I read, a bit late, a very interesting piece by Simon Wren-Lewis, who blames central bankers for three major mistakes: (1) They did not see the crisis coming, while they were the only one in the position to see the build-up of leverage; (2) They did not warn governments that at the Zero Lower Bound central banks would lose traction and could not protect the economy from the disasters of austerity. (3) They may be rushing in declaring that we are back to normal, thus attributing all the current slack to a deterioration of the supply side of the economy.
What surprises me is (2), for which I quote Wren-Lewis in full:
Of course the main culprit for the slow recovery from the Great Recession was austerity, by which I mean premature fiscal consolidation. But the slow recovery also reflects a failure of monetary policy. In my view the biggest failure occurred very early on in the recession. Monetary policy makers should have said very clearly, both to politicians and to the public, that with interest rates at their lower bound they could no longer do their job effectively, and that fiscal stimulus would have helped them do that job. Central banks might have had the power to prevent austerity happening, but they failed to use it.
The way Wren-Lewis writes it, central banks were not involved in the push towards fiscal consolidation, and their “only” sin was of not being vocal enough. I think he is too nice. At least in the Eurozone, the ECB was a key actor in pushing austerity. It was directly involved in the Trojka designing the rescue packages that sunk Greece (and the EMU with it). But more importantly, the ECB contributed to design and impose the Berlin View narrative that fiscal profligacy was at the roots of the crisis, so that rebalancing would have to be on the shoulders of fiscal sinners alone. We should not forget that “impeccable disaster” Jean-Claude Trichet was one of the main supporters of the confidence fairy: credible austerity would magically lift expectations, pushing private expenditure and triggering the recovery. He was the President of the ECB when central banks made the second mistake. And I really have a hard time picturing him warning against the risks of austerity at the zero lower bound.
And things are not drastically different now. True, Mario Draghi often calls for fiscal support to the ECB quantitative easing program. But as I argued at length, calling for fiscal policy within the existing rules’ framework has no real impact.
So I disagree with Wren-Lewis on this one. Central banks, or at least the ECB, did not simply fail to contrast the problem of wrongheaded austerity. They were, and may still be, part of the problem.
The problem is one of economic doctrine. And as long as this does not change, I am unsure that removing central bank independence would have made a difference. Would a Bank of England controlled by Chancellor Osborne have been more vocal against austerity? Would an ECB controlled by the Ecofin? Nothing is less sure…
Two articles on today’s Financial Times puzzle me. The first (Weidmann warns of currency war risk) offers yet another example of how economic analysis sometimes leaves the way to ideological beliefs. The Bundesbank’s president argues (as he already did in the past) that giving up inflation targeting hampers central bank independence. How? Why? He does not bother explaining.
What I think he has in mind is that once the objective of the central bank goes beyond strict inflation targeting, monetary policy needs an arbitrage between often conflicting objectives (typically unemployment and inflation). It is the essence of the dual mandate. This of course moves monetary policy out of the realm of technocratic choice, and makes it a political institution (Stephen King explains it nicely). I would argue that this is normal once we abandon the ideal-type of frictionless neoclassical economics, and we accept that we may have a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment. But this is not the issue here. The issue, and the puzzle, is why transforming the choice from technocratic to political, should necessarily lead to giving up independence. Read more
Countries like the United States, Japan or the United Kingdom can finance their debt at zero or negative real interest rates. This in spite of debt levels higher than those of the euro area, and growth forecasts that are not necessarily better. Meanwhile, the eurozone peripheral countries have to deal on a daily basis with the mood of markets, and to pay interests on debt at the limit of sustainability.
The reasons for this state of affairs are clear, and have been repeatedly mentioned. Eurozone countries are forced to borrow in a currency that they do not issue: the euro is in effect a foreign currency. To quote Paul de Grauwe,
In a nutshell the difference in the nature of sovereign debt between members and non-members of a monetary union boils down to the following. Members of a monetary union issue debt in a currency over which they have no control. It follows that financial markets acquire the power to force default on these countries. This is not the case in countries that are no part of a monetary union, and have kept control over the currency in which they issue debt. These countries cannot easily be forced into default by financial markets.
In other words, peripheral eurozone countries are in the same situation of Latin America in the eighties: they are forced to pay high risk premia to markets fearing the risk of default, induced by the vicious circle austerity-recession-debt burden.