Central banks could learn more from experience

My column from last week’s Fin, over the fold

Central banks could learn more from experience

The Reserve Bank of Australia is fifty years old, having been separated from the old Commonwealth Bank in 1960. The anniversary has been a happy event, given the Bank’s success in managing the Australian economy, at least since the ‘recession we had to have’. Through the Asian financial crisis, the dotcom boom and bust and the global financial crisis, Australia has enjoyed almost uninterrupted economic growth.

But the world as a whole has not done so well. As Janet Yellen of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco observed at a symposium held in Sydney to mark the anniversary, a few years ago, central bankers in general would have been congratulating themselves on a job well done. Thanks to the adoption, in the mid-1980s, of inflation targets and ‘Taylor rules’ for setting interest rates, the world had entered a ‘Great Moderation’ in which the volatility associated with the business cycle had been tamed.

While few believed that the Australian experience (nearly twenty years without a recession) could be replicated, or sustained indefinitely, there was widespread confidence that the future was one of stability. With the Asian financial crisis and the dotcom boom and bust fading into the rear-vision mirror, calls for a ‘new global financial architecture’ were quietly forgotten. The handful of policy responses to the excesses of the 1990s, such as the Sarbanes–Oxley legislation in the US were derided as unnecessary over-reactions.

There was a similarly benign attitude to global macroeconomic imbalances, and to the massive growth in liquidity that sustained them. The ‘consenting adults’ school of thought held that, as long as growth in international indebtedness was driven

But, as Yellen observed, that was then. Now, with much of the developed world in deep recession, and the global financial system still on life support, the self-congratulation was more muted.

The key ideas that have debated policy debate since the 1970s were found wanting in the global financial crisis. The Great Moderation turned out to be an illusion. The idea that macroeconomic policy could be run on the basis of judicious interest rate adjustments was abandoned as policymakers resorted to massive purchases of fiscal assets and, in Australia and elsewhere, equally massive fiscal stimulus.

The efficient financial markets hypothesis, which provided the theoretical basis for deregulation, has been abandoned by all but its most dogmatic advocates. And the general belief that governments should keep out of the way and let markets do their work has been replaced by the recognition that in a crisis, governments provide the last line of defence against systemic collapse.

In attending the symposium, on the topic ‘What have policymakers learned over recent decades, and what needs to be reconsidered’, therefore, I was rather more interested in the second part of the question than the first. What, I wondered, did central bankers see as the key weaknesses in the theoretical and policy frameworks that led us into the global financial crisis, what policy responses to the crisis had worked well or badly, and what were the most promising new lines of thinking about the future?

On the whole, I was disappointed. The only issue that received serious reconsideration was the question of whether central banks should target asset prices. As RBA governor Glenn Stevens correctly pointed out, it’s misleading to phrase this question, in terms of the desirability of using interest rates to ‘prick asset price bubbles’. By the time an asset price bubble has emerged, policy has already failed and all the options are bad ones.

For a central bank with only one instrument, interest rates, the implication is that rates should be raised early in the business cycle, before asset price inflation has a chance to get going. That’s a reasonable judgement, and Jean- Trichet of the European Central Bank engaged in some justified preening at the expense of critics of the ECB’s similar tightening. There was also some discussion of ‘open mouth’ operations of the type undertaken by former RBA governor Ian Macfarlane in the early 2000s when he warned housing investors not to count on ever-rising prices.

But surely the deepest global recession, since the 1970s, and on some measures since the 1930s, calls for a bit more reconsideration than that. As long as we combine unrestricted financial innovation with an effective guarantee that no systemically important firm will be allowed to fail

On the contrary, the main message from Trichet was ‘…’

The handful of policy responses that might make a serious difference to the operations of the financial system were dismissed the panelists. Proposals for a tax on international financial transactions, first put forward back in the 1970s by Nobel laureate James Tobin, are finally on the global policy agenda, but they got no support at the symposium. Although there was general agreement that financial market outcomes were far away from those predicted by the efficient markets hypothesis, and that huge transaction volumes were part of the problem, the Tobin tax was rejected because ‘it would impede market efficiency’.

Paul Volcker’s proposals to separate the ordinary financing activities of the publicly guaranteed banking system from the speculative ventures of hedge funds and investment banks received similarly short shrift.

Coming out of the symposium, it was clear that the lessons of the 1970s and 1980s had been learned well, perhaps too well. By contrast, it seems that little or nothing has been learned from the failures of the past decade.

John Quiggin is an ARC Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland. His book, Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas still Walk Among Us will be published by Princeton University Press later this year.

176 thoughts on “Central banks could learn more from experience

  1. It is the case that restricting banks borrowing from foreign banks could be helpful smiths. It is not to be assumed that conclusions based on the free market have validity when applied to a cartelised banking system, that debauches the price system by way of the trading of phantom money, based on pyramided money, based on cash, based on nothing. This sort of trading has some ways to go as a method for distributing information via a valid price mechanism.

    But they surely have it wrong with advocating more inflation. One doesn’t want to be putting the economy through excessive pain or sado-monetarism. But having said that you don’t want any more monetary growth then what you really need to avoid too much pain.

    Since banks without a reserve asset ratio borrow as an afterthought for purposes of liquidity, and not with forethought for purposes of long-range investment, then it follows that stopping them from borrowing off foreign banks would indeed be a buffer. It would prevent the sort of prosperity delusion which comes from having a needlessly overvalued currency.

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