The Federal Reserve this week again pledged to keep interest rates close to zero, which means borrowing money remains cheap for banks. What, though, does it mean for U.S. stocks and economy?
"Interest rates are artificially low," said Michael Pento, chief economist at Delta Global Advisors in Huntington Beach, Calif. "They don't belong at zero percent."
If rates stay low for too long, economists including Pento are saying, a bit more loudly: Beware of inflation. If indeed inflation does spark, the economic recovery would stall and stocks would drop.
Investors are forced to buy commodities and stocks because their cash is worth less each day as the dollar grows cheaper, economists argue. "As long as the Fed continues to print money," DailyFinance's Dan Burrows wrote, "the U.S. continues to run a big trade deficit, and other nations move their foreign exchange reserves out of dollars, the buck has no place to go but down."
Pento sees the Fed's current path as one that destroys the U.S. dollar's value and leads to inflation. That will fuel the price of gold and lead to bubbles bursting in stocks and bonds. "All of this is rocket fuel for gold," he said, adding, "It's the perfect place to preserve your wealth and store value."
As interest rates stay at or close to zero, though, he said, investors are buying more gold and other commodities, such as platinum, silver and nickel. Sugar, corn and other base metals will also increase in value, according to Pento. Higher commodity prices, he said, "will continue until the Federal Reserve stops destroying the purchasing power of our currency."
Axel Merk, president and chief investment officer of Merk Mutual Funds in Palo Alto, California, said the U.S. is trying to get out of the recession by depressing the U.S. dollar. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke believes it's the answer because it helped get the U.S. out of the Great Depression, Merk said. "If and when inflation does show it's ugly head, and I don't know when it does, the Fed won't be able to raise rates because the consumer would crash right back down."
That said, Merk believes the Fed may be hoping inflation perks up because it would help boost growth. Inflation isn't ideal, he said, but is better than deflation. "If I had to pick a choice between inflation and deflation, I would pick inflation," Merk said. "That said, there's nothing positive about inflation. It's a feel-good thing in the short term." Inflation helps preserve jobs in the short term, yet works against the goal of the Fed, which is to keep inflation under control.
Former Federal Reserve of St. Louis President William Poole told DailyFinance that higher inflation would help boost home prices, but for the Fed to allow higher inflation in the U.S., "would be a horrible mistake. I don't think they'll do it deliberately, but they may get there accidentally."
Not all economists are fretting about inflation appearing soon. David Resler, Nomura's chief economist in New York, sees no danger of inflation even with rates at zero to 0.25 percent in the near future. "If we have zero interest rates 10 years from now, I'll be very worried about inflation, but under the current circumstances, it's no threat whatsoever," Resler said. "Inflation expectations are stable and inflation is stable."
Delta Global's Pento counters by saying, "The economy is going to be weak and inflation will be high." Who is right? Time will tell. Using history as a guide, if cash is cheap for too long, inflation will rise. If inexpensive cash sparks borrowing, economic and profit growth, while interest rates rise, then inflation would likely remain tame. In the meantime, economists say, keep one eye on the market and the other on your investments. And never stop peering ahead to see if inflation is lurking.
Anthony Massucci is a senior writer and columnist for DailyFinance. You may follow him on Twitter at hianthony.
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