- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 14, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Federal Reserve concluded its most recent meeting by voting to do nothing. That’s a relief. It’s probably the best holiday gift the Fed could have given Americans.

Interest rates have been just about zero for quite some time, so there’s very little left that monetary policy can do to help. Federal Reserve Governor Charles L. Evans was alone in casting a vote to unleash another round of quantitative easing (QE3). The rest sided with Chairman Ben S. Bernanke against doing anything with the money supply - for now. The Fed already has pumped about $2 trillion into the economy, with little to show for it. Throwing yet more good money after bad would be a disaster, but Mr. Bernanke has not ruled out the possibility of a QE3.

Mr. Bernanke cited the recent drop in the unemployment rate and the uptick in retail sales against further easing of monetary policy. Unfortunately, the real numbers show the economy created a paltry 120,000 jobs at what should have been the height of the holiday hiring season. This shows we are far from economic recovery. Much of the fall in the unemployment rate can be explained by the fact that about 300,000 people left the workforce, driving labor-force participation to its lowest level in decades.

Nor has Operation Twist solved any of our woes. The Fed has been buying up mortgages and driving rates down to historic lows. That does nothing to help the estimated 14 million homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages, owing more than their homes are worth. Home prices continue to spiral downward in much of the country, and analysts estimate it will be several years before the housing sector recovers. In the interim, being tied to a house that is hard to sell limits labor mobility and aggravates the unemployment problem.

The Fed’s low interest rates were supposed to encourage spending by making borrowing cheap. Instead, they depress the value of assets belonging to savers, yielding exactly the opposite effect. The latest flow of funds data from the Fed shows households lost net worth of $2.4 trillion in the third quarter of this year. Not surprisingly, retail sales grew a bare 0.2 percent in November, which is far lower than expected.

This economy’s problems are well beyond the Fed’s power to fix. It’s up to Congress to get runaway spending under control. It’s up to Congress to cut back on unreasonable regulation so the private sector can flourish and create jobs. The best the Fed can do for now is no harm. That means it needs no more pumping money into the system, increasing inflationary pressure - we already have Europe for that. It means no more penalizing savers and the thrifty with near-zero interest rates. As long as the Fed sticks to managing the money supply, the economy might stand a chance.

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