Video: Bernanke on inflation

updated 6/4/2008 6:30:03 PM ET 2008-06-04T22:30:03

Oil shocks in the 1970s jolted the economy, gasoline and food prices spiraled and growth stalled. It could happen again, but will it?

Probably not, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says, because today’s economy is more resilient and better able to absorb such a painful punch.

Bernanke does not believe the United States will experience the out-of-control prices seen three decades ago, he told students at Harvard, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1975.

Back then, the economy suffered from a dangerous combination of stubborn inflation and stagnant growth. There are fears today that the U.S. may be heading in that direction again.

“We see little indication today of the beginnings of a 1970s-style wage-price spiral, in which wages and prices chased each other ever upward,” Bernanke said.

Then, as now, the U.S. endured a serious oil price shock, sharply rising prices for food and other commodities and subpar economic growth, he said.

Oil prices, which peaked at $135.09 a barrel in late May, have moderated at around $122 a barrel. Gasoline prices, however, have marched higher. They rose to a new nationwide record of above $3.98 a gallon on Wednesday and are likely to hit $4 in the coming days.

Today’s economy, however, is more flexible in responding to difficulties and the country is more energy efficient than a generation ago, Bernanke said.

“Since 1975, the energy required to produce a given amount of output in the United States has fallen by half,” he said.

Companies are operating much more efficiently these days. Those crucial productivity gains can help to blunt inflationary forces. After 1973, productivity gains slowed sharply — averaging only about 1.5 percent growth per a year for the next 20 years, Bernanke said.

And, Fed policymakers over the years also have learned more about inflation and how to fight it, he said.

Major Market Indices

“Many things are better today than they were then,” Bernanke said, recalling the days of the ‘70s when drivers lined up on odd and even days to buy gasoline and gas stations posted signs saying “No gas.”

Bernanke’s remarks come just one day after he said that the Fed’s rate-cutting campaign was coming to an end because of increasing concerns about inflation. He took aim at the role of the weakened dollar in pushing prices higher. It was a rare public pronouncement by a Fed chairman about the U.S. greenback.

The Fed is paying attention to the extent to which consumers, investors and businesses believe prices will rise in the future. Monitoring those “inflation expectations” are important. If people believe inflation will keep going up, they will change their behavior in ways that aggravate inflation — thus, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Some indicators of longer-term inflation expectations have risen in recent months, which is a significant concern for the Federal Reserve,” Bernanke told the Harvard students. “We will need to monitor that situation closely.”

Changes in current inflation expectations have been measured in just “tenths of a percentage point” as opposed to “whole percentage points” in the mid-1970s, he said. That highlighted the difference between how people now and then viewed inflation.

Paychecks today are shrinking as rising prices bite into them. In the 1970s, people were demanding — and getting — higher wages in anticipation of rapidly rising prices; hence, the “wage-price” spiral Bernanke cited.

The inflation rate has averaged about 3.5 percent over the past four quarters. That is “significantly higher” than the Fed would like but much less than the double-digit inflation rates of the mid-1970s and 1980, Bernanke said.

Paul Volcker, Fed chairman in the 1980s, broke inflation’s grip by raising interest rates to the highest levels since the Civil War. That approach, however, plunged the country into a painful recession in 1981-82.

Bernanke and other Fed officials have put inflation higher on their current list of concerns. But the economy remains fragile, buffeted by housing, credit and financial crises.

To help brace the economy, the Fed dropped interest rates in late April to 2 percent, a nearly four-year low, and continued a rate-cutting campaign that started last September. Bernanke suggested Tuesday that the Fed would not be inclined to cut rates further given inflation concerns.

Many economists believe the Fed will hold rates steady at its next meeting on June 24-25 and probably through much, if not all, this year. But some believe that inflation could flare up and force the Fed to begin boosting rates later this year or in 2009.

Despite the pain in people’s purses, the economy as a whole has “thus far dealt with the current oil price shock comparatively well,” Bernanke said. Challenges remain, he added, “in dealing with rising global demand for energy, especially if continued demand growth and constrained supplies maintain intense pressure on prices."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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