What Happens When the Fed Really Does Run Out of Ammunition?

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Stocks dropped sharply last week, with the Dow falling some 200 points, after the Federal Reserve released the minutes of its January Open Market Committee meeting. Although the minutes reaffirmed the Fed’s easy-money policy, they also showed that some members of the committee had voiced concerns. The dissenters cautioned that quantitative easing, the current program of massive bond buying, could not be continued indefinitely without serious risks.

Loading the Fed up with bonds creates the danger of big losses for the central bank if interest rates rise (which causes bond prices to fall). In a worst-case scenario, those losses could total half a trillion dollars over three years, according to one estimate. As a result, the January minutes included a carefully worded caveat: “Evaluation of the efficacy, costs and risks of asset purchases might well lead the committee to taper or end its purchases before it judged that a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market had occurred.”

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke remains undaunted, however. In his testimony before Congress on Tuesday he defended his easy-money policy, noting that it has “supported real growth in employment and kept inflation close to our target.” With consumer prices up only 1.6% over the past year, Bernanke declared: “My inflation record is the best of any Federal Reserve chairman in the postwar period — or at least one of the best.”