How Central-Bank Independence Dies

Since the world’s major central banks came to the global economy’s rescue in 2008, they have had more and more tasks foisted upon them, even as some politicians question their expanded role and others seek to undermine their policymaking autonomy. To escape this dilemma, monetary authorities must get back to doing what they do best.

CAMBRIDGE – With the global rise of populism and autocracy, central-bank independence is under threat, even in advanced economies. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the public has come to expect central banks to shoulder responsibilities far beyond their power and remit. At the same time, populist leaders have been pressing for more direct oversight and control over monetary policy. And while central banks have long been under assault from the right for expanding their balance sheets after the crisis, now they are under attack from the left for not expanding their balance sheets enough.

This is a remarkable shift. Not too long ago, central-bank independence was celebrated as one of the most effective policy innovations of the past four decades, owing to the dramatic fall in inflation worldwide. Recently, however, an increasing number of politicians believe that it is high time to subordinate central banks to the prerogatives of elected officials. On the right, US President Donald Trump and his advisers routinely bash the US Federal Reserve for keeping interest rates too high. On the left, British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has famously called for “people’s quantitative easing” to provide central-bank financing for government investment initiatives. “Modern Monetary Theory” is an idea in the same vein.

There are perfectly healthy and legitimate discussions to be had about circumscribing the role of central banks, particularly when it comes to the large-scale balance sheet operations (such as post-crisis quantitative easing) that arguably trespass into fiscal policy. However, if governments undercut central banks’ ability to set interest rates to stabilize inflation and growth, the results could be dangerous and far-reaching. If anti-inflation credibility is lost, governments may find it very difficult – if not impossible – to put the genie back in the bottle.

Central Banks Are the Fall Guys

For decades, the freedom of monetary policymakers to make difficult decisions without having to worry about political blowback has proven indispensable to macroeconomic stability. But now, central bankers must ease monetary policies in response to populist mistakes for which they themselves will be blamed.

CHICAGO – Central-bank independence is back in the news. In the United States, President Donald Trump has been  the Federal Reserve for keeping interest rates too high, and has reportedly explored the possibility of forcing out Fed Chair Jerome Powell. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has fired the central-bank governor. The new governor is now pursuing sharp rate cuts. And these are hardly the only examples of populist governments setting their sights on central banks in recent months.

In theory, central-bank independence means that monetary policymakers have the freedom to make unpopular but necessary decisions, particularly when it comes to combating inflation and financial excesses, because they do not have to stand for election. When faced with such decisions, elected officials will always be tempted to adopt a softer response, regardless of the longer-term costs. To avoid this, they have handed over the task of intervening directly in monetary and financial matters to central bankers, who have the discretion to meet goals set by the political establishment however they choose.

This arrangement gives investors more confidence in a country’s monetary and financial stability, and they will reward it (and its political establishment) by accepting lower interest rates for its debt. In theory, the country thus will live happily ever after, with low inflation and financial-sector stability.

Having proved effective in many countries starting in the 1980s, central-bank independence became a mantra for policymakers in the 1990s. Central bankers were held in high esteem, and their utterances, though often elliptical or even incomprehensible, were treated with deep reverence. Fearing a recurrence of the high inflation of the early 1980s, politicians gave monetary policymakers wide leeway, and scarcely ever talked about their actions publicly.

But now, three developments seem to have shattered this entente in developed countries. The first development was the 2008 global financial crisis, which suggested that central banks had been asleep at the wheel. Although central bankers managed to create an even more powerful aura around themselves by marshaling a forceful response to the crisis, politicians have since come to resent sharing the stage with these unelected saviors.

Second, since the crisis, central banks have repeatedly fallen short of their inflation targets. While this may suggest that they could have done more to boost growth, in reality they don’t have the means to pursue much additional monetary easing, even using unconventional tools. Any hint of further easing seems to encourage financial risk-taking more than real investment. Central bankers have thus become hostages of the aura they helped to conjure. When the public believes that monetary policymakers have superpowers, politicians will ask why those powers aren’t being used to fulfill their mandates.

Third, in recent years many central banks changed their communication approach, shifting from Delphic utterances to a policy of full transparency. But since the crisis, many of their public forecasts of growth and inflation have missed the mark. That these might have been the best estimates at the time convinces no one. That they were wrong is all that matters. This has left them triply damned in the eyes of politicians: they

  1. failed to prevent the financial crisis and paid no price; they are
  2. failing now to meet their mandate; and they
  3. seem to know no more than the rest of us about the economy.

It is no surprise that populist leaders would be among the most incensed at central banks. Populists believe they have a mandate from “the people” to wrest control of institutions from the “elites,” and there is nothing more elite than pointy-headed PhD economists speaking in jargon and meeting periodically behind closed doors in places like Basel, Switzerland. For a populist leader who fears that a recession might derail his agenda and tarnish his own image of infallibility, the central bank is the perfect scapegoat.

Markets seem curiously benign in the face of these attacks. In the past, they would have reacted by pushing up interest rates. But investors seem to have concluded that the deflationary consequences of the policy uncertainty created by the unorthodox and unpredictable actions of populist administrations far outweigh any damage done to central bank independence. So they want central banks to respond as the populist leader desires, not to support their “awesome” policies, but to offset their adverse consequences.

A central bank’s mandate requires it to ease monetary policy when growth is flagging, even when the government’s own policies are the problem. Though the central bank is still autonomous, it effectively becomes a dependent follower. In such cases, it may even encourage the government to undertake riskier policies on the assumption that the central bank will bail out the economy as needed. Worse, populist leaders may mistakenly believe the central bank can do more to rescue the economy from their policy mistakes than it actually can deliver. Such misunderstandings could be deeply problematic for the economy.

Furthermore, central bankers are not immune to public attack. They know that an adverse image hurts central bank credibility as well as its ability to recruit and act in the future. Knowing that they are being set up to take the fall in case the economy falters, it would be only human for central bankers to buy extra insurance against that eventuality. In the past, the cost would have been higher inflation over the medium term; today, it is more likely that the cost will be more future financial instability. This possibility, of course, will tend to depress market interest rates further rather than elevating them.

What can central bankers do? Above all, they need to explain their role to the public and why it is about more than simply moving interest rates up or down on a whim. Powell has been transparent in his press conferences and speeches, as well as honest about central bankers’ own uncertainties regarding the economy. Shattering the mystique surrounding central banking could open it to attack in the short run, but will pay off in the long run. The sooner the public understands that central bankers are ordinary people doing a difficult job with limited tools under trying circumstances, the less it will expect monetary policy magically to correct elected politicians’ errors. Under current conditions, that may be the best form of independence central bankers can hope for.

Trump’s Art of the Spin

NEW HAVEN – Blinded by a surging stock market and a 50-year low in the unemployment rate, few dare to challenge the wisdom of US economic policy. Instant gratification has compromised the rigor of objective and disciplined analysis. Big mistake. The toxic combination of ill-timed fiscal stimulus, aggressive imposition of tariffs, and unprecedented attacks on the Federal Reserve demands a far more critical assessment of Trumponomics.

Politicians and pundits can always be counted on to spin the policy debate. For US President Donald Trump and his supporters, the art of the spin has been taken to a new level. Apparently, it doesn’t matter that federal deficits have been enlarged by an estimated $1.5 trillion over the next decade, or that government debt will reach a post-World War II record of 92% of GDP by 2029. The tax cuts driving these worrying trends are rationalized as what it takes to “Make America Great Again.”

Nor are tariffs viewed as taxes on consumers or impediments to global supply-chain efficiencies; instead, they are portrayed as “weaponized” negotiating levers to force trading partners to change their treatment of the United States. And attacks on the Fed’s independence are seen not as threats to the central bank’s dual mandate to maximize employment and ensure price stability, but rather as the president’s exercise of his prerogative to use the bully pulpit as he – and he alone – sees fit.

There are three basic flaws with Trump’s approach to economic policy.

  1. First, there is the disconnect between intent and impact. The political spin maintains that large corporate tax cuts boost US competitiveness. But that doesn’t mean deficits and debt don’t matter. Notwithstanding the hollow promises of supply-side economics, revenue-neutral fiscal initiatives that shifted the tax burden from one segment of the economy to another would have come much closer to real reform than the reduction of the overall revenue trajectory has. Moreover, the enactment of fiscal stimulus in late 2017, when the unemployment rate was then at a cyclical low of 4.1% (headed toward the current 3.6%), added froth to markets and the economy when it was least needed and foreclosed the option of additional stimulus should growth falter.

Similarly, Trump’s tariffs fly in the face of one of the twentieth century’s greatest policy blunders – the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, which sparked a 60% plunge in global trade by 1932. With foreign trade currently accounting for 28% of GDP, versus 11% in 1929, the US, as a debtor country today, is far more vulnerable to trade-related disruptions than it was as a net creditor back then.

Ignoring the cascading stream of direct and retaliatory taxes on consumers and businesses that stem from a tariff war, Trump extols the virtues of tariffs as “a beautiful thing.” That is painfully reminiscent of the 1928 Republican Party platform, which couched tariffs as “a fundamental and essential principle of the economic life of this nation … and essential for the continued prosperity of the country.” Trump ignores the lessons of the 1930s at great peril.

The same can be said of Trump’s recent Fed bashing. The political independence of central banking is widely regarded as the singular breakthrough needed to achieve price stability following the Great Inflation of the 1970s. In the US, passage of the so-called Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978 gave then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker the political cover to squeeze double-digit inflation out of the system through a wrenching monetary tightening. Had Volcker lacked the freedom to act, he would have been constrained by elected leaders’ political calculus – precisely what Trump is doing in trying to dictate policy to current Fed Chair Jerome Powell.

2) The second critical flaw in Trump’s economic-policy package is its failure to appreciate the links between budget deficits, tariffs, and monetary policy. As the late Martin Feldstein , to the extent that budget deficits put downward pressure on already depressed domestic saving, larger trade deficits become the means to fill the void with surplus foreign saving. Denial of these linkages conveniently allows the US to  for self-inflicted trade deficits.

But with tariffs likely to divert trade and supply chains from low-cost Chinese producers to higher-cost alternatives, US consumers will be hit with the functional equivalent of tax hikes, raising the risk of higher inflation. The latter possibility, though seemingly remote today, could have important consequences for US monetary policy – provided, of course, the Fed has the political independence to act.

Finally, there are always the lags to keep in mind in assessing the impact of policy. While low interest rates temper short-term pressures on debt-service costs as budget deficits rise, there is no guarantee that such a trend will persist over the longer term, especially with the already-elevated federal debt overhang projected to increase by about 14 percentage points of GDP over the next ten years. Similarly, the disruptive effects of tariffs and shifts in monetary policy take about 12-18 months to be fully evident. So, rather than bask in today’s financial-market euphoria, politicians and investors should be thinking more about the state of the economy in late 2020 – a timeframe that happens to coincide with the upcoming presidential election cycle – in assessing how current policies are likely to play out.

There is nothing remarkable about a US president’s penchant for political spin. What is glaringly different this time is the lack of any pushback from those who know better. The National Economic Council, established in the early 1990s as an “honest broker” in the executive branch to convene and coordinate debate on key policy issues, is now basically dysfunctional. The NEC’s current head, Larry Kudlow, a long-standing advocate of free trade, is squirming to defend Trump’s tariffs and Fed bashing. The Republican Party, long a champion of trade liberalization, is equally complicit. Trump’s vindictive bluster has steamrolled economic-policy deliberations – ignoring the lessons of history, rejecting the analytics of modern economics, and undermining the institutional integrity of the policymaking process. Policy blunders of epic proportion have become the rule, not the exception. It won’t be nearly as easy to spin the looming consequences.