Friday, 3 July 2015

Central Banks – juggling interest rates and inflation

Low inflation is dampening the effects of low interest rates and central banks are happy to let this happen

As guardians of the economic recovery and a bulwark against inflation, central banks have a tough juggling act to maintain.  This is made even more difficult as priorities shift from getting the economy moving again to keeping an eye out for inflation.  The consequences of this can be seen in central banks’ tolerance towards low inflation with low interest rates proving less helpful as prices remain depressed.  Central banks are letting this happen due to inflation being one ball that central banks dare not come close to dropping.

Too many balls in the air

Central banks have a lot of balls in the air to watch with their remit including managing the price level as well as ensuring stability in the financial markets (and maintaining employment levels in the US).  The number of balls has increased as monetary policy has become the main way to bolster the economy with governments in many countries refusing to use fiscal policy.  But it is inflation that typically remains the main focus of central banks. 

The aversion to inflation was put to one side amid the turmoil of the global financial crisis.  Efforts to prop up the money supply through quantitative easing would have normally also lifted prices but this did not stop central banks taking bold action.  As the threat of crisis has receded, so have measures by some central banks to help out with the economy.  This shift has been made more pronounced due to low inflation as depressed prices strip away some of the positive effects of low interest. 

Juggling priorities  

The rate at which prices are rising affects decisions made by companies on whether to borrow money.  Higher inflation makes low interest rates more attractive to businesses as any products purchased today will be worth more in the future making it easier to pay off debts.  The opposite is also true and flat prices will prompt some business putting off plans to borrow and invest.  The harm done by low inflation is even more pervasive if it is a reflection of a weak economy which seems likely

By not doing more to keep prices ticking upwards, central banks are consenting with some of the potential effects of low interest rates being taken away.  It is like a hike in interest rates without interest rates actually having to rise.  It is a sign of how much central banks worry about prices rising too fast that this is happening despite the economic recovery still lacking momentum and inflation close to zero.

Don’t douse the economic recovery

The various roles of the central bank can make it seem as if they are required to juggle fire and water at the same time.  Much has been left to central banks in the aftermath of the global financial crisis which has often resulted in monetary policy being pushed too far.  Central banks were never meant to take such an active role in managing the economy.  A return to their less controversial role of keeping a lid on inflation will come as a welcome relief.  It is, after all, their record on inflation that central banks will often be judged. 

However, it is still too soon to move against the potential threat of a jump in prices.  There is still scope to leave interest rates at their current low levels with other measures such as macroprudential policies available for sectors, such as the residential property market, where lending is getting out of hand.  There is a point in every juggler’s routine where everything seems set to come crashing down – let’s hope that this does not happen due to a premature hike in interest rates.

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