Do Central Banks need to reinvent policy?

To some the role of central banks was of prime importance in the financial crisis and the substantial increases in the incomes of those employed in the financial sector.

Since the days of stagflation in the US and UK in the 1970’s inflation has been the number one target for central bankers. US President Jimmy Carter’s attempts to follow Keynes’s formula and spend his way out of trouble were going nowhere and the newly appointed Paul Volcker (US Fed Governor in the 1970’s) saw inflation as the worst of all economic evils. Below is an extract of an interview from the PBS series “Commanding Heights”

“It came to be considered part of Keynesian doctrine that a little bit of inflation is a good thing. And of course what happens then, you get a little bit of inflation, then you need a little more, because it peps up the economy. People get used to it, and it loses its effectiveness. Like an antibiotic, you need a new one; you need a new one. Well, I certainly thought that inflation was a dragon that was eating at our innards, so the need was to slay that dragon.”

The policy of the time was Keynesian – inject more money into the system in order to get the economy moving again. This was also the case in the UK in the early 1970’s but Jim Callaghan’s (Labour PM in the UK ousted by Thatcher in 1979) speech in 1976 had reluctantly recognised that this policy had run its course and a monetarist doctrine was about to become prevalent. Below is an extract from the speech.

“We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment. That is the history of the last twenty years”

With this paranoia about inflation central bankers began to implement a monetary policy targeting inflation in the medium term. In NZ the Reserve Bank Act 1989 established “price stability” as the main objective of the RBNZ. “Price stability” is defined in the PTA (Policy Target Agreement) as keeping inflation between 1 to 3% (originally 0-2%) – measured by the percentage change in CPI. Around the world central banks were adopting a more independent approach to policy implementation and with targeting inflation a new prevailing attitude seemed to be like an osmosis and suggesting that low prices = macro-economic stability as well. Also, raising interest rates is an unpopular political move and governments could now blame the central bank for this contractionary measure.

However, the rise of asset prices were largely ignored by central banks and although inflation remained relatively stable, this was in part due to the disinflation of the emerging markets that were now becoming more a part of the global market. Therefore with low inflation, central banks could afford to lower interest rates and ultimately stimulate a lot of borrowing which increased asset prices. The Rethinking Central Banking report (written by a group of economists, financiers and policy makers) recommend an “international monetary policy committee” which can look at the bigger picture in the global economy.

According to Jeremy Warner in the Daily Telegraph:

The bottom line is that central banks need to be much more open about precisely what their objectives are, mindful of the international implications of what they do, and clear about what circumstances would trigger particular courses of action.

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