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.

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Why the Tories' falling poll lead is believable

Jeremy Corbyn has fought a good campaign, while Theresa May's has been a series of duff notes.

Taxi for Theresa May? The first poll since the Manchester bombing is out and it makes for grim reading in CCHQ.

The numbers that matter: the Conservatives are on 43%, Labour on 38%, the Liberal Democrats are on 10%, while Ukip are way down on 4%. On a uniform swing, far from strengthening her hand, the PM would be back in office with a majority of just two.

Frankly a PM who has left so many big hitters in her own party out in the cold is not going to last very long if that result is borne out on 8 June. But is it right?

The usual caveats apply - it's just one poll, you'd expect Labour to underperform its poll rating at this point, a danger that is heightened because much of the party's surge is from previous non-voters who are now saying they will vote for Jeremy Corbyn. There's a but coming, and it's a big one: the numbers make a lot of sense.

Jeremy Corbyn has fought a good campaign and he's unveiled a series of crowd-pleasing policies. The photographs and clips of him on the campaign trail look good and the party's messaging has been well-honed for television and radio. And that's being seen in the Labour leader's popularity ratings, which have risen throughout the campaign.

Theresa May's campaign, however, has been a series of duff notes that could have been almost designed to scare off voters. There was the biggie that was the social care blunder, of course. But don't underestimate the impact that May's very public support for bringing back fox-hunting had on socially liberal Conservative considerers, or the impact that going soft on banning the sale of ivory has in a nation of animal-lovers. Her biography and style might make her more appealing to floating voters than David Cameron's did, but she has none of his instinctive sense of what it is that people dislike about the Tory party - and as a result much of her message has been a series of signals to floating voters that the Tory party isn't for them.

Add that to the fact that wages are falling - no governing party has ever increased its strength in the Commons in a year when that has been the case - and the deterioration of the public realm, and the question becomes: why wouldn't Labour be pulling into contention?

At the start of the campaign, the Conservatives thought that they had two insurance policies: the first was Jeremy Corbyn, and the second was May's purple firewall: the padding of her lead with voters who backed Ukip in 2015 but supported the Conservatives in the local elections. You wouldn't bet that the first of those policies hadn't been mis-sold at this point. Much now hinges on the viability of the second.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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