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.
Life and work keep having the nasty habit of intruding into this blog, but it feels nice to resume writing, even if just with a short comment.
We learned a few weeks ago that the Bank of Japan has walked one extra step in its attempt to escape lowflation, and that it has committed to overshoot its 2% inflation target. A “credible promise to be irresponsible”, as the FT says quoting Paul Krugman.
This may be a long overdue first step towards a revision of the inflation target, as invoked long ago by Olivier Blanchard, and more recently by Larry Ball. This is all too reasonable: if the equilibrium interest rates are negative, if monetary policy is bound by the zero-or-only-slightly-negative-lower-bound, higher inflation targets would make sense, and 4% is an arbitrary target as legitimate as the current also arbitrary 2% level. Things may be moving, as the subject was evoked, if not discussed, at the recent Central Bankers gathering in Jackson Hole. We’ll see if anything comes out of this.
But the FT also adds an interesting comment to the BoJ move, namely that the more serious risk is a blow to credibility. If it failed to lift the inflation to the 2% target, how can it be credibly believed to overshoot it?
This is a different sort of credibility issue, much more reasonable indeed, than the one we have been used to in the past three decades, linked to the concept of dynamic inconsistency. In plain English the idea that an actor has no incentive to keep prior commitments that go against its own interest, and hence deviates from the initial plan. Credibility was therefore associated to changing incentives over time (typically for policy makers), and invoked to recommend rules over discretion.
Today, eight years into the zero lower bound, we go back to a more intuitive definition of credibility: announcing an objective and not being able to attain it.
The difference between the two definitions of credibility is not anodyne. In the first case, the unwillingness of central banks to behave appropriately can be corrected through the adoption of constraining rules. In the latter, the central bank cannot attain the objective regardless of incentives and constraints, and other strategies need to be put in place.
The other strategy, the reader will not be surprised to learn, is fiscal policy. Monetary dominance is in fact a second tenet of the Consensus from the 1990s that the crisis has wiped out. We used to live in a world in which structural reforms would take care of increasing potential growth, monetary policy would be used to take care of (minor) demand-driven fluctuations, and fiscal policy was in a closet.
This is gone (luckily). Even the large policy making institutions now call for a comprehensive and multi-instrument policy making. The policy mix, a central element of macroeconomics in the pre-rational expectations era, is now back. Even the granitic dichotomy between short (demand driven) and long (supply driven) term, is somewhat rediscussed.
The excessively simplified consensus that dominated macroeconomics for the past thirty years seems to be seriously in trouble; complexity, tradeoffs, coordination, are now the issues discussed in academia and in policy circles. This is good news.
Last week’s data on EMU growth have triggered quite a bit of comments. I was intrigued by Paul Krugman‘s piece arguing (a) that in per capita terms the EMU performance is not as bad (he uses working age population, I used total population); and (b) that the path of the EMU was similar to that of the US in the first phase of the crisis; and (c) that divergence started only in 2011, due to differences in monetary policy (an impeccable disaster here, much more reactive in the US). Fiscal policy, Krugman argues, was equally contractionary across the ocean.
I pretty much agree that the early policy response to the crisis was similar, and that divergence started only when the global crisis went European, after the Greek elections of October 2009. But I am puzzled (and it does not happen very often) by Krugman’s dismissal of austerity as a factor explaining different performances. True, at first sight, fiscal consolidation kicked in at the same moment in the US and in Europe. I computed the fiscal impulse, using changes in the cyclically adjusted primary deficit. In other words, by taking away the cyclical component, and interest payment, we can obtain the closest possible measure to the discretionary fiscal stance of a government. And here is what it gives:
Krugman is certainly right that austerity was widespread in 2011 and in 2012 (actually more in the US). So what is the problem?
The problem is that fiscal consolidation needs not to be assessed in isolation, but in relation to the environment in which it takes place. First, it started one year earlier in the EMU (look at the bars for 2010). Second, expansion had been more robust in the US in 2008 and in 2009, thus avoiding that the economy slid too much: having been bolder and more effective in 2008-2010, continued fiscal expansion was less necessary in 2011-12.
I remember Krugman arguing at the time that the recovery would have been stronger and faster if the fiscal stance in the US had remained expansionary. I agreed then and I agree now: government support to the economy was withdrawn when the private sector was only partially in condition to take the witness. But to me it is just a question of degree and of timing in reversing a fiscal policy stance that overall had been effective.
I had made the same point back in 2013. Here is, updated from that post, the correlation between public and private expenditure:
|Correlation Between Public and Private Expenditure|
Remember, a positive correlation means that fiscal policy moves together with private expenditure, and fails to act countercyclically. The table tells us that public expenditure in the US was withdrawn only when private expenditure could take the witness, and never was procylclical (it turned neutral in the past 2 years). Europe is a whole different story. Fiscal contraction began when the private sector was not ready to take the witness; the withdrawal of public demand therefore led to a plunge in economic activity and to the double dip recession that the US did not experience. Here is the figure from the same post, also updated:
To sum up: the fiscal stance in the US was appropriate, even if it changed a bit too hastily in 2011. In Europe, it was harmful since 2010.
And monetary policy in all this? It did not help in Europe. I join Krugman in believing that once the economy was comfortably installed in the liquidity trap Mario Draghi’s activism while necessary was (and is) far from sufficient. Being more timely, the Fed played an important role with its aggressive monetary policy, that started precisely in 2012. It supported the expansion of private demand, and minimized the risk of a reversal when the withdrawal of fiscal policy begun. But in both cases I am unsure that monetary policy could have made a difference without fiscal policy. Let’s not forget that a first round of aggressive monetary easing in 2007-2008 had been successful in keeping the financial sector afloat, but not in avoiding the recession. This is why in 2009 most economies launched robust fiscal stimulus plans. I see no reason to believe that, in 2010-2012, more appropriate and timely ECB action would have made a big difference. The problem is fiscal, fiscal, fiscal.
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…
Yesterday I was asked by the Italian weekly pagina99 to write a comment on the latest ECB announcement. Here is a slightly expanded English version.
Mario Draghi had no choice. The increasingly precarious macroeconomic situation, deflation that stubbornly persists, and financial markets that happily cruise from one nervous breakdown to another, had cornered the ECB. It could not, it simply could not, risk to fall short of expectations as it had happened last December. And markets have not been disappointed. The ECB stored the bazooka and pulled out of the atomic bomb. At the press conference Mario Draghi announced 6 sets of measures (I copy and paste):
- The interest rate on the main refinancing operations of the Eurosystem will be decreased by 5 basis points to 0.00%, starting from the operation to be settled on 16 March 2016.
- The interest rate on the marginal lending facility will be decreased by 5 basis points to 0.25%, with effect from 16 March 2016.
- The interest rate on the deposit facility will be decreased by 10 basis points to -0.40%, with effect from 16 March 2016.
- The monthly purchases under the asset purchase programme will be expanded to €80 billion starting in April.
- Investment grade euro-denominated bonds issued by non-bank corporations established in the euro area will be included in the list of assets that are eligible for regular purchases.
- A new series of four targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTRO II), each with a maturity of four years, will be launched, starting in June 2016. Borrowing conditions in these operations can be as low as the interest rate on the deposit facility.
Items 1-3 depict a further decrease of interest rates. Answering a question Mario Draghi hinted that rates will be lower for a long period, but also that this may be the lower bound (sending markets in an immediate tailspin; talk of rational, well thought decisions). The “tax” the ECB imposes on excess reserves, the liquidity that financial institutions keep idle, is now at -0,4%. Not insignificant.
But the real game changer are the subsequent items, that really represent an innovation. Items 4-5 announce an acceleration of the bond buying program, and more importantly its extension to non-financial corporations, which changes its very nature. In fact, the purchase of non-financial corporations’ securities makes the ECB a direct provider of funding for the real sector. With these quasi-fiscal operations the ECB has therefore taken a step towards what economists call “helicopter money”, i.e. the direct financing of the economy cutting the middlemen of the financial and banking sector.
Finally, item 6, a new series of long-term loan programs, with the important innovation that financial institutions which lend the money to the real sector will obtain negative rates, i.e. a subsidy. This measure is intended to lift the burden for banks of the negative rates on reserves, at the same time forcing them to grant credit: The banks will be “paid” to borrow, and then will make a profit as long as they place the money in government bonds or lend to the private sector, even at zero interest rates.
To summarize, it is impossible for the ECB to do more to push financial institutions to increase the supply of credit. Unfortunately, however, this does not mean that credit will increase and the economy rebound. There is debate among economists about why quantitative easing has not worked so far. I am among those who think that the anemic eurozone credit market can be explained both by insufficient demand and supply. If credit supply increases, but it is not followed by demand, then today’s atomic bomb will evolve into a water gun. With the added complication that financial institutions that fail to lend, will be forced to pay a fee on excess reserves.
But maybe, this “swim or sink” situation is the most positive aspect of yesterday’s announcement. If the new measures will prove to be ineffective like the ones that preceded them, it will be clear, once and for all, that monetary policy can not get us out of the doldrums, thus depriving governments (and the European institutions) of their alibi. It will be clear that only a large and coordinated fiscal stimulus can revive the European economy. Only time will tell whether the ECB has the atomic bomb or the water gun (I am afraid I know where I would place my bet). In the meantime, the malicious reader could have fun calculating: (a) How many months of QE would be needed to cover the euro 350 billion Juncker Plan, that painfully saw the light after eight years of crisis, and that, predictably, is even more painfully being implemented. (b) How many hours of QE would be needed to cover the 700 million euros that the EU, also very painfully, agreed to give Greece, to deal with the refugee influx.
FT Alphaville‘s Matthew Klein goes back to the issue of financial stability and monetary policy. A recent speech of Bank of Canada’s Timothy Lane is the occasion for Klein to reassess monetary policy before the crisis, when policy makers (in particular he refers to Ben Bernanke, but the Fed chair was in good company) dismissed fears of asset price bubbles, thus failing recognize, and to counter, the buildup of the crisis.
What I find interesting in Lane’s speech is the acknowledgement that monetary policy alone is vastly insufficient to attain the many interrelated objectives of today’s policy makers. This in turn calls for reassessing the drift of academic economists (in the 1990s and 2000s) towards a vision of the world in which all policy objectives could be attained by “Maestros“, almighty technocrats skillfully using monetary levers to reach multiple objectives at once.
With a few colleagues we recently challenged the “conventional wisdom” that inflation targeting central banks can effectively attain financial stability as well, simply by “leaning against the wind”. We highlighted that this violation of Timbergen’s principle (“one instrument per policy objective”) is allowed by an analytical trick, a “divine coincidence”, buried within the hypotheses of the standard model. Asessing policy analysis in a framework in which low and stable inflation goes hand in hand with low unemployment and stable asset prices, will lead to conclude that (what a surprise!!) targeting inflation helps attaining all these objectives at once. Our work (among others) shows that price and financial stability exhibit no stable correlation; similarly, the debate on the “return of the Phillips Curve” (if ever it left) shows that a tradeoff usually exists between inflation and unemployment objectives. Thus, in the end, inflation targeting is mostly effective in, well… targeting inflation. There is no magics here. The Consensus buried Timbergen way too soon.
The debate on the effective use of instruments to attain sometimes conflicting objectives is particularly interesting in general and, I argue, relevant for the EMU. As the readers of this blog know, I have been obsessed by the excessive focus of (mainly) European economists and policy makers on monetary policy. Especially in the current situation of liquidity trap, the stubborn refusal to fully deploy fiscal policy can only be explained by ideological anti-Keynesianism.
But as Timothy Lane’s speech suggests, the problem extends beyond the current exceptional circumstances. As normal times will (eventually) resume, we should go back to Timbergen and acknowledge that monetary policy alone cannot cure all ills. Fiscal policy and effective regulation need to be used as aggressively as interest rates and monetary instruments to manage business cycle fluctuation. A trivial and yet often forgotten lesson from the old times.
We are becoming accustomed to European policy makers’ schizophrenia, so when yesterday during his press conference Mario Draghi mentioned the consolidating recovery while announcing further easing in December, nobody winced. Draghi’s call for expansionary fiscal policies was instead noticed, and appreciated. I suggest some caution. Let’s look at Draghi’s words:
Fiscal policies should support the economic recovery, while remaining in compliance with the EU’s fiscal rules. Full and consistent implementation of the Stability and Growth Pact is crucial for confidence in our fiscal framework. At the same time, all countries should strive for a growth-friendly composition of fiscal policies.
During the Q&A, the first question was on precisely this point:
Question: If I could ask you to develop the last point that you made. Governor Nowotny last week said that monetary policy may be coming up to its limits and perhaps it was up to fiscal policy to loosen a little bit to provide a bit of accommodation. Could you share your thoughts on this and perhaps even touch on the Italian budget?
(Here is the link to Austrian Central Bank Governor Nowotny making a strong statement in favour of expansionary fiscal policy). Draghi simply did not answer on fiscal policy (nor on the Italian budget, by the way). The quote is long but worth reading
Draghi: On the first issue, I’m really commenting only on monetary policy, and as we said in the last part of the introductory statement, monetary policy shouldn’t be the only game in town, but this can be viewed in a variety of ways, one of which is the way in which our colleague actually explored in examining the situation, but there are other ways. Like, for example, as we’ve said several times, the structural reforms are essential. Monetary policy is focused on maintaining price stability over the medium term, and its accommodative monetary stance supports economic activity. However, in order to reap the full benefits of our monetary policy measures, other policy areas must contribute decisively. So here we stress the high structural unemployment and the low potential output growth in the euro area as the main situations which we have to address. The ongoing cyclical recovery should be supported by effective structural policies. But there may be other points of view on this. The point is that monetary policy can support and is actually supporting a cyclical economic recovery. We have to address also the structural components of this recovery, so that we can actually move from a cyclical recovery to a structural recovery. Let’s not forget that even before the financial crisis, unemployment has been traditionally very high in the euro area and many of the structural weaknesses have been there before.
Carefully avoiding to mention fiscal policy, when answering a question on fiscal policy, speaks for itself. In fact, saying that “Fiscal policies should support the economic recovery, while remaining in compliance with the EU’s fiscal rules” and putting forward for the n-th time the confidence fairy, amounts to a substantial approval of the policies followed by EMU countries so far. We should stop fooling ourselves: Within the existing rules there is no margin for a meaningful fiscal expansion of the kind invoked by Governor Nowotny. If we look at headline deficit, forecast to be at 2% in 2015, the Maastricht limits leave room for a global fiscal expansion of 1% of GDP, decent but not a game changer (without mentioning the fiscal space of individual countries, very unevenly distributed). And if we look at the main indicator of fiscal effort put forward by the fiscal compact, the cyclical adjusted deficit, the eurozone as a whole should keep its fiscal consolidation effort going, to bring the deficit down from its current level of 0.9% of GDP to the target of 0.5%.
It is no surprise then that the new Italian budget (on which Mario Draghi carefully avoided to comment) is hailed (or decried) as expansionary simply because it slows a little (and just a little) the pace of fiscal consolidation. Within the rules forcefully defended by Draghi, this is the best countries can do. As a side note, I blame the Italian (and the French) government for deciding to play within the existing framework. Bargaining a decimal of deficit here and there will not lift our economies out of their disappointing growth; and more importantly, on a longer term perspective, it will not help advance the debate on the appropriate governance of the eurozone.
In spite of widespread recognition that aggregate demand is too low, Mario Draghi did not move an inch from his previous beliefs: the key for growth is structural reforms, and structural reforms alone. He keeps embracing the Berlin View. The only substantial difference between Draghi and ECB hawks is his belief that, in the current cyclical position, structural reforms should be eased by accommodating monetary policy. This is the only rationale for QE. Is this enough to define him a dove?