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 berating 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
- failed to prevent the financial crisis and paid no price; they are
- failing now to meet their mandate; and they
- 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 will just have been a joke presidency who scammed the American people, amused the populists for a while, but he’ll have no legacy whatsoever” if yields on the issue, columnist Ann Coulter told the Daily Caller in a podcast.
.. David Bossie: Attacks on Trump ignore all the things he’s accomplished.
Marc Thiessen: Trump called Obama the ‘founder of ISIS,’ why would he make the same mistake?
With the closing of the Weekly Standard, an influential publication that many considered a respectable, center-right, alternative to more pro-Trump outlets such as Breitbart and Fox News, and the continued ostracization of “Never-Trump conservatives” from the Republican Party, many wonder who, if anyone, will carry the torch of prudential conservatism while President Trump occupies the White House.
Just last week, a group of prominent intellectuals and political figures including Maryland Gov.
- Larry Hogan,
- Bill Kristol and
- David Frum
gathered for a conference at Washington’s Niskanen Center titled “Starting Over: The Center-Right After Trump.” The underlying assumption of the conference: It’s time for moderate conservatives to regroup and reconsider their relationship to a Republican Party that has been overrun by populists, nationalists and demagogues.
As someone who runs an organization founded at the time of the Iraq War with the aim of changing the direction of American conservatism, I can sympathize with their efforts, but I fundamentally disagree on their diagnosis of the problem. In the long run, both the conservative movement and Republican Party will be better off for having had Donald Trump shatter the combination of neoconservatism and Reaganism that held the political right captive and blinded since the end of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan was the statesman that America needed for his time, but the clock had run out on many of his policy prescriptions and it took a “hurricane,” as the Niskanen Center conference described it, like Trump to wake up conservatism — and America.
.. I need not provide an exhaustive list, as Time magazine’s October cover story by Sam Tanenhaus, “How Trumpism Will Outlast Trump,” did a good job surveying the landscape that includes thinkers such as
- Julius Krein at American Affairs,
- Daniel McCarthy at Modern Age,
- Yuval Levin at National Affairs,
- Michael Anton at Hillsdale College and
- David Azerrad at the Heritage Foundation.
.. What does this new program for the right entail if not a return to the neoconservatism of the George W. Bush years? It’s time for Republicans to embrace a “Main Street” conservatism that prizes solidarity over individualism and culture over efficiency. America needs a foreign policy that serves our vital national interests by securing the safety and happiness of the American people. This means putting an end to the regime-change and nation-building experiments that have devastated Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya; ending U.S. support for the Saudis’ involvement in the Yemeni civil war; reclaiming our national sovereignty; and prioritizing diplomacy over intervention
.. On domestic issues, especially when our country is bitterly divided along partisan lines, we must decentralize both political and economic power to bring it closer to the people. This would allow local and state governments greater flexibility to address their unique problems, letting California be California and Texas be Texas.
.. Regarding the problem of economic concentration, conservatives should stand up to the crony capitalism that has protected big banks and defense contractors, and revisit antitrust enforcement to prevent corporate monopolies from stamping out competition and entrepreneurship. And finally, conservatives should adopt a cultural platform with a renewed focus on civic education; implementing economic and social policies that strengthen families, such as paid family leave and an increase in the child tax credit; promoting vocational training as a dignified alternative to traditional universities; and working toward an immigration policy that better balances economic and cultural concerns.
.. When searching for a prudential conservatism today, it’s best to ignore the advice of those who brought us the Iraq War, the hollowing out of our industrial base and our broken immigration system. The future belongs to conservatives who take Middle America seriously and actually care about the systemic problems that drove the Rust Belt into the arms of then-candidate Trump.
The response to the 2008 economic crisis has relied far too much on monetary stimulus, in the form of quantitative easing and near-zero (or even negative) interest rates, and included far too little structural reform. This means that the next crisis could come soon – and pave the way for a large-scale military conflict.
BEIJING – The next economic crisis is closer than you think. But what you should really worry about is what comes after: in the current social, political, and technological landscape, a prolonged economic crisis, combined with rising income inequality, could well escalate into a major global military conflict.
The 2008-09 global financial crisis almost bankrupted governments and caused systemic collapse. Policymakers managed to pull the global economy back from the brink, using massive monetary stimulus, including quantitative easing and near-zero (or even negative) interest rates.
But monetary stimulus is like an adrenaline shot to jump-start an arrested heart; it can revive the patient, but it does nothing to cure the disease. Treating a sick economy requires structural reforms, which can cover everything from financial and labor markets to tax systems, fertility patterns, and education policies.1
Policymakers have utterly failed to pursue such reforms, despite promising to do so. Instead, they have remained preoccupied with politics. From Italy to Germany, forming and sustaining governments now seems to take more time than actual governing. And Greece, for example, has relied on money from international creditors to keep its head (barely) above water, rather than genuinely reforming its pension system or improving its business environment.
The lack of structural reform has meant that the unprecedented excess liquidity that central banks injected into their economies was not allocated to its most efficient uses. Instead, it raised global asset prices to levels even higher than those prevailing before 2008.
In the United States, housing prices are now 8% higher than they were at the peak of the property bubble in 2006, according to the property website Zillow. The price-to-earnings (CAPE) ratio, which measures whether stock-market prices are within a reasonable range, is now higher than it was both in 2008 and at the start of the Great Depression in 1929.
As monetary tightening reveals the vulnerabilities in the real economy, the collapse of asset-price bubbles will trigger another economic crisis – one that could be even more severe than the last, because we have built up a tolerance to our strongest macroeconomic medications. A decade of regular adrenaline shots, in the form of ultra-low interest rates and unconventional monetary policies, has severely depleted their power to stabilize and stimulate the economy.
If history is any guide, the consequences of this mistake could extend far beyond the economy. According to Harvard’s Benjamin Friedman, prolonged periods of economic distress have been characterized also by public antipathy toward minority groups or foreign countries – attitudes that can help to fuel unrest, terrorism, or even war.
For example, during the Great Depression, US President Herbert Hoover signed the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, intended to protect American workers and farmers from foreign competition. In the subsequent five years, global trade shrank by two-thirds. Within a decade, World War II had begun.
To be sure, WWII, like World War I, was caused by a multitude of factors; there is no standard path to war. But there is reason to believe that high levels of inequality can play a significant role in stoking conflict.
According to research by the economist Thomas Piketty, a spike in income inequality is often followed by a great crisis. Income inequality then declines for a while, before rising again, until a new peak – and a new disaster.
This is all the more worrying in view of the numerous other factors stoking social unrest and diplomatic tension, including
- technological disruption, a
- record-breaking migration crisis,
- anxiety over globalization,
- political polarization, and
- rising nationalism.
All are symptoms of failed policies that could turn out to be trigger points for a future crisis.
.. Voters have good reason to be frustrated, but the emotionally appealing populists to whom they are increasingly giving their support are offering ill-advised solutions that will only make matters worse. For example, despite the world’s unprecedented interconnectedness, multilateralism is increasingly being eschewed, as countries – most notably, Donald Trump’s US – pursue unilateral, isolationist policies. Meanwhile, proxy wars are raging in Syria and Yemen.
Against this background, we must take seriously the possibility that the next economic crisis could lead to a large-scale military confrontation. By the logicof the political scientist Samuel Huntington , considering such a scenario could help us avoid it, because it would force us to take action. In this case, the key will be for policymakers to pursue the structural reforms that they have long promised, while replacing finger-pointing and antagonism with a sensible and respectful global dialogue. The alternative may well be global conflagration.