The mandates of central banks around the world are typically focused on controlling inflation. In many cases, this is accompanied by operational independence from government, but with the government setting an inflation target. The central bank then chooses the appropriate monetary policy to achieve the inflation target. This is argued to provide the conditions that can deliver lower and less variable inflation rates – at least over the longer term.
However, some economists argue that this has the potential to create the conditions for greater economic volatility and financial instability. The events surrounding the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) – the largest since the global financial crisis – have helped to reignite these debates.
Inflation targeting central banks
The theoretical foundations for delegating monetary policy to central banks with mandates to meet an inflation rate target is often attributed to the paper of Fynn Kydland and Edward Prescott published in the Journal of Political Economy in 1977. It argues that if governments, rather than independent central banks, operate monetary policy, systemically-high inflation can become established if low-inflation announcements by governments lack credibility. Delegation of monetary to a central bank with an inflation rate target, however, can create the necessary conditions for credibility. This, in turn, gives the public confidence to maintain lower and more stable inflationary expectations than would otherwise be the case.
To mitigate the problem of a potential inflationary bias, it is argued that governments should delegate monetary policy to a conservative central banker: one that places less weight on output or employment stabilisation and more weight on inflation stabilisation than does society. However, as identified by Kenneth Rogoff in his paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1985, this raises the spectre of greater volatility in output and employment when economies are buffeted by supply shocks.
Inflation–output stabilisation trade-off
The inflation–output stabilisation trade-off identified by Rogoff has particular relevance to the macroeconomic environment experienced by many countries in recent times. As economies began to open up after the pandemic, demand–supply imbalances saw the emergence of inflationary pressures. These pressures were then exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which drove up commodity prices.
Rather than pursuing a less contractionary policy in the face of these supply shocks so as to avoid recession, central banks stuck to their inflation mandates and hence raised interest rates significantly so as to bring inflation back to target as soon as possible. But this hampered economic recovery.
Inflation–financial stability trade-off
Yet the recent financial turmoil suggests a further inflation–stability trade-off: an inflation–financial stability trade-off. By raising interest rates, different sectors of the economy are liable to greater financial distress. This distress has contributed to the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, and led to a significant injection of funds by large US banks into First Republic. The fear is of a contagion within the financial sector, which then spills into other sectors of the economy.
The debate about central bank mandates and the weight attached to inflation stability relative to other objectives is therefore centre stage of macroeconomic policy debates.
- Inflation targeting and the 2 per cent goal
Financial Times, Editorial Board (16/12/22)
- Breaking the shackles of inflation targets
The Business Standard, Daniel Moss, Bloomberg (16/3/23)
- Evaluating Monetary Policy with Inflation Bands and Horizons
Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, letter, Troy Davig and Andrew Foerster (21/2/23)
- Need to rethink long-term inflation target: MPC member Ashima Goyal
The Economic Times (India) (15/3/23)
- Inflation Targeting Pros and Cons
Economicshelp, Tejvan Pettinger (16/11/17)
- Central banks walk tightrope in juggling mandates
Reuters, Mike Dolan (15/3/23)
- Silicon Valley Bank: why did it collapse and is this the start of a banking crisis?
The Guardian, Jonathan Barrett (13/3/23)
- Silicon Valley Bank: Regulators take over as failure raises fears
BBC News (11/3/23)
- HSBC swoops in to rescue UK arm of Silicon Valley Bank
BBC News, Michael Race (13/3/19)
- Silicon Valley Bank said it was too small to need regulation. Now it’s ‘too big to fail’
The Guardian, Rebecca Burns and Julia Rock (17/3/23)
- Multi-billion dollar rescue deal for First Republic Bank
BBC News, Natalie Sherman (16/3/19)
- Chancellor ‘welcomes’ decision to give Credit Suisse £44.5bn lifeline as shares bounce back
Sky News, Samuel Obsborne (16/3/23)
- Explain the argument that the delegation of monetary policy can help to keep the average rate of inflation lower.
- How might the monetary policy responses of central banks to an inflation shock create the possibility of an inflation–output stabilisation trade-off?
- What do you understand by a Taylor rule? Could this help to alleviate the inflation-output stabilisation trade-off?
- Some economists argue that there is less of a trade-off between inflation and output stability with demand-pull inflation because of a so-called ‘divine coincidence’ in monetary policy. Why might this be the case?
- What do you understand by the term ‘financial distress’? What metrics could be used to capture this for different sectors of the economy?
- Explain how financial contagion can spread both within and between different sectors of the economy.
Donald Trump has suggested that the Fed should cut interest rates by 1 percentage point and engage in a further round of quantitative easing. He wants to see monetary policy used to give a substantial boost to US economic growth at a time when inflation is below target. In a pair of tweets just before the meeting of the Fed to decide on interest rates, he said:
China is adding great stimulus to its economy while at the same time keeping interest rates low. Our Federal Reserve has incessantly lifted interest rates, even though inflation is very low, and instituted a very big dose of quantitative tightening. We have the potential to go up like a rocket if we did some lowering of rates, like one point, and some quantitative easing. Yes, we are doing very well at 3.2% GDP, but with our wonderfully low inflation, we could be setting major records &, at the same time, make our National Debt start to look small!
But would this be an appropriate policy? The first issue concerns the independence of the Fed.
It is supposed to take decisions removed from the political arena. This means sticking to its inflation target of 2 per cent over the medium term – the target it has officially had since January 2012. To do this, it adjusts the federal funds interest rate and the magnitude of any bond buying programme (quantitative easing) or bond selling programme (quantitative tightening).
The Fed is supposed to assess the evidence concerning the pressures on inflation (e.g. changes in aggregate demand) and what inflation is likely to be over the medium term in the absence of any changes in monetary policy. If the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) expects inflation to exceed 2 per cent over the medium term, it will probably raise the federal funds rate; if it expects inflation to be below the target it will probably lower the federal funds rate.
In the case of the economy being in recession, and thus probably considerably undershooting the target, it may also engage in quantitative easing (QE). If the economy is growing strongly, it may sell some of its portfolio of bonds and thus engage in quantitative tightening (QT).
Since December 2015 the Fed has been raising interest rates by 0.25 percentage points at a time in a series of steps, so that the federal funds rate stands at between 2.25% and 2.5% (see chart). And since October 2017, it has also been engaged in quantitative tightening. In recent months it has been selling up to $50 billion of assets per month from its holdings of around $4000 billion and so far has reduced them by around £500 billion. It has, however, announced that the programme of QT will end in the second half of 2019.
This does raise the question of whether the FOMC is succumbing to political pressure to cease QT and put interest rate rises on hold. If so, it is going against its remit to base its policy purely on evidence. The Fed, however, maintains that its caution reflects uncertainty about the global economy.
The second issue is whether Trump’s proposed policy is a wise one.
Caution about further rises in interest rates and further QT is very different from the strongly expansionary monetary policy that President Trump proposes. The economy is already growing at 3.2%, which is above the rate of growth in potential output, of around 1.8% to 2.0%. The output gap (the percentage amount that actual GDP exceeds potential GDP) is positive. The IMF forecasts that the gap will be 1.4% in 2019 and 1.3% in 2020 and 2021. This means that the economy is operating at above normal capacity working and this will eventually start to drive up inflation. Any further stimulus will exacerbate the problem of excess demand. And a large stimulus, as proposed by Donald Trump, will cause serious overheating in the medium term, even if it does stimulate growth in the short term.
For these reasons, the Fed resisted calls for a large cut in interest rates and a return to quantitative easing. Instead it chose to keep interest rates on hold at its meeting on 1 May 2019.
But if the Fed had done as Donald Trump would have liked, the economy would probably be growing very strongly at the time of the next US election in November next year. It would be a good example of the start of a political business cycle – something that is rarer nowadays with the independence of central banks.
- What are the arguments for central bank independence?
- Are there any arguments against central bank independence?
- Explain what is meant by an ‘output gap’? Why is it important to be clear on what is meant by ‘potential output’?
- Would there be any supply-side effects of a strong monetary stimulus to the US economy at the current time? If so, what are they?
- Explain what is meant by the ‘political business’ cycle? Are governments in the UK, USA or the eurozone using macroeconomic policy to take advantage of the electoral cycle?
- The Fed seems to be ending its programme of quantitative tightening (QT). Why might that be so and is it a good idea?
- If inflation is caused by cost-push pressures, should central banks stick rigidly to inflation targets? Explain.
- How are expectations likely to affect the success of a monetary stimulus?
In three interesting articles, linked below, the authors consider the state of economies since the financial crisis of 2007–8 and whether governments have the right tools to tackle future economic shocks.
There have been some successes over the past 10 years, in particular keeping inflation close to central bank targets despite considerable shocks (see the Vox article). Also unemployment has fallen in most countries and to very low levels in some, including the UK.
But economic growth has generally remained well below the levels prior to the financial crisis, with low productivity growth being the main culprit. Indeed, many people have seen no growth at all in their real incomes over the past 10 years, with low unemployment being bought at the cost of a growth in zero-hour contracts and work in the gig economy. And what economic growth we have seen has been largely the result of taking up slack through unprecedentedly loose monetary policy.
Fiscal policy, except in the period directly following the financial crisis, has generally been tight as governments have sought to reduce their deficits and slow down the growth in their debt.
But what will happen if economies once more slow? Or, worse still, what will happen if there is another global recession? Do countries have the policies to tackle the problem this time round?
Quantitative easing could be used again, but many economists believe that it will have more limited scope if confined to the purchase of assets in the secondary market. Also, there is little scope for reducing interest rates, which, despite some modest rises in the USA, remain at close to zero in most developed countries.
One possibility is a combination of monetary and fiscal policy, where new money is used to finance government expenditure on infrastructure, such as road and rail, broadband, green energy, hospitals and schools and colleges. This would avoid the need for governments to borrow on open markets as the spending would be financed by new government securities purchased directly by the central bank.
An objection to such ‘people’s quantitative easing‘, as it has been dubbed, is that it would effectively end the independence of central banks. This independence has been credited by many with giving central banks credibility in controlling inflation. Would inflationary expectations rise with people’s quantitative easing and, with it, actual inflation? A lot would depend on the extent to which this QE could still be conducted within a framework of targeting inflation and whether people’s expectations of inflation could be managed jointly by the government and central bank.
How should recessions be fought when interest rates are low? The Economist. Free exchange (21/10/17)
The economy is failing. We need to think radically about how to fix it The Guardian, Liam Byrne (25/10/17)
Elusive inflation and the Great Recession Vox, David Miles, Ugo Panizza, Ricardo Reis, Ángel Ubide (25/10/17)
Economics since the crisis Vox on YouTube. Charles Goodhart (11/10/17)
Is the system broken? Vox on YouTube, Anat Admati (12/10/17)
Signs of a crisis Vox on YouTube, Christian Thimann (19/10/17)
Policy stances since 2007 Vox on YouTube, Paul Krugman (29/10/17)
Did policymakers get it right? Vox on YouTube, Paul Krugman (4/10/17)
- Why, during the next recession, will the “zero lower bound” (ZLB) on interest rates almost certainly bite again?
- Why would the scope for QE, as conducted up to now, be more limited in the future if a recession were to occur?
- Why have central banks appeared to have been so successful in keeping inflation close to target despite negative and positive demand- and supply-side shocks?
- Why are the pressures on government expenditure likely to increase in the coming years?
- How would a temporary price-level target help to tackle a recession when the economy next bumps into the ZLB? What would limit its success?
- Is it appropriate for central banks to stick to an inflation target in times when there is an adverse supply-side shock resulting in cost-push inflation?
- Why might monetary policy conducted in a framework of inflation targeting tend to lessen the impact of a fiscal stimulus?
- What are the arguments for and against relaxing central bank independence and pursuing a co-ordinated fiscal and monetary policy?
- What are the arguments for and against using helicopter money to boost private expenditure during a future recession where interest rates are already near the ZLB?
- What are the arguments for and against using ‘people’s QE’?
The Bank of England was granted independence to set interest rates back in 1997. This is known as instrument independence. However, the remit is set by the government and so it does not have goal independence. Amongst the policy announcements on Budget day (Wed 20 March), the government detailed amendments to the Bank’s remit. In particular, the remit now more explicitly acknowledges that, in exceptional circumstances, the Bank might need to pay more attention to output variability.
Despite the amendments to its remit, the Bank of England continues to have a forward-looking operational inflation rate target of 2 per cent (with a range of tolerance of up to 1 percentage point). The MPC therefore sets the Bank Rate, i.e. the rate at which it engages in short-term lending to financial institutions, to affect general interest rates in the economy. In turn, the level of interest rates is assumed to affect the level of aggregate demand and, hence, the rate of demand-pull inflation as well as inflation rate expectations.
A key economic benefit of delegating interest rate decisions to the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) is thought to be lower inflation rate expectations. By granting the Bank of England operational or instrument independence, inflation announcements have a credibility that they would not if monetary policy was under the control of elected politicians. So why change the inflation rate remit?
The government remains of the view that inflation rate targeting has served the UK well, despite inflation being persistently above target for the past three years (see chart: click here for a PowerPoint). However, it has sought to clarify how the Bank of England might be expected to behave in exceptional circumstances when the economy is buffeted by shocks and disturbances, such as those that it has faced following the financial crisis of the late 2000s. The government argues that in such circumstances the output volatility that could result by ensuring that inflation remains on target could be undesirable. Therefore, the MPC should give consideration to the volatility of output that targeting inflation would cause in such exceptional circumstances.
The amended remit says that in setting monetary policy the MPC should communicate to the public the trade-offs that are inherent in meeting its forward-looking inflation rate target. Therefore, during exceptional times, the Bank may communicate that the volatility of output resulting from returning inflation to target would be so large that it is prepared to keep monetary policy looser than it otherwise would. This could mean indicating a time-frame over which it would be expected to keep interest rates lower than otherwise. By communicating this, it would in effect be looking to affect peoples’ expectations and, importantly, their behaviour. The prospect of prolonged low interest rates, such as those currently being experienced, might encourage greater expenditure, especially as a result of lower borrowing costs – though of course this is not guaranteed!
The Governor will continue to write an open letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer if inflation moves away from the target by more than 1 percentage point in either direction. However, in a change to the previous remit, this will be done in conjunction with the minutes of the MPC meeting that follow the publication of the official inflation figures by the Office for National Statistics. By publishing the letter alongside the minutes, it gives the MPC more time to consider its strategy and to give due consideration to the trade-offs in returning inflation to the target. If inflation remains more than 1 percentage point above or below the target the Governor will need to write a further letter after three months. This letter would be alongside the minutes of the third subsequent meeting of the MPC.
Some commentators argue that the amended remit is merely a reflection of the current reality. In other words, the remit is being rewritten in a way which reflects how the MPC is currently making its interest rate decisions. Others are concerned that what was a simple and clear objective is now not the case and that this may have implications for the credibility of monetary policy. Whatever the rights and wrongs, Wednesday’s announcement was an important development in the history of central bank independence in the UK.
Remit for the Monetary Policy Committee Bank of England, March 2013
Governor Response to the remit for the Monetary Policy Committee Bank of England , March 2013
Bank of England handed new remit in Osbourne’s budget Guardian, Josephine Moulds (20/3/13)
Budget: Changing the Bank of England Remit Sky News, Ed Conway (20/3/13)
Budget 2013: Bank of England’s monetary policy remit changed Telegraph, Angela Monaghan (20/3/13)
King warns against ‘major change’ to Bank’s remit ITV News (15/3/13)
Chancellor adjusts Bank of England inflation remit Financial Times, Nick Reeve (20/3/13)
Budget 2013: Bank of England gets new orders BBC News (20/3/13)
- Why would monetary policy be expected to be more credible under an independent central bank?
- How might a lack of credibility over monetary policy affect the economy’s rate of inflation?
- Outline the advantages and disadvantages of the changes to the Bank of England’s remit.
- Central bank independence constrains discretion over monetary policy. Should governments constrain their discretion over fiscal policy? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
- Explain how the MPC tries to affect the rate of inflation through changes in the Bank Rate?
The Bank of England was granted independence to set interest rates back in 1997. In setting rates its looks to meet the government’s annual inflation rate target of 2 per cent (with a range of tolerance of up to 1 percentage point).
The economic benefits of delegating interest rate decisions to a body like the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) are often taken for granted. But, in David Blanchflower’s article in the Independent Newspaper on 14 May, the former MPC member questions whether, at least in recent years, better decisions would have been made by the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In other words, could politicians have made more appropriate monetary policy choices?
Central bank independence has become increasingly popular. Many governments have taken steps to depoliticise monetary policy choices and to hand over important powers, such as setting interest rates, to central bankers. One of the main advantages, it is argued, is that politicians are no longer able to manipulate monetary policy choices in order to try and affect their popularity and their chances of being re-elected. The policy announcements of central bankers are said to be more credible because they do not have the incentive to deviate from their announced policy. For instance, the low inflation announcements of elected policy-makers lack credibility because politicians have an incentive to inflate the economy and so boost growth and employment prior to the election.
The incentive for a pre-election dash for growth means that the general public are reluctant to bargain for low wage increases in case policy is loosened or is looser than it should be given the prevailing economic climate. In this case, it might mean that interest rates are lower than they would otherwise be in the run up to the election. In order to protect their spending power households bargain for higher wage increases than they would if the policy announcements could be trusted. In contrast, the low inflation announcements of central bankers have credibility and so inflation will be lower. In terms of economic jargon, central bank independence will reduce inflation bias as well as promoting economic stability.
Blanchflower questions whether the path of interest rates in the UK between 1997 and 2007 would have been materially different should the Treasury have been setting interest rates rather than the MPC. But, he believes that:
Interest rates would probably have been higher in 2007 as the housing boom was ranging and house price to earnings ratios approached unsustainable levels. Alistair Darling has made it clear he would have cut rates earlier in 2008, if it had been left to him….
Blanchflower argues that part of the reason that the Treasury might have made better choices in the more recent past is the narrow remit of the Bank of England to target inflation. He argues:
Now is the time to consider switching to a dual mandate that would include growth, which would give much needed flexibility.
Blanchflower calls into question the idea that targeting inflation alone can bring stability. The recent past he argues simply dispels this notion. To help form your own views try having a read of the full article and then answer the questions below.
David Blanchflower Article
The recession deniers have gone strangely quiet this month Independent, David Blanchflower (14/05/12)
- If economic growth is a good thing, why might we want to reduce the chances of policymakers manipulating policy to attempt a pre-election dash for growth?
- What do you understand by credible economic policy announcements? How might a lack of credibility affect the economy’s rate of inflation?
- What does central bank independence mean for the conduct of monetary policy in the UK? In answering this you might wish to visit the Bank of England website and read about the UK’s monetary policy framework.
- Try summarising David Blanchflower’s argument against the inflation rate remit of the Bank of England.
- What do you consider to be the possible dangers of widening the Bank of England’s remit beyond just targeting the annual rate of CPI inflation?
- Central bank independence is one way in which governments can constrain their discretion over economic policy. In what other ways can they constrain their policy choices?
- Do you think governments should have full discretion over their policy choices or do you think there should be limits?