Are the golden years of central banking over?

Stefan Gerlach, Alberto Giovannini, Cédric Tille, 17 July 2009

a

A

Central banks have responded decisively to the ongoing financial and economic crisis by intervening forcefully and in innovative ways to support the financial system and the economy. In a report published today, we review the background and evolution of the crisis, focusing on what lessons central banks should draw (Gerlach, Giovannini, Tille, and Viñals 2009).

We first assess the developments that preceded the crisis, the “golden years of central banking”, and emphasise three features. In that period, inflation fell gradually but cumulatively by large amounts across the world and became less volatile. At the same time, the world economy became much better integrated or globalised. Finally, actual and expected rates of return on financial assets, both in nominal and real terms, declined and became less volatile.

We assess the driving forces behind the sustained reduction in inflation and find that it primarily reflected a combination of improvements in the conduct of monetary policy and greater public demand for price stability. While non-monetary factors, such as globalisation and fiscal consolidation, also played a role, their impact was temporary, at most facilitating central banks’ pursuit of low inflation.

While these developments were recognised and intensely debated, their profound implication for financial markets were arguably less clear at the time. The sustained reduction in the returns on standard assets, such as bonds and equity, led to a search for yield and a demand for new and riskier products by investors, and to a generalised increase in leverage to boost returns. Stable growth and inflation also reduced the perception of risk among investors, making these new but untested products more appealing and leverage apparently less risky. Financial globalisation reinforced this trend by providing new investment opportunities.

Challenges for policy makers

Following the outbreak of the crisis in the summer of 2007, central banks reacted by injecting very substantial amounts of liquidity and by reducing policy interest rates, close to zero in some cases, as macroeconomic conditions worsened. In addition, governments took further efforts to support the financial system by injecting capital into financial institutions, although differences remain with respect to the scale of these operations. While financial tensions appear to be abating, the issue of what the lessons should be drawn for the future now looms preeminent.

We identify several such conclusions for policy makers. First, the supervision and regulation of the financial sector lagged behind the development of markets and needs to be strengthened significantly. Furthermore, the explosive growth of hedge funds, often engaged in liquidity transformation, outside mainstream regulatory supervision resulted in authorities’ information gap widening unacceptably. Regulation should focus on what financial intermediaries do – in particular, any entity that engages in liquidity transformation should be subject to adequate controls and be expected to have sufficient capital. The same prescription applies a fortiori to any firm that is a potential recipient of central bank liquidity (because of its size, for instance).

Furthermore, in a well-functioning financial system, authorities must have adequate information to form a systemic view of financial markets. There is therefore a need for a consolidation of information from individual financial firms, which should be shared with the central bank in a suitable fashion through the supervisor. The current crisis has also highlighted the governance problems in institutions that combine both client business, for which transparency is essential, and proprietary business, for which information advantages are highly profitable. We regard these as fundamentally incompatible activities that should not be conducted in the same firm.

Furthermore, in addition to revealing regulatory weaknesses, the crisis has shown that supervision was in some cases lacking even when regulation was adequate. Moreover, financial regulation and supervision were largely micro-prudential, focusing on the situations of individual actors without properly taking into account systemic implications.

While we regard a broadening of regulation to the shadow financial sector and adequate supervisory enforcement as critical, this must be done in a manner that avoids stifling genuine, welfare-enhancing financial innovation. While it is all too apparent that an unfettered financial sector can trigger major problems, one should not overlook the fact that financial innovation can bring important benefits, provided that regulation and supervision are appropriate.

A second lesson is the need to coordinate monetary policy and financial stability policies as these have obvious interactions. But how should financial variables and financial stability concerns enter into monetary policy decisions? And how can a macro-prudential approach to financial stability policy be superimposed on the current micro-prudential approach? While the first-best policy is for monetary policy and financial stability policies to be geared to preserving price and financial stability, respectively, these policies cannot be pursued in isolation.

Going forward, financial regulation must take into account any macroeconomic implications that it may have. For instance, whereas asking an individual bank to reduce its leverage when it has become overextended may be sensible, requiring the same from the entire banking system may risk leading to a credit crunch in certain circumstances. Similarly, regulatory authorities must recognise that interest rate changes can have systemic implications for the financial sector. In particular, a period of sustained low interest rates can lead to a search for yield that builds up excessive leverage and financial vulnerabilities. To mitigate such adverse dynamics, sensible prudential norms– including countercyclical capital ratios, forward-looking provisions and other measures – must be adopted to lessen the procyclicality of the financial system.

Similarly, when setting monetary policy, central banks should take financial conditions fully into account and recognise that their interest rate decisions have consequences for price stability through their impact on financial stability. While, in principle, regulation and supervision should take responsibility for financial stability, not all systemically important players are regulated and, unfortunately, not all regulations are effective enough in achieving the desired results. Consequently, central banks must consider fully the risk of financial imbalances when setting interest rates. This requires that they receive adequate information from the supervisory authorities concerning the state of the financial system.

While setting somewhat higher interest rates than otherwise desired may lead to somewhat lower inflation than desired, it may lower the risks of an eruption of financial instability and deflation and can thus help maintain price stability over the medium term. Consequently, such a policy does not involve adding another objective or lessening the role of price stability as the primary goal of monetary policy but merely ensuring that the latter is pursued more effectively.

This point has been actively debated with regard to the sustained period of low interest rates in the early 2000s in the United States and some other countries, when central banks were appropriately concerned by the risk of deflation. With the benefit of hindsight, it appears that greater attention should have been paid to the risk that low interest rates might fuel financial imbalances. That said, we do not think that the current problems principally reflect overly expansionary monetary policies. Rather, they reflect developments in financial markets that were not effectively dealt with by regulation and supervision. Furthermore, we recognise that higher interest rates could have slowed the economy even further and raised the risk of deflation taking hold at that time.

A third challenge is for central banks not to lose sight of keeping long-run inflation low. While central banks are currently mostly concerned by the undershooting of inflation objectives and, in some cases, with preventing deflation, the low inflation expectations that characterised the golden years of central banking should not be taken for granted. The uptick of inflation in 2007-8 proved short-lived and had only a limited impact on inflation expectations, but a number of central banks may have been underestimating the risks that inflation expectations might rise.

While the financial crisis has unleashed strong disinflationary forces, we believe that re-affirming the commitment to price stability must remain a central focus of monetary policy. The exit strategy from the unconventional measures adopted by central banks during the crisis is likely to prove delicate and will be even more so should the public question their commitment to price stability. Moreover, at the present time, governments are engaging in substantial fiscal stimulus programmes and financial rescue packages that will add to their indebtedness. Indeed, this has led observers to discuss the risk that governments could eventually find financing their debt burdens through inflation too tempting to resist. While this is a minority view, central banks should be careful to ensure that this risk does not materialise.

References

Gerlach, Stefan, Alberto Giovannini, Cédric Tille, and José Viñals (2009). “Are the Golden Years of Central Banking Over? The Crisis and the Challenges.” Geneva Reports on the World Economy 10.

Topics: Global crisis, Monetary policy
Tags: inflation expectations, macro-prudential regulation

Deputy Governor, Central Bank of Ireland; and CEPR Research Fellow
Chief Executive Officer, Unifortune SGR SpA and Principal Policy Advisor of the European Commission’s Clearing and Settlement Advisory and Monitoring Group (CESAME)
Professor of economics, Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies and CEPR Research Fellow