Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Central Bank – Emperor's New Clothes

With the myth of its power having been shattered, central banks need to get nasty to win back respect

Central banks are looking a bit naked as if stripped of their power.  Previously, central bankers such as Alan Greenspan were held in awe and ruled over the hearts and minds of investors.  This position of power stemmed from the perceived ability to soothe the fire-breathing financial markets.  Yet, the global financial crisis and its aftermath have shown this to be but a myth.  Part of the problem was that central banks wanted to be liked and keep investors onside.  With its generosity proving its downfall, the naked emperor may need to stop being so nice.

Pretenders to the throne

This fall from grace has happened swiftly.  The powers of central banks reached their peak just before the crisis hit.  Quick to blow their own trumpet, economists talked of a “Great Moderation” – a prolonged period of steady and stable economic growth coupled with low inflation.   Central banks had also shown themselves willing to step in during moments of strife and prop up the stock market.  This won them a strong following among investors who could be sure that central banks would send in the cavalry if there was trouble. 

The proverbial crown slipped and fell dramatically with the global financial crisis.  Not only were central banks proved to be not suitable guardians of the economy but their capacity to rally at times of trouble was limited.  Low interest rates and quantitative easing offered little respite from the plague eating away at the economy.  The potency of central bank policy has been eroded as its primary source of power, the ability to print money, does not mean much in a world awash with money.

The problem was exacerbated by central banks not having the freedom to act as their almighty reputation might suggest.  Part of this was due to internal restraints such as a chronic (but misplaced) fear of inflation.  Such worries about rising prices keep central banks from unleashing their full firepower when faced with crisis.  In addition to this, politics also often acts to stifle central banks.  Germans’ heightened aversion to inflation has kept the European Central Bank from doing more.  The Federal Reserve has also had to be mindful that its actions did not draw ire from Republicans who are typically hostile to any government intervention. 

Cursed by hubris

It also became obvious with hindsight that central banks may have built their dominance on a dubious myth.  The “Great Moderation” may have just resulted from good luck rather than good management.  It is easy to keep inflation down when cheap goods are flooding in from China while money was cheap as China was sending a considerable portion of its earnings as reserves and sending it back to the US.  Yet, the misplaced belief in the rule of central banks over the economy lead to ignorance of risks that central banks thought they had slayed. 

Central banks were happy to live off this aura while also being generous in its dealing with investors.  Yet, this kindness turned out to have a cruel twist with the support shown by central banks to financial markets sowing the seeds of crisis.  Although lauded at the time, the reign of Alan Greenspan has instead been shown to be like a king trying too hard to please his subjects.  Over this period, the Federal Reserve kept interest rates too low while investors made merry amid a booming stock market.   

Better to be feared than loved

The unruly nature of financial markets coupled with the flood of cash sloshing around in global finance means that a guiding hand is needed more than ever.  Having been knocked from their high towers, central banks have to restore some assembly of order in a world where the pull of its ability to print cash is diminished.  It may be best to follow the words of Machiavelli, a renaissance philosopher who theorised on power struggles in Medieval Italy, in that it is better to be feared than loved. 

In this vein, if it was a need-to-be-loved that got central banks, and the rest of us, into trouble, it might be time to get nasty.  Taking a harsh line against any potential distortions in the economy (using macroprudential policies) would win more respect than being too friendly.  To rule with a firmer fist seems a better fit at a time when the consequences of financial excesses are so pertinent.  This would help to usher in a more peaceful period if combined with greater regulation to keep the banking sector from getting out of hand.  More stability may even get investors to appreciate the value of tough love.  

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