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Could Central Banks do More during the Crisis?

September 7, 2018 3 comments

I rarely disagree with Martin Sandbu’s Free Lunch. But today’s piece on central banks is one of these cases.

In short, Martin argues that while the main culprit for the slow recovery is fiscal policy, almost everywhere too timid if not outright procyclical (we are all on board on that!), the mistakes of fiscal authorities do not exempt central banks from bearing part of the responsibility. In particular, he dismisses the claim that it was technically impossible to lower long-term interest rates further, and/or bring policy rates even more into negative territory.

I agree with this point. Interest rates could have been lowered further. Nevertheless, I think that this would have made very little difference, because after 2008 central banks were essentially pushing on a string.  This point of disagreement between us can be traced to a different view about what is the liquidity trap.

I recently published a book, La Scienza inutile (a general public account of a century of debates in macroeconomics. For the moment it is in Italian and in French, English translation in progress), in which I discuss the different notions of liquidity trap. Here is the quote (sorry, a bit too long):

 The first source of trouble that Keynes considers is the most extreme, the so-called liquidity trap: `There is the possibility, […] that, after the rate of interest has fallen to a certain level, liquidity-preference may become virtually absolute in the sense that almost everyone prefers cash to holding a debt which yields so low a rate of interest. In this event the monetary authority would have lost effective control over the rate of interest’ (Keynes 1936, p.207). In slightly more technical terms, the interest elasticity of money demand is near-infinite: no matter how much liquidity the central bank injects into the economy, it is entirely hoarded by agents and hence it leaks out of the system in its entirety. Monetary expansion is not effective in lowering interest rates.

There may be different reasons why the economy enters a liquidity trap. Keynes argued, by looking at the great depression, that this usually happens at very low (but not necessarily nil) levels of the interest rate, because in this case agents would expect interest rates to rise in the future and thus would be willing to hold any extra amount of money and postpone the purchase of bonds to the moment when interest rates will be up again. More recently the liquidity trap has been defined as a situation in which the interest rate that equates savings and investment is negative, and therefore cannot be attained by the central bank (the so-called Zero Lower Bound, or ZLB; see e.g. Krugman 2000). This latter definition leaves some room for monetary policy effectiveness: if the central bank manages to trigger the expectation of positive inflation, the real interest rate (the nominal interest rate minus the inflation rate) will become negative and lead to the full employment equilibrium.

So, if we think in terms of ZLB, it exists a real interest rate at which the output gap would be closed. If that interest rate is negative, then it is harder to reach, as central banks need to raise inflation expectations and try to push short term rates as much as possible in negative territory, which requires boldness and creativity (we have seen this). But, once again I agree with Martin on that, this can be done. If instead private expenditure becomes irresponsive to interest rates, the ‘Keynes definition’, then there is little central banks could do. I had noticed, back in 2016, that while it succeeded in easing credit conditions, EMU Quantitative Easing seemed to have done little to boost confidence and expected demand (the ultimate driver of firm’s credit needs). The EMU most recent Bank Lending Survey seems to confirm the prediction of the time. Both chart 4 (enterprises) and chart 12 (households) depict a flat demand for loans, that picks up only when the EMU economic outlook brightens.

This is by no means hard evidence (I am not aware of any papers thoroughly investigating the impact of QE on credit demand). But stylized facts seem to acquit central bankers.

 

 

ps

The two works cited in the quote:

Keynes, J. M. (1936). The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. London: McMillan.

Krugman, P. (2000). Thinking About the Liquidity Trap. Journal of the Japanese and International Economies 14(4), 221–237.

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.

Fed Debates and the EMU Technocratic Illusion

October 14, 2015 5 comments

Thanks to the invaluable Economist’s View, I have read with lots of interest the speech that newly appointed Federal Reserve Board Member Lael Brainard gave last Monday. The speech is a plea for holding on rate rises, and uses a number of convincing arguments. Much has been said on the issue (give a look at comments by Tim Duy and Paul Krugman). I have little to add, were it not for the point I made a number of times, that the extraordinarily difficult task of central bankers would be made substantially easier if fiscal policy were used more actively.

What I’d like to express here is my jealousy for the discussions (and the confrontation) that we observe in the US. These discussions are a sideproduct, a very positive one if you ask me, of the institutional design of the Fed. I just returned from a series of engaging policy meetings on central bank policy in Costa Rica, facilitated by the local ILO office, where I pleaded for the introduction of a dual mandate.

I wrote a background paper (that can be seen here) in which my main argument is that a central bank following a dual mandate will always be able to take an aggressive stance on inflation, if it deems it necessary to do so. Appropriate choice of the weights given to employment and inflation would allow incorporation of any combination of the two objectives. A good case in point are the United States, where the Federal Reserve under Chairman Volcker embarked on a bold disinflation program in the early 1980s when the country had just adopted the dual mandate. No choice of weights, on the other hand, would allow a central bank following an inflation targeting mandate to explicitly target employment as well. Thus, the dual mandate can embed inflation targeting strategies, while the converse is not true. In terms of policy effectiveness, therefore, the dual mandate is a superior institutional arrangement.

I also cited evidence showing, and here we come at my jealousy for the Fed, that inflation targeting central banks, like the ECB, de facto target the output gap, but timidly and without explicitly saying so. This leads to low reactivity and opaque communication, that hamper the capacity of central banks to manage expectations and effectively steer the economy. I am sure that those who followed the EMU policy debate in the past few years will know what I am talking about.

One may argue that the cacophony currently characterizing the Federal Reserve Board is hardly positive for the economy, and that in terms of managing expectations, lately, the Fed did not excel. This is undeniable, and is the result of the Fed groping its way out of unprecedented policy measures. The difference with the ECB is that for the Fed the opacity results from an ongoing debate on how to best attain an objective that is clear and shared. We are not there yet, but the debate will eventually lead to an unambiguous (and hopefully appropriate) policy choice. The ECB opacity, is intrinsically linked to the confusion between its mandate and its actual action, and as such it cannot lead to any meaningful discussion, but just to legalistic disputes on the definition of price stability, of how medium is the medium term and the like.

And I can now come to my final point: a dual mandate has the merit to let the political nature of monetary policy emerge without ambiguities. It is indeed true that monetary policy with a dual mandate requires hard choices, as the ones that are debater these days, and hence is political in nature. The point is, that so is monetary policy with a simple inflation targeting objective. The level of inflation targeted, and the choice of the instruments to attain it, are all but neutral in terms of their consequences on the economy, most notably on the distribution of resources among market participants. 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.
The deep justification of exclusive focus on price stability can only lie in the acceptance of a neoclassical platonic world in which powerless governments need to make no choice. Once we dismiss that platonic view, monetary policy acquires a political role, regardless of the mandate it is given. A dual mandate has the merit of making this choice explicit, and hence to dispel the technocratic illusion.

I am not saying there would be no issues with the adoption of a dual mandate. The institutional design should be carefully crafted, in order to ensure that independence is maintained, and accountability (currently very low indeed) is enhanced. What I am saying is that after seven years (and counting) of dismal economic performance, and faced with strong arguments in favour of a broader central bank mandate, EMU policy makers should be engaged in discussions at least as lively as the ones of their counterparts in Washington. And yet, all is quiet on this side of the ocean… Circulez y a rien à voir