Before the US House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services Monetary Policy and Rising Prices, March 17, 2011
There is perhaps no topic as important to the average American today as rising prices. Whether we consider food, gasoline, or clothing, the cost of living is increasing significantly. At a time of high unemployment, rising prices trap American families between a rock and a hard place. While rising prices colloquially are referred to as “inflation,” true inflation is defined as an increase in the money supply, and all other things being equal, an increase in the money supply leads to a rise in prices. Inflation is and always has been throughout history a monetary phenomenon, and its destructive effects have ruined societies from the Roman Empire to Weimar Germany to modern-day Zimbabwe.
Blame for the most recent round of price increases has been laid at the feet of the Federal Reserve’s program of quantitative easing, and rightly so in my opinion. This program, known as QE2, sought to purchase a total of $900 billion in US Treasury debt over a period of 8 months. Roughly $110 billion of newly created money is flooding into markets each month, markets which still have not fully recovered from the financial crisis of the last few years. Banks still hold billions of dollars in underperforming mortgage-backed securities on their books, securities which would render numerous major banks insolvent if they were “marked to market.” These nervous banks are hesitant to loan out further money, instead holding well over a trillion dollars on reserve with the Fed. Is it any wonder, then, that the Fed’s new hot money is flowing into commodity markets?
The price of cotton is up more than 170% over the past year, oil is up over 40%, and many categories of food staples are seeing double-digit price growth. This means that food, clothing, and gasoline will become increasingly expensive over the coming year. American families, many of whom already live paycheck to paycheck, increasingly will be forced by these rising prices into unwilling tradeoffs. Rising prices lead to consumers purchasing ground beef rather than steak, drinking water rather than milk, and choosing canned vegetables over fresh. Clothes are worn until they are threadbare, in order to conserve money that keeps food on the table and pays the heating bill. While some might argue that this new frugality is a good thing, frugality is virtuous only when it results from free choice, not when it is forced upon the citizenry by the Fed’s ruinous monetary policy.