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.

Photo: Getty
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Grenfell survivors were promised no rent rises – so why have the authorities gone quiet?

The council now says it’s up to the government to match rent and services levels.

In the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster, the government made a pledge that survivors would be rehoused permanently on the same rent they were paying previously.

For families who were left with nothing after the fire, knowing that no one would be financially worse off after being rehoused would have provided a glimmer of hope for a stable future.

And this is a commitment that we’ve heard time and again. Just last week, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) reaffirmed in a statement, that the former tenants “will pay no more in rent and service charges for their permanent social housing than they were paying before”.

But less than six weeks since the tragedy struck, Kensington and Chelsea Council has made it perfectly clear that responsibility for honouring this lies solely with DCLG.

When it recently published its proposed policy for allocating permanent housing to survivors, the council washed its hands of the promise, saying that it’s up to the government to match rent and services levels:

“These commitments fall within the remit of the Government rather than the Council... It is anticipated that the Department for Communities and Local Government will make a public statement about commitments that fall within its remit, and provide details of the period of time over which any such commitments will apply.”

And the final version of the policy waters down the promise even further by downplaying the government’s promise to match rents on a permanent basis, while still making clear it’s nothing to do with the council:

It is anticipated that DCLG will make a public statement about its commitment to meeting the rent and/or service charge liabilities of households rehoused under this policy, including details of the period of time over which any such commitment will apply. Therefore, such commitments fall outside the remit of this policy.”

It seems Kensington and Chelsea council intends to do nothing itself to alter the rents of long-term homes on which survivors will soon be able to bid.

But if the council won’t take responsibility, how much power does central government actually have to do this? Beyond a statement of intent, it has said very little on how it can or will intervene. This could leave Grenfell survivors without any reassurance that they won’t be worse off than they were before the fire.

As the survivors begin to bid for permanent homes, it is vital they are aware of any financial commitments they are making – or families could find themselves signing up to permanent tenancies without knowing if they will be able to afford them after the 12 months they get rent free.

Strangely, the council’s public Q&A to residents on rehousing is more optimistic. It says that the government has confirmed that rents and service charges will be no greater than residents were paying at Grenfell Walk – but is still silent on the ambiguity as to how this will be achieved.

Urgent clarification is needed from the government on how it plans to make good on its promise to protect the people of Grenfell Tower from financial hardship and further heartache down the line.

Kate Webb is head of policy at the housing charity Shelter. Follow her @KateBWebb.