Column: Will central banks remain supreme?

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SummaryAdvanced countries’ central banks are putting their political independence and hard-won credibility on the line

History is full of people and institutions that rose to positions of supremacy only to come crashing down. In most cases, hubris—a sense of invincibility fed by uncontested power—was their undoing. In other cases, however, both the rise and the fall stemmed more from the unwarranted expectations of those around them.

Over the last few years, the central banks of the largest advanced economies have assumed a quasi-dominant policymaking position. In 2008, they were called upon to fix financial-market dysfunction before it tipped the world into Great Depression II. In the five years since then, they have taken on greater responsibility for delivering a growing list of economic and financial outcomes.

The more responsibilities central banks have acquired, the greater the expectations for what they can achieve, especially with regard to the much-sought-after trifecta of greater financial stability, faster economic growth, and more buoyant job creation. And governments that once resented central banks’ power are now happy to have them compensate for their own economic-governance shortfalls—so much so that some legislatures seem to feel empowered to lapse repeatedly into irresponsible behaviour.

Advanced-country central banks never aspired to their current position; they got there because, at every stage, the alternatives seemed to imply a worse outcome for society. Indeed, central banks’ assumption of additional responsibilities has been motivated less by a desire for greater power than by a sense of moral obligation, and most central bankers are only reluctantly embracing their new role and visibility.

With other policymaking entities sidelined by an unusual degree of domestic and regional political polarisation, advanced-country central banks felt obliged to act on their greater operational autonomy and relative political independence. At every stage, their hope was to buy time for other policymakers to get their act together, only to find themselves forced to look for ways to buy even more time.

Central banks were among the first to warn that their ability to compensate for others’ inaction is neither endless nor risk-free. They acknowledged early on that they were using imperfect and untested tools. And they have repeatedly cautioned that the longer they remain in their current position, the greater the risk that their good work will be associated with mounting collateral damage and unintended consequences.

The trouble is that few outsiders seem to be listening, much less preparing to confront the eventual limits of central-bank effectiveness. As a result, they risk aggravating the potential challenges.

This is particularly true of those

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