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On the Political Nature of Monetary Policy

February 20, 2017 Leave a comment

I was intrigued by Munchau’s editorial on central bank independence, that appeared on today’s FT. Munchau argues that central banks’ choices are increasingly political in nature, especially if their mandate is broad, as is the case for example of the Fed. His argument is that a broad mandate implies tradeoffs, and as such it does not go well with central bank independence.

I must say I am unconvinced to say the least, on at least two levels.

First, I do not see how a strict mandate would make central bank choices less political in nature. It makes them more opaque, but by no means less political. I wrote about this in a paper on ECB action during the crisis, and more succinctly in an op-ed for Social Europe co-written with Yan Islam back in 2015.  Let me quote a few excerpts from that piece:

A dual mandate requiring the central bank to pursue two, sometimes conflicting, objectives forces the institution to make inherently political choices. Far from being a shortcoming, this allows for a more flexible and unbiased monetary policy. A central bank following a dual mandate will always be able to take an aggressive stance on inflation, if it deems this necessary. Appropriate choice of the weights given to employment and inflation would allow incorporation of any combination of the two objectives. […]

Inflation-targeting central banks, such as the ECB, de facto also target growth but timidly and without explicitly saying so. This leads to low reactivity and opaque communication, hampering in turn the capacity of central banks to manage expectations and effectively steer the economy. A good case in point is the ECB that – compared to the Fed – did “too little and too late” from 2009, amid a constant debate on whether the inflation-targeting mandate was being violated. […]

ECB opacity is intrinsically linked to the confusion between its mandate and its activities in the real world, and as such it cannot lead to any meaningful discussion but only to legalistic disputes on the definition of price stability, of how medium is the medium term and the like.

The main merit of a dual mandate is in fact that it lets the political nature of monetary policy emerge without ambiguities. It is indeed true that monetary policy with a dual mandate requires hard choices, just like those debated these days, and hence is political by its very nature. The point is, so is monetary policy with a simple inflation-targeting objective. The level of inflation targeted, and the choice of the instruments to attain it, is anything but neutral in terms of its consequences on the economy. Thus, an inflation-targeting central bank is as political in its actions as a bank following a dual mandate, the only difference being that In the former case the political nature of monetary policy is concealed behind a technocratic curtain.

In a sentence, we argued that monetary policy choices are always political, and as such they should be incorporated in the policy mix, without hiding behind what Yan and I called a technocratic illusion.

Munchau’s link between the broadness of the mandate and its political nature, is simplistic and in my opinion strongly misleading. In fact, we concluded back in 2015 that it is linked to a specific intellectual framework

The profound justification of an exclusive focus on price stability can only lie in the acceptance of a neoclassical view in which virtually powerless governments need to make little or no choices. Once we dismiss that platonic view, monetary policy acquires a political role, regardless of the mandate it is given.

The second reason why Munchau’s argument is unconvincing is the conclusion, somewhat implicit in his piece, that a central bank making political choices needs to be a “government agency”. Why is it so, exactly? I fail to see it. What matters is not that the central bank is controlled by the finance ministry, but that it is accountable, like any other actor doing policy, in a system of well functioning checks and balances.

Once we recognize that a central bank has a political role, we need to make sure first, that its mandate is not falsely perceived as technocratic; and second, that its actions are properly embedded in a balanced policy mix, in which there is coordination with, not subordination to, the other branches of government. It seems to me that the US institutional system comes pretty close to this. The same cannot be said for the eurozone.

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