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.

Why We Should Fear Easy Money

Cutting interest rates now could set the stage for a collapse in the financial markets.

To widespread applause in the markets and the news media, from conservatives and liberals alike, the Federal Reserve appears poised to cut interest rates for the first time since the global financial crisis a decade ago. Adjusted for inflation, the Fed’s benchmark rate is now just half a percent and the cost of borrowing has rarely been closer to free, but the clamor for more easy money keeps growing.

Everyone wants the recovery to last and more easy money seems like the obvious way to achieve that goal. With trade wars threatening the global economy, Federal Reserve officials say rate cuts are needed to keep the slowdown from spilling into the United States, and to prevent doggedly low inflation from sliding into outright deflation.

Few words are more dreaded among economists than “deflation.” For centuries, deflation was a common and mostly benign phenomenon, with prices falling because of technological innovations that lowered the cost of producing and distributing goods. But the widespread deflation of the 1930s and the more recent experience of Japan have given the word a uniquely bad name.

After Japan’s housing and stock market bubbles burst in the early 1990s, demand fell and prices started to decline, as heavily indebted consumers began to delay purchases of everything from TV sets to cars, waiting for prices to fall further. The economy slowed to a crawl. Hoping to jar consumers into spending again, the central bank pumped money into the economy, but to no avail. Critics said Japan took action too gradually, and so its economy remained stuck in a deflationary trap for years.

Yet, in this expansion, the United States economy has grown at half the pace of the postwar recoveries. Inflation has failed to rise to the Fed’s target of a sustained 2 percent. Meanwhile, every new hint of easy money inspires fresh optimism in the financial markets, which have swollen to three times the size of the real economy.

In this environment, cutting rates could hasten exactly the outcome that the Fed is trying to avoid. By further driving up the prices of stocks, bonds and real estate, and encouraging risky borrowing, more easy money could set the stage for a collapse in the financial markets. And that could be followed by an economic downturn and falling prices — much as in Japan in the 1990s. The more expensive these financial assets become, the more precarious the situation, and the more difficult it will be to defuse without setting off a downturn.

The key lesson from Japan was that central banks can print all the money they want, but can’t dictate where it will go. Easy credit could not force over-indebted Japanese consumers to borrow and spend, and much of it ended up going to wastefinancing “bridges to nowhere” and the rise of debt-laden “zombie companies that still weigh on the economy.

Today, politicians on the right and left have come to embrace easy money, each camp for its own reasons, both ignoring the risks. President Trump has been pushing the Fed for a large rate cut to help him bring back the postwar miracle growth rates of 3 percent to 4 percent.

At the same time, liberals like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are turning to unconventional easy money theories as a way to pay for ambitious social programs. But they might want to take a closer look at who has benefited most after a decade of easy money: the wealthy, monopolies, corporate debtors. Not exactly liberal causes.

By fueling a record bull run in the financial markets, easy money is increasing inequality, since the wealthy own the bulk of stocks and bonds. Research also shows that very low interest rates have helped large corporations increase their dominance across United States industries, squeezing out small companies and start-ups. Once seen as a threat only in Japan, zombie firms — which don’t earn enough profit to cover their interest payments — have been rising in the United States, where they account for one in six publicly traded companies.

All these creatures of easy credit erode the economy’s long-term growth potential by undermining productivity, and raise the risk of a global recession emanating from debt-soaked financial and housing markets. A 2015 study of 17 major economies showed that before World War II, about one in four recessions followed a collapse in stock or home prices (or both). Since the war, that number has jumped to roughly two out of three, including the economic meltdowns in Japan after 1990, Asia after 1998 and the world after 2008.

Recessions tend to be longer and deeper when the preceding boom was fueled by borrowing, because after the boom goes bust, flattened debtors struggle for years to dig out from under their loans. And lately, easy money has been enabling debt binges all over the world, particularly in corporate sectors.

As the Fed prepares to announce a decision this week, growing bipartisan support for a rate cut is fraught with irony. Slashing rates to avoid deflation made sense in the crisis atmosphere of 2008, and cutting again may seem like a logical response to weakening global growth now. But with the price of borrowing already so low, more easy money will raise a more serious threat.

By further lifting stock and bond prices and encouraging people to take on more debt, lowering rates could set the stage for the kind of debt-fueled market collapse that has preceded the economic downturns of recent decades. Our economy is hooked on easy money — and it is a dangerous addiction.

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.