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Monetary Mystification

NEW YORK – Central banks on both sides of the Atlantic took extraordinary monetary-policy measures in September: the long awaited “QE3” (the third dose of quantitative easing by the United States Federal Reserve), and the European Central Bank’s announcement that it will purchase unlimited volumes of troubled eurozone members’ government bonds. Markets responded euphorically, with stock prices in the US, for example, reaching post-recession highs.

Others, especially on the political right, worried that the latest monetary measures would fuel future inflation and encourage unbridled government spending.

In fact, both the critics’ fears and the optimists’ euphoria are unwarranted. With so much underutilized productive capacity today, and with immediate economic prospects so dismal, the risk of serious inflation is minimal.

Nonetheless, the Fed and ECB actions sent three messages that should have given the markets pause. First, they were saying that previous actions have not worked; indeed, the major central banks deserve much of the blame for the crisis. But their ability to undo their mistakes is limited.