Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Central Banks – false illusion of power

The Bank of England shows how little central banks can do with their limited resources

Everyone looks to central banks as the custodians of the economy.  Once upon a time, central banks were regarded as having almost mythical powers to control the forces of the economy.  However, this fairy tale was shattered by the global financial crisis and central banks have since been trying to regain their previous status as economic titans.  Central banks have fought back with extra powers such as quantitative easing which have helped bolster their popularity.  In contrast, the trouble that the Bank of England is having in dealing with the conflicting problems of a fragile recovery and a booming housing market shows central banks at their most impotent.

The myth and the reality

Much of what central banks do relies on creating a belief in their resolve and ability to call on seemingly unlimited resources.  Chronic inflation in the 1970s was reined in by central banks flexing their muscles and inflation has stayed low ever since.  Even in the throes of a crisis, the European Central Bank kept the Eurozone together merely by proclaiming that it was willing to do “whatever it takes” to do so.

With the power to print money, central banks have the godlike ability to create something out of thin air.  It is often only the ideas of economics that keep central banks from unleashing the full force of their powers.  The ability to summon money from the ether is of limited use when most economists are scared of rising inflation following an increase in the supply of money.  Economics has also restricted central banks to operating only in a small arena, which reduces their capacity to act as a power for good.

One example of this is quantitative easing which helped ease the pain over the downturn but came with side effects.  The purchases of bonds through quantitative easing helped to shore up the financial markets but did little to alleviate a chronic shortage of demand in the actual economy.  A slightly different way of using quantitative easing could have had more punch with less mess but also came with the possibility of some inflation. 

Like something from Greek tragedy 

The Bank of England operates in this world of possibilities, but with only limited options.  It has made use of what was available (low interest rates and quantitative easing) but the economic recovery has struggled to gain much traction even after five years.  Yet, the consequences of its policies have shown up as a housing market boom at a time when the Bank of England still has its hands full nursing the economy.

One thing that the Bank of England is missing is a bit of help from the government.  Not only is the government dragging down the economy with its austerity measures, but it is creating problems with policies such as Help to Buy which stoke up the property market just as the central bank is praying for it to cool down.  For all of their potential power, central banks still have to steer clear of politics putting any criticism of government policy out of bounds.  The government with all of its populist tendencies still trumps an institution established to look out for the long term health of the economy. 

Instead, the Bank of England and its governor, Mark Carney, have tried to use the media to communicate their concerns about the property market.  However, this is having little effect as the Bank of England can be ignored since there are few actions it could actually take to back up its words.  Its main weapon would be higher interest rates but the economic recovery is seen as not yet being strong enough.  It would be a shame to see the Bank of England fall from grace battling a wayward government and a run-away property market but it will take a heroic feat to stop that happening.

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