Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke launched a second round of Quantitative Easing (QE2) in October, following over a year of growth in the economy at a robust rate of over 3%. Most analysts pooh-poohed QE2 as an insufficient economic stimulus to create enough inflation to reduce unemployment. I warned that QE2 was like pouring inflationary lighter fluid on the world and then lighting a match. With food inflation now running at 15% in poor countries, the Middle East is just the first area to burn, but fire is smoldering in much of the world and other fires will break out soon.
QE2 is a program by the U.S. Federal Reserve to inject $600 billion of U.S. dollars in the financial system by repurchasing an equivalent amount of U.S. Government bonds. Once the money is paid to the former bondholder, they deposit the cash in banks. Banks take deposit dollars and leverage them by 6 to 10 times creating $3.6 to $6 trillion in credit. Given that the Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. economy is only about $14 trillion annually, it would impossible to immediately purchase 25-40% of the entire economy. Consequently, the reality of Quantitative Easing is that the money will be invested in the stock and commodity markets. The theory is that the financial assets rise on the huge inflows of QE cash, investors will feel wealthier and go to the malls and the car dealerships to “shop till they drop”.
The problem with theory is that QE2 money quickly drove up commodity food prices around the world. This price rise is barely noticeable to Americans who only spend 10% of their personal income on food for three meals a day; but the impact of food inflation is devastating the over half the world that spends approximately 50% of personal income on food for two meals a day. The 15% QE2 induced commodity food price increase has reduced the amount of food poor people can purchase by almost 1/3.
The riots and revolutionary activity burning down Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt are about gut-level economics. Do you think Americans would riot and throwing out our government if we were forced to cut back to eating 1 1/3 meals a day? Once riots start people in cities hoard food to survive and becomes dangerous for farmers to transport food. This is exacerbates food shortages and drives prices even higher.
Unemployment was modestly declining and inflation was flat before the Fed’s August announcement of the new stimulus, as shown above. That trend remains in place as QE2 has not significantly reduced unemployment. The only success of QE2 in U.S. is a 20% in the stock market the last six months.
When the Credit Crisis hit in 2008, the Middle East country of Dubai was the first financially leveraged nation to suffer a debt crash. Since that time; Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Spain and others are also suffering a similar fate. QE2 leveraging of worldwide commodity food prices has sent the Middle East into flames. With the price of a barrel of oil hitting $100 dollars and food prices accelerating, those flames will spread.