Why central banks will just keep getting weaker

Mario I. Blejer, former governor of the Central Bank of Argentina, on independence.

The global financial crisis has raised fundamental questions regarding central banks’ mandates. Over the past few decades, most central banks have focused on price stability as their single and overriding objective. This focus supported the ascendancy of “inflation-targeting” as the favoured monetary policy framework and, in turn, led to operational independence for central banks. The policy was a success: the discipline imposed by strict and rigorous concentration on a sole objective enabled policymakers to control – and then conquer – inflation.

But, as a consequence of this narrow approach, policymakers disregarded the formation of asset- and commodity-price bubbles, and overlooked the resulting banking-sector instability. This, by itself, calls for a review of the overall efficacy of inflation-targeting. Moreover, after the financial crisis erupted, central banks were increasingly compelled to depart from inflation targeting, and to implement myriad unconventional monetary policies in order to ameliorate the consequences of the crash and facilitate economic recovery.

With advanced economies struggling to avoid financial collapse, escape recession, reduce unemployment, and restore growth, central banks are being called upon to address, sometimes simultaneously, growing imbalances. This has triggered a search for a radical redefinition of central banks’ objectives – and has cast doubt on the appropriateness of maintaining their independence.

In particular, central banks’ behavior during the crisis has called into question whether inflation-targeting is an effective framework in the presence of systemic shocks, and, more broadly, whether it can be sustained throughout economic cycles. After all, a policy regime that sets aside its only goal during a crisis seems to lack the ability to cope with unexpected challenges. Critics identify this “crisis straitjacket syndrome” as the main problem with single-minded inflation targeting.

While theoretical arguments can be made to justify recent departures from policy, the reality is that in the post-crisis world, advanced-country central banks’ goals are no longer limited to price stability. In the United States, the Federal Reserve has essentially adopted a quantitative employment target, with nominal GDP targets and other variations under discussion in other countries. And financial stability is again a central-bank responsibility, including for the more conservative European Central Bank.

This shift toward multiple policy objectives inevitably reduces central-bank independence. Some analysts have recently claimed that this is because the pursuit of GDP growth, job creation, and financial stability, as well as the establishment of priorities when there are tradeoffs, clearly requires political decisions, which should not be made by unelected officials alone. Moreover, by pushing interest rates toward zero, the current policy of quantitative easing (increasing money supply by buying government securities) has strong, often regressive, income effects. Opponents of central-bank independence contend that, given the allocational and distributional consequences of current monetary-policy interventions, central banks’ decision-making should be subject to political control.

But this argument neglects an important point. While it is true that multiple policy targets tend to increase the political sensitivity of central banks’ decisions, concentrating only on price stability also has important distributional consequences and political implications. In fact, politicisation is a matter of scale, not a substantive transformation of monetary policymaking.

The real reason why central-bank independence tends to create a democratic deficit under a multi-target monetary-policy regime, and why it has become increasingly vulnerable, is that the two main arguments in favor of it no longer apply.

The first argument in favor of central-bank independence is that, without it, politicians can exploit expansionary monetary policy’s positive short-run effects at election time, without regard for its long-run inflationary consequences. (By contrast, fiscal and exchange-rate policies rarely imply comparable temporal trade-offs, and thus are difficult to exploit for political gain.) But this argument becomes irrelevant when ensuring price stability is no longer monetary policymakers’ sole task.

The second argument for institutional independence is that central banks have a clear comparative advantage in dealing with monetary issues, and can therefore be trusted to pursue their targets independently. But this advantage does not extend to other policy areas.

Given that central banks are likely to continue to pursue multiple objectives for a long time, their independence will continue to erode. As long as governments do not encroach excessively on central-bank decision-making, this development will restore balance in policymaking and support policy coordination, particularly in times of stress.

The rest of this article can be read on economia

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a news story from economia.

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.