The rich world should think twice about ‘central bankism’
For the best part of 30 years, the governments of the advanced countries have outsourced the management of their economies to independent central banks. For many of those years, this change looked to have been a smart one. Now, not so much.
If the central banks’ efforts to get on top of the huge and quite unexpected surge in inflation that followed the pandemic go too far, and the rich countries end up in a severe recession, the inevitable search for someone to blame will lead straight to the door of the central bank.
After all, it was the central bank that, ignoring all the cries of pain, insisted on raising interest rates as far and fast as it did. And, as would by then be obvious, it misjudged and went too far.
It ignored the first rule for econocrats using a policy tool notorious for its “long and variable lags”: if you keep tightening until you’re sure you’ve got inflation beat, you’re sure to have gone too far.
You kept telling us it wasn’t your intention to cause a recession, but we got one anyway. So, were you lying to us, or just incompetent?
That’s my first point: if we do end up in recession, the independent central banks will get the blame, and there’ll be a posse of angry voters around the world demanding they be stripped of their independence.
But even if – as we hope – the worst doesn’t come to the worst, there’ll still be a strong case for our politicians to ask the obvious question: surely there must be a better way to run a railroad?
The rich world moved to central bank independence in the 1990s for strictly pragmatic reasons: because governments couldn’t be trusted to move the interest rate lever up and down to fit the economic cycle, not the political cycle.
Fine. But this is a democracy. How come a bunch of unelected bureaucrats have been given so much power? The fact is, independent central banking’s legitimacy comes solely because a duly elected government saw fit to grant it that freedom, and the present government hasn’t seen fit to take it away. Yet.
The trick is, if a central bank really stuffs up, voters will be furious, and they’ll turn on the only people they can turn on: the government of the day. You may think that, should a government of one colour be tossed out because of the central bank’s almighty stuff-up, the incoming government of the other colour would be mighty pleased with the central bank.
No way. What it would think is: if those bastards could do it to the others, they could just as easily do it to us. The new government’s first act would be to clip the central bankers’ wings.
The broader point is that independent central banking was not ordained by God. It’s just a policy choice we made at a time when it seemed like a good idea. When circumstances change, and we realise it wasn’t such a good idea, we’ll be perfectly equipped and entitled to change to a different policy arrangement we hope will work better.
Of course, moving away from economic management by interest-rate manipulation wouldn’t please everyone. It wouldn’t please academic economists who’d devoted their lives to the study of monetary economics (and right now, are hoping for a well-paid spot on the Reserve Bank board).
Nor would it suit the industry that, over the past 30 years, has grown up on the pavement outside the central bank’s building, so to speak. All the money market dealers who make their living betting on whether the central bank will change rates this month and by how much. Nor the economists who write the professional punters’ tip sheets.
And it’s a safe bet it wouldn’t suit the big banks, who’d much prefer the economy to be run by their mates down the road in Martin Place, rather than all those unknown bureaucrats and politicians in Canberra.
When you let one institution run the economy day to day for so long, it starts to get proprietorial. It’s in change of the economy and, when problems arise, it must be the outfit that takes charge and does what’s necessary to fix things.
There’s never a time when you admit that some other institution – the government and its Treasury advisers, for instance – should take the running because their instrument, the budget, is more multifaceted and suited to the problem than is your one-trick-pony instrument, interest rates.
And you do this even when the official interest rate is not far above zero. You tell everyone who thinks you’re out of ammo and should leave the running to Treasury and fiscal policy, they’re wrong, and resort to quantitative easing and other “unconventional measures”.
I reckon a big part of the reason what we thought was a problem of holding the economy together while we dealt with the pandemic turned into the worst inflationary episode in 30 years was the uncalled-for intervention of central banks, pushing themselves to the front of the fiscal parade.
And this from the institution that’s spend decades telling us it knows more about inflation than everyone else, cares more about inflation than anything else, and accepts ultimate responsibility to protect us from the supreme evil of inflation.
Today’s conventional wisdom says the present inflation surge was caused by big pandemic and war-caused supply shortages at a time when demand had been overstimulated. But a big part of that overstimulation occurred because central banks insisted on coming in over the top of those who were better equipped to respond to the pandemic and, indeed, were responsible for ordering and policing the lockdowns: the federal and state governments.
In Australia, nowhere was this overkill more apparent than in housing. While both federal and state governments were instituting temporary incentives to encourage home building, the central bank was not only slashing the official interest rate to near zero, it was lending to the banks at a hugely concessional rate, and buying second-hand government bonds, so the banks could offer home buyers two and three-year fixed-interest loans.
Throw in a temporary, pandemic-caused shortage of imported building materials, and you have much of our inflation surge being explained by an astonishing 27 per cent leap in the cost of a newly built home.
Why wasn’t there any co-ordination between the three arms of government that caused this avoidable inflationary disaster? Because the central bank is independent. It acts on its own volition.
But also because, when your only tool is a one-trick pony, you end up wearing blinkers. When you can only join the game by putting rates up or putting them down, you just can’t afford to worry about anyone who may be sideswiped in the process.
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Source: Thanks smh.com