Central bank independence: the orthodoxy's under attack

Have we handed the foxes the keys to the hen house?

Japan's central bank and treasury are discussing co-operating more on economic policy — news which has sent the Nikkei soaring, opening around 2 per cent higher than it closed yesterday, and rising further throughout today.

We've already had previews of this news. After all, new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was elected on a promise (or threat?) to force the Bank of Japan to do more monetary easing, and has already made other unconventional moves like "nationalising" industrial stock to encourage private-sector investment.

Nonetheless, it was unclear that Abe would actually pull it off. Business Insider describes it as "one of the most taboo concepts in modern economics", noting that "the Treasury is supposed to do fiscal policy. The central bank is supposed to do monetary policy. And that's that".

But, as with so many orthodoxies of economics, the idea of central bank independence has come under attack since the global financial crisis.

Central banks are supposed to be independent to remove the risk that politicians will use monetary policy the same way they all-too-frequently use fiscal policy: to engineer temporary booms, gain brief popularity, and win elections. By removing control of policy from people who stand to gain if they favour the short- over the long-term, monetary policy ought to be "better run".

Monetary policy is worse for this sort of thing because it depends far more on ideas of credibility and restraint than fiscal does. Much of the job of a central bank involves saying the right things, rather than doing them. There's a thousand ways to hold interest rates low, but doing so while explicitly saying they will be low for the next two years (as with the Evans Rule) is very different from doing so while saying they may rise at any time.

But it's important to remember that an "independent" central bank may be no such thing. If principal-agent problems apply to banks run by democratically elected politicians, they apply just as effectively to banks run by technocratic ex-financiers. Frequently, this works well. As Tyler Cowen wrote in 2009:

The default selection mechanism favors bankers, i.e. lenders, people whose interests make them more favorable towards lower inflation.

Given the trend in monetary policy for most of the last thirty years was a desire to reduce then suppress inflation, that convergence of interests was beneficial. But there's no particular reason to expect the convergence of interests between the economy as a whole and one subsection of it to be a long-term thing.

If nothing else, we get the downsides of "independent" central banks when their policy turns to whether to backstop banks and bankers. As a lengthy Atlantic piece by Simon Johnson from May 2009 describes, too many of those decisions were actively favouring the interests of the finance industry when those interests were in direct opposition to the rest of the nation.

And as we've faced an increasing number of unprecedented situations, even the old truth has come under attack. As Joseph Stiglitz said in India earlier this year:

In the crisis, countries with less independent central banks-China, India, and Brazil-did far, far better than countries with more independent central banks, Europe and the United States. There is no such thing as truly independent institutions. All public institutions are accountable, and the only question is to whom.

Obviously the independence, or not, of the central banks is unlikely to have been the deciding factor between whether China or Europe came out of the crisis intact. But more and more people are starting to realise that concepts of independence need to be re-examined, as technocratic rulers are demonstrated to be just as beholden to their own interests as democratic ones, and as those interests continue to diverge from those of the nation as a whole.

So if Japan is about to break a taboo, maybe it has picked the right time to do it.

Pedestrians walk past a stock quotation board in Tokyo on January 11, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

How should Labour's disgruntled moderates behave?

The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition. Sometimes exiting can be brave.

When Albert O. Hirschman was writing Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to decline in Firms, Organizations, and States he wasn’t thinking of the British Labour Party.  That doesn’t mean, though, that one of the world’s seminal applications of economics to politics can’t help us clarify the options open to the 80 to 90 per cent of Labour MPs who, after another week of utter chaos, are in total despair at what’s happening under Jeremy Corbyn.

According to Hirschman, people in their situation have essentially three choices – all of which stand some chance, although there are no guarantees, of turning things around sooner or later.

The first option is simply to get the hell out: exit, after all, can send a pretty powerful, market-style signal to those at the top that things are going wrong and that something has to change.

The second option is to speak up and shout out: if the leadership’s not listening then complaining loudly might mean they get the message.

The third option is to sit tight and shut up, believing that if the boat isn’t rocked it will somehow eventually make it safely to port.

Most Labour MPs have so far plumped for the third course of action.  They’ve battened down the hatches and are waiting for the storm to pass.  In some ways, that makes sense.  For one thing, Labour’s rules and Corbyn’s famous ‘mandate’ make him difficult to dislodge, and anyone seen to move against him risks deselection by angry activists.

For another, there will be a reckoning – a general election defeat so bad that it will be difficult even for diehards to deny there’s a problem: maybe Labour has to do ‘déjà vu all over again’ and lose like it did in 1983 in order to come to its senses. The problem, however, is that this scenario could still see it stuck in opposition for at least a decade. And that’s presuming that the left hasn’t so effectively consolidated its grip on the party that it can’t get out from under.

That’s presumably why a handful of Labour MPs have gone for option two – voice.  Michael Dugher, John Woodcock, Kevan Jones, Wes Streeting and, of course, John Mann have made it pretty clear they think the whole thing’s a mess and that something – ideally Jeremy Corbyn and those around him – has to give.  They’re joined by others – most recently Stephen Kinnock, who’s talked about the party having to take ‘remedial action’ if its performance in local elections turns out to be as woeful as some are suggesting.  And then of course there are potential leadership challengers making none-too-coded keynote speeches and public appearances (both virtual and real), as well as a whole host of back and frontbenchers prepared to criticise Corbyn and those around him, but only off the record.

So far, however, we’ve seen no-one prepared to take the exit option – or at least to go the whole hog. Admittedly, some, like Emma Reynolds, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, and Rachel Reeves, have gone halfway by pointedly refusing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.  But nobody has so far declared their intention to leave politics altogether or to quit the party, either to become an independent or to try to set up something else.

The latter is easily dismissed as a pipe-dream, especially in the light of what happened when Labour moderates tried to do it with the SDP in the eighties.  But maybe it’s time to think again.  After all, in order to refuse even to contemplate it you have to believe that the pendulum will naturally swing back to Labour at a time when, all over Europe, the centre-left looks like being left behind by the march of time and when, in the UK, there seems precious little chance of a now shrunken, predominantly public-sector union movement urging the party back to the centre ground in the same way that its more powerful predecessors did back in the fifties and the late-eighties and nineties. 

Maybe it’s also worth wondering whether those Labour MPs who left for the SDP could and should have done things differently.  Instead of simply jumping ship in relatively small numbers and then staying in parliament, something much bolder and much more dramatic is needed.  What if over one hundred current Labour MPs simultaneously declared they were setting up ‘Real Labour’?  What if they simultaneously resigned from the Commons and then simultaneously fought scores of by-elections under that banner?

To many, even to ask the question is to answer it. The obstacles – political, procedural, and financial – are formidable and forbidding.  The risks are huge and the pay-off massively uncertain.  Indeed, the whole idea can be swiftly written off as a thought-experiment explicitly designed to demonstrate that nothing like it will ever come to pass.

On the other hand, Labour MPs, whether we use Hirschman’s three-way schema or not, are fast running out of options.  The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition.  Voice can only do so much when those you’re complaining about seem – in both senses of the word – immovable.  Exit, of course, can easily be made to seem like the coward’s way out. Sometimes, however, it really is the bravest and the best thing to do.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.