...We have sympathy for Ben Bernanke, Fed chairman, and company. The job of a price fixer is never easy. What should money cost? For most of human history this was easy: once you fixed a conversion factor with gold, you just sat back and let the forces of supply and demand do their stuff. But since the collapse of the Bretton Woods currency regime (the last vestige of thousands of years of commodity money), discretion has been the watchword. Nine smart folks at the Fed board have taken over the job of deciding what the price of money should be. If the hagiography and hatred showered on Mr Bernanke’s predecessor, Alan Greenspan, is any indication, that price should be wisely wiggled down to make jobs, up to prick bubbles and now, apparently, back down to offset losses on millions of bad credit decisions.
...As one of the great monetary economists of the last century, Jacques Rueff, pointed out in the late 1960s, people react to the “growing insolvency” of a reserve currency, such as the dollar, by acquiring “gold, land, houses, corporate shares, paintings and other works of art having an intrinsic value because of their scarcity”. Sounds familiar? Indeed, this is the story of our present decade, one in which alternatives to the dollar as a store of value have soared even while the CPI has remained subdued.
This phenomenon is well-known in developing countries, where asset booms combined with low CPI inflation have preceded monetary and financial crises. In Mexico, for example, share prices rose 12-fold between January 1989 and November 1994, while inflation fell from 35 per cent to 7 per cent. Inflation then soared as the Tequila crisis exploded.
Prices of shares and real estate more than doubled from 1993 to 1996 in Indonesia and South Korea while CPI inflation rates were declining. In May 1997, just weeks before the currencies collapsed, inflation was only 4.5 per cent in Indonesia and 3.8 per cent in South Korea....MORE*Manuel Hinds is a former Salvadoran finance minister and author of ‘Playing Monopoly with the Devil’. Benn Steil is director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of Financial Statecraft