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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The Brexiteers have lost battles but they are still set to win the war

The prospect of the UK avoiding Brexit, or even a “hard” version, remains doubtful. 

Before the general election, the Brexiteers would boast that everything had gone their way. Parliament had voted to trigger Article 50 by a majority of 372. The Treasury-forecast recession hadn't occurred. And polls showed the public backing Brexit by a comfortable margin

But since the Conservatives' electoral humbling, the Leavers have been forced to retreat on multiple fronts. After promising in May that the dispute over the timetable for the Brexit talks would be "the fight of the summer", David Davis capitulated on the first day.

The UK will be forced to settle matters such as EU citizens' rights, the Irish border and the divorce bill before discussions begin on a future relationship. Having previously insisted that a new trade deal could agreed by 29 March 2019 (Britain's scheduled departure date), the Brexiteers have now conceded that this is, in Liam Fox's words, "optimistic" (translation: deluded). 

That means the transitional arrangement the Leavers once resisted is now regarded as inevitable. After the eradication of the Conservatives' majority, the insistence that "no deal is better than a bad deal" is no longer credible. No deal would mean the immediate return of a hard Northern Irish border (to the consternation of the Tories' partners the DUP) and, in a hung parliament, there are no longer the votes required to pursue a radical deregulatory, free market agenda (for the purpose of undercutting the EU). As importantly for the Conservatives, an apocalyptic exit could pave the way for a Jeremy Corbyn premiership (a figure they previously regarded as irretrievably doomed). 

Philip Hammond, emboldened by the humiliation of the Prime Minister who planned to sack him, has today outlined an alternative. After formally departing the EU in 2019, Britain will continue to abide by the rules of the single market and the customs union: the acceptance of free movement, European legal supremacy, continued budget contributions and a prohibition on independent trade deals. Faced with the obstacles described above, even hard Brexiteers such as Liam Fox and Michael Gove have recognised that the game is up.

But though they have lost battles, the Leavers are still set to win the war. There is no parliamentary majority for a second referendum (with the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats still enfeebled), Hammond has conceded that any transitional arrangement would end by June 2022 (the scheduled date of the next election) and most MPs are prepared to accept single market withdrawal. The prospect of Britain avoiding Brexit, or even a "hard" version, remains doubtful. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.