Central banks are facing a credibility trap

Quite a few commentators have noted that central bankers have become rather less boring of late. Since the 2008 financial crisis, central banks have taken on new roles and responsibilities. They have experimented with a whole range of unconventional monetary policies. And, in the process, they have gained considerably in power and influence.

There has been less attention to a key paradox underlying central bankers’ new roles on the world stage: they are being forced to govern through exceptions in an era in which rule-following (particularly the holy grail of the 2% inflation target) has become the ultimate source of policy credibility. Where central bankers are supposed to stick to the rules, they have found themselves endlessly making exceptions, promising that one day things will return to normal.

This paradox poses real challenges for efforts to foster a sustained global economic recovery. Governing through exceptional policies is always a politically-fraught undertaking, particularly over the long-term, but it is even more difficult in a context in which the dominant convention is one of strict rule-following.

Since the early experiments with monetarism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, most central banks have moved towards an increasingly rule-based approach to monetary policy, with inflation targeting becoming the norm in many countries in recent years.

Yet today we are faced with a situation in which the rules no longer apply but are still being invoked as if they did.

A recent Buttonwood column notes that the Bank of England has missed its inflation target “almost exactly half the time” since 2008. The European Central Bank (ECB) has effectively expanded its narrow mandate, which formally requires it to make price stability its top priority, by arguing that employment and other issues are crucial to achieving it. Yet the ECB and the Bank of England continue to act as if the old rules still apply.

If we look beyond the narrow rules that are supposed to be governing central bank actions and examine the wider changes in their recent policies, we find similar patterns. Scratch an unconventional monetary policy and you will find a kind of economic exceptionalism: an argument that the crisis that we face is extreme enough that it requires a radical but temporary suspension of economic rules and norms.

Most of the unconventional monetary policies that have been tried to date, and just about all of those that have been proposed as future possibilities if we face a renewed global recession, break quite radically with existing norms. Negative interest rates weren’t even supposed to be economically possible (until they were tried), while quantitative easing (a central bank’s buying up bonds by massively increasing the size of its balance sheet) still carries a whiff of irresponsibility linked to its past as a way for governments to avoid fiscal retrenchment by “printing money.”

More recent proposals include helicoptering money into the government’s or the public’s accounts, abolishing cash to make low interest rates effective, and even introducing a reverse incomes policy—a government-enforced increase in wages (as opposed to the wage controls of the 1970s) to try to get inflation going.

All of these existing and potential policies break with current economic norms, and all are being pitched as temporary, exceptional measures that are (or may be) necessary in the face of an extreme crisis.

Ironically, rule-following was designed precisely to avoid this problem. It came into its own as an influential approach to monetary policy in the wake of the destabilizing 1970s, with their stop-go economic policies and rampant inflation. Mainstream economists came to love rule-based monetary policy as did politicians—not just neoconservatives like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan who first championed the approach, but eventually the more centrist politicians who followed like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, as well as today’s mixed lot.

A rule-governed approach to policy was designed to be both politically and economically stabilizing—to do away with the problem and even the possibility of exceptions by removing not only governments’ but even central bankers’ discretion: just stick to the rule, and everything will work out. A tidy, efficient, depoliticized (although certainly not apolitical) approach to monetary policy.

Yet rules only seem great until they don’t apply anymore. A rule that pretends it can always apply (or at least, as Colin Hay puts it in his introductory blog, in the 99.9% of times that seem relevant) inevitably runs serious problems when an exception becomes necessary.

Of course, as Alan Greenspan has noted, the victory of rules over discretion was never entirely true in practice. But it was an extremely powerful narrative—one that promised that central banks’ (and governments’) commitments to low inflation and economic stability was credible because they were constrained to follow the rules.

It was also a very effective narrative that has convinced markets that anything other that rule-following is likely to be destabilizing. As central banks begin to face the limits of those rules, their earlier persuasiveness has come back to haunt them: a recent paper from some Federal Reserve staff notes that although a higher inflation target would make sense in the United States, increasing it could well backfire if market actors believed that it would be too inflationary.

This fixation on rule-following has thus put central bankers into a credibility trap. If bankers admit that the rules no longer apply, then they risk losing their credibility as market actors have come to believe the mantra that rules—particularly low inflation targets—are the only way to ensure sound monetary policy. On the other hand if they don’t admit the limits of the rules, and continue lurching from exception to exception, they will eventually lose credibility as the gap between rhetoric and reality widens.

Central banks are damned if they do admit the limits of rules and damned if they don’t.

Of course, the most viable solution to this trap is for governments to stop relying so heavily on central banks in the first place and start taking some responsibility for economic recovery through concerted fiscal action (something that the Canadian government has at least started to do). Yet for that kind of fiscal action to work, governments have to convince the markets that they believe in it enough to stick to their guns and follow through—a rather unlikely scenario in today’s austerity-driven times.

As the potential for renewed economic crisis continues to grow, this credibility gap will only widen—as central bankers and governments find themselves lurching from exception to exception, refusing to question the neoliberal rules that no longer seem to apply.

This blog was first posted on the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute’s website.

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