5 tough questions for Ben Bernanke

With QE 2 coming to an end in June, many people and investors have a lot of questions as to what is next for America. Many expert investors are bracing for the worst mainly due to the massive money printing and uncontrollable debt in the country.

April 26, 2011, 12:23 p.m. EDT
By Richard Band
MARKETWATCH

LONDONDERRY, N.H. (MarketWatch) — The clock is ticking on “Bubbles” Bernanke. Come June 30, his latest quantitative easing program (QE2) is scheduled to end. The big question on everyone’s mind is: what happens after June 30? Will government bond yields explode?

A number of respected commentators, including bond king Bill Gross of PIMCO, are bracing for the worst — and it’s not hard to see why. Certainly, the Federal Reserve’s behavior in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis has exceeded, in sheer recklessness, anything attempted by any senior central bank in history.

First, the Fed stuffed its balance sheet with more than $1 trillion of dodgy mortgages (purchased with money created out of thin air). Then last November, well over a year after the economy supposedly pulled out of recession, Bernanke’s crew voted to buy another $600 billion of Treasury paper.

This massive money printing has undermined global confidence in the dollar’s purchasing power. One result: A sharp jump in commodity prices, including gold, oil and — most recently — foodstuffs. Is Bernanke happy with things? You have to wonder.

But as the Federal Reserve chairman takes the podium Wednesday in the central bank’s first-ever press conference, there are far more direct questions on my mind for Ben Bernanke. Here are five that I would like the answer to:

1) How much quantitative easing is enough?

Abe Lincoln supposedly said, “You can’t fool all the people all the time.” I might add: “You don’t have to — a majority will do.” And sure enough, markets have moved about 12% higher since the announcement of QE2 almost six months ago.

But wait, this wasn’t supposed to happen: When the Federal Reserve launched its latest bond-buying program on Nov. 4, the yield on the 10-year T-note stood at 2.48%. By February, the benchmark yield had soared as high as 3.72%, a whopping 50% increase. If QE2 was supposed to keep rates down (as you promised), it has been a flop.

Mr. Bernanke, your $600 billion QE2 program clearly smacks of a desperation tactic, ill grounded in economic theory or historical experience. Over the past 10 years, Japan has repeatedly failed to spark its moribund economy by monetizing government debt. Why should the same gimmick work here? Read about how Fed failures have doomed Barack Obama to just one term, on InvestorPlace.com.

2) What do gold at $1,500 and oil at $112 say about confidence in the Fed?

In an op-ed last November, Mr. Bernanke, you wrote that concerns about quantitative easing were “overstated.” You went on to say that it did not “result in higher inflation. We have made all necessary preparations, and we are confident that we have the tools to unwind these policies at the appropriate time. The Fed is committed to both parts of its dual mandate and will take all measures necessary to keep inflation low and stable.”

But if that’s the case, then why is gold GCM11 -0.48% hitting new all-time highs over $1,500 an ounce? Why did oil CLM11 -0.16% close Monday at $112 per barrel? Does gas at a national average of $3.88, just 23 cents shy of its all-time high, strike you as the “price stability” described in the Fed’s announcement of QE2?

Already, according to MasterCard SpendingPulse, gasoline sales in the United States have tumbled for five straight weeks. Consumers are cutting back, and businesses will soon feel the pinch. How can we have confidence amid your comments and these trends? Read about 11 ETFs that will save you from inflation, on InvestorPlace.com.

3) Are near-zero interest rates are fair to savers and retired folks on fixed incomes?

Mr. Bernanke, earlier this year, you said on CNBC that the purpose of QE2 was “not to increase stock prices per se.” But at the same time, you said, “But the way monetary policy always works is through interest rates and asset prices. …By taking these securities out of the market and pushing investors into alternative assets, we have led to higher stock prices… The policy is affecting the stock market really in two ways. One is by lowering long-term yields and forcing investors into alternative assets.”

Thanks to your monetary policies, money-market mutual funds are now relying on fee waivers to avoid breaking the buck. For example, according to the Spring 2011 edition of the T. Rowe Price Report, without these waivers the firm’s money fund yields would be as much as 29 basis points in the red! Even Vanguard, a not-for-profit fund company, admits in its money-fund prospectuses, “Vanguard and the fund’s board have voluntarily agreed to temporarily limit certain net operating expenses in excess of the fund’s daily yield so as to maintain a zero or positive yield for the fund.” Read about

So tell me, Ben, if even a not-for-profit fund company can’t keep its money funds afloat without a subsidy, how can today’s savers and retirees secure their financial future? How much longer does the government plan to steal from savers in order to fatten bank profit margins?

4) What would you do if, one of these days, the Chinese placed a $100 billion order to sell their U.S. Treasury bonds?

Last week, Standard and Poor’s announced it was downgrading the outlook for U.S. debt, saying, “In 2003-2008, the U.S.’s general (total) government deficit fluctuated between 2% and 5% of GDP. Already noticeably larger than that of most ‘AAA’ rated sovereigns, it ballooned to more than 11% in 2009 and has yet to recover.” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei responded, “We hope the U.S. government will earnestly adopt responsible policy measures to protect the interest of investors.” Read about how a credit downgrade could be good for America, on InvestorPlace.com.

Let’s face right up to that big issue that S&P has called to our attention: The U.S. government’s spending has gotten wildly out of control, and something really needs to be done about it. S&P says an agreement between the Republican and Democratic parties in Congress and the White House needs to be reached by 2013. If not, S&P says there’s a one-in-three chance that they will have to lower the debt rating of the United States government.

The Fed is sitting on a powder keg. At some point, it will be necessary to restore a semblance of balance between savers and borrowers. When interest rates begin to tick up, the rush to buy anything and everything could turn into a universal urge to sell. The Chinese are already complaining about the meager rewards of Treasuries.

What would happen if they decided to dump just 10% of their $1.15 trillion position in U.S. debt? How is the Fed going to deal with such an outcome?

5) With so many regional Fed presidents voicing dissent, is the Fed’s renowned “collegial” decision-making process breaking down?

Just after you announced QE2, Mr. Bernanke, your former fellow governor at the Fed, Kevin Warsh, was critiquing the policy (in diplomatic terms, of course), saying, “The Federal Reserve is not a repair shop for broken fiscal, trade or regulatory policies.”

Given what ails us, additional monetary policy measures are poor substitutes for more powerful pro-growth policies.” Since then, Warsh has resigned. Meanwhile, Thomas Hoenig of the Kansas City Fed has called QE2 a “bargain with the devil,” Richard Fisher of the Dallas Fed has warned the U.S. could suffer “the same fate as in the Weimar Republic,” and Charles Plosser of the Philadelphia Fed has said a failure to reverse course “could have serious consequences for inflation and economic stability.”

What do you think of so many regional Fed presidents going around, giving speeches that dissent from your own point of view? What makes you so sure that you are right and everyone else is wrong?

Richard Band is the editor of Profitable Investing and writes for InvestorPlace.com.

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