantitative easing (QE2) program in all but name.
Money Morning Chief Investment Strategist Keith Fitz-Gerald saw this "stealth mode" QE3 coming.
"Instead of printing more money, the Fed is likely to start reinvesting the proceeds of maturing debt," Fitz-Gerald said. "Ultimately, that won't reduce our government's bloated, toxic balance sheet. But it will change the makeup of that balance sheet - and not for the better."
By keeping interest rates at historic lows and continuing to reinvest in maturing debt, rather than retiring it, the U.S. Federal Reserve runs the risk of feeding an inflation rate that in recent months has risen to uncomfortable levels.
But that's something Bernanke has sought to acknowledge without taking responsibility.
"Inflation has moved up recently, but the [Fed] anticipates that inflation will subside... as the effects of past energy and other commodity price increases dissipate," the FOMC said in its statement.
When judging inflation, the Fed uses the core consumer price index (CPI), which excludes food and energy. In May the core CPI rose 1.5%, the most since January 2010 but below the Fed's informal target of 2%.
In his remarks yesterday, Bernanke said he favors the Fed setting an official inflation target, but the FOMC has set no timetable to do so.
Meanwhile, the full CPI increased 3.6% in May, the most since October 2008. Although the Fed likes the core CPI because it avoids volatility, many - including some within the Fed itself - believe the full CPI more accurately reflects the real-world experience of the U.S. consumer.
"One immediate benefit of dropping the emphasis on core inflation would be to reconnect the Fed with households and businesses who know price changes when they see them," James Bullard, president of the Fed Bank ofSt. Louis, said last month.
Fitz-Gerald was more blunt.
"Companies are, in fact, passing along costs as fast as they can," he observed in May. "McDonald's Corp. (NYSE: MCD), Nestle SA, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) are just a few of the companies that have spoken out about the specific impact that higher component and ingredient costs have had on their earnings. Many have adjusted their guidance."
Making inflation even harder on average Americans is an unemployment rate of 9.1% and slumping wages. Average hourly earnings fell 1.6% in May.
Of course, using the core CPI number allows the Fed to sweep inflation rate concerns under the rug to pursue policies it believes will stimulate a stubbornly sluggish U.S. economy.
Yet those policies could ultimately prove ruinous to the U.S. economy.
"Be warned: There is every chance that the Fed will lose control, inflation will spiral - and not just to the ruinous levels we saw in the 1970s, but well beyond them, too," Money Morning Contributing Editor Martin Hutchinson said recently. "Inflation may become much more acute - reaching the excruciating/ruinous 20% to 50% level - rather than reaching and then holding steady at the uncomfortable-but-bearable 10% level.
"Even after that occurs, Bernanke will refuse to launch any sort of significant counterattack, or combat it," Hutchinson continued.
Ultimately, the Fed's buying binge could cause a runaway inflation rate that would create a crisis for the U.S. dollar.
"With the U.S. market straining under the burden of rising inflation and some ill-advised monetary and fiscal moves, the death of the dollar is looming as a worst-case -- but still possible - scenario," Hutchinson said.