After the president of the United States, the most powerful person on the planet is the chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Ask almost anyone on the street for the name of the U.S. president, and you'll get a quick answer.
But if you ask the same person what the Federal Reserve is, you'll likely get a blank stare.
They don't know - partly due to the institution's deliberately obscure name - that the Fed is really the third iteration of the country's central bank. Or that the Fed manipulates the nation's economic destiny by controlling the money supply.
And that's just how the Fed likes it. They'd prefer Boobus americanus not understand the king-like power they wield.
By simply choosing to utter the right words, the chairman of the Fed can create or extinguish trillions of dollars of wealth both in and outside of the U.S. He holds the economic fate of billions of people in his hands.
So it's no shocker that investors carefully parse everything he says. They have to, if they want to be successful. Some even go as far as to analyze the almighty chairman's body language. Of course, the mainstream financial media revere the Fed.
You may recall the unhealthy spectacle that occurred in 1996. That's when Alan Greenspan, the Fed chairman at the time, spoke the now famous phrase "irrational exuberance" in what should have otherwise been a dull and forgettable speech.
Investors heard Greenspan's phrase to mean that the Fed would soon raise interest rates to slow the global economy.
It's worth mentioning that Greenspan didn't actually say the Fed would raise rates. Nor did he intend to signal that.
Nonetheless, the reaction was swift and panicky. U.S. markets were closed at the time, but stocks in Japan and Hong Kong dropped 3%. The German stock market fell 4%. When trading started in the U.S. market the next day, the market opened down 2%.
Billions of dollars of wealth vanished in a period of 16 hours.
That's the absurd power over the global economy that the Federal Reserve gives to one human being.
The words of the chairman can make or break the fortunes of anyone with a brokerage account.
The Fed's Alice in Wonderland Economy
I almost fell out of my chair when I heard it...
A journalist recently asked Janet Yellen, the current chair of the Federal Reserve, if the central bank would keep interest rates at 0% forever.
Her response: "I can't completely rule it out."
I was stunned.
The deferential financial media hurried to ignore the significance of that statement. Instead, it acted the way big city police might act after making a messy arrest on a busy sidewalk. "Move along folks, nothing to see here!"
Clearly, there was something to see. Something very important.
Yellen's words came amidst one of the most anticipated economic pronouncements in a generation... whether the Fed would finally raise interest rates for the first time in nine years. Short-term rates have been at zero since the 2008 financial crisis.
Interest rates are simply the price of borrowing money. Setting them at an artificial level is nothing other than price fixing. Not surprisingly, it has led to enormous amounts of malinvestment and other distortions in the economy.
Malinvestment is the result of faulty decision-making. Any investor or business can make a mistake, but central bank manipulation of interest rates subsidizes bad, wasteful decisions.
Cheap borrowing costs trick companies. It causes them to plow money into plants, equipment, and other assets that appear profitable because borrowing costs are low. Only later, when the profits don't show up, do they discover that the capital was wasted.
Seven years of quantitative easing (QE) and Fed-engineered zero interest rates have drawn the U.S. and much of the world into an unsustainable "Alice in Wonderland" bubble economy riddled with malinvestment.
The pundits had expected that, at this recent meeting, the Fed would move to raise rates just a little and give the global economy a tiny taste of sobriety.
Not even that nudge materialized.
Instead, the Fed sat on its hands. It kept interest rates at zero.
And Janet Yellen couldn't even rule out that rates would stay at zero forever.
If she can't even do that, how is she going to start a sustained series of rate hikes, as many of those same pundits now expect her to do a few months down the road?
The truth is, seven years of 0% yields and successive rounds of money printing has so distorted the U.S. economy that it can't handle even the tiniest increase in interest rates. It would be the pin that pricks the biggest stock and bond market bubble in all of human history. The Fed cannot let that happen.
What Happens Next
It's clear that the Fed can't raise interest rates in any meaningful way. It would trigger a financial meltdown that would quickly force them to reverse course.
The Fed might be able to get away with a token increase, but that's all.
In other words, the Fed has trapped itself.
Former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke admitted as much recently when he said he didn't expect rates to normalize in his lifetime.
And then, we have the current chair Janet Yellen saying that rates might stay at zero forever!
Yellen's belief that she has the power to suppress interest rates until the end of time is a frightening sign.
As powerful as the Fed is, it isn't stronger than the markets. A crisis in the markets could force rates higher even if the Fed doesn't want them to go there. And the longer the Fed tries to sustain abnormalities like QE and 0% interest rates, the more likely it is that the whole business will end with the markets crushing the Fed.
And that's not even considering a collapse of the petrodollar system or China pushing the establishment of a New Silk Road in Eurasia...two catalysts that would likely force interest rates higher.
So I'll go ahead and disagree with Yellen and rule out the possibility that rates might stay at zero forever. They won't, because they can't.
At the next sign of a market swoon or of a weakening economy, or with the next episode of deflationary jitters, the Fed will again ramp up the easy money. It could be another round of QE. Or the Fed could push interest rates into negative territory. If that fails, the Fed could go for the nuclear option and drop freshly printed money out of helicopters as Bernanke once infamously suggested - or, more likely, into everyone's bank account. They'll do whatever it takes, no matter what the eventual damage to the dollar's value.
Whatever the details, one thing should be clear. This politburo of unaccountable central planners is the greatest risk to your financial wellbeing today.
What You Can Do About It
It's a terrifying thought that the actions of a few people at the Fed so endanger your financial security.
But the facts are worse than that. There's more to worry about than just the financial effects. The social and political implications of the Fed's actions are even more dangerous.
An economic depression and currency inflation (perhaps hyperinflation) are very much in the cards. These things rarely lead to anything but bigger government, less freedom, and shrinking prosperity. Sometimes they lead to much worse.
Fortunately, your destiny doesn't need to be hostage to what's coming.
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