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Dec. 5, 2019, 2:33 p.m. EST

Central banks must regain their credibility before the next recession

Unproven monetary policies may not work as well if the public doesn’t trust policy makers

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By Larry Hatheway

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So, in the U.S. case, helicopter money would actually have to be a fiscal transfer from the federal government to its citizens, underwritten by Fed purchases of Treasury securities. As such, it is a policy that only Congress and the president can enact.

The problem is that legislating such measures would take considerable time, whereas the next economic or financial crisis will probably require swift and decisive action.

To be sure, helicopter money is typically viewed as a last resort. But even less heterodox policies may be hamstrung by policy norms.

Less than zero

For example, the Fed has been reluctant to endorse the option of breaching the “zero lower bound” (ZLB) and introducing negative policy rates. Yet if the equilibrium real interest rate falls below zero, as seems likely in the next recession, that self-imposed ZLB limitation could pose problems.

In fact, the Fed’s own staff has estimated that the ZLB floor could prevent it from delivering an appropriately low real interest rate as often as 40% of the time, given plausible estimates of the neutral real policy rate and the odds of below-trend growth. Such failures could threaten the next recovery, and even the Fed’s independence.

Central bankers also face political and institutional constraints.

In Europe, financial institutions (particularly the Bundesbank), pensioners, and savers dislike negative interest rates. Whether these constituencies’ opposition to monetary-policy easing has prevented the European Central Bank from acting as forcefully as it might otherwise have done is an open question.

But, clearly, an air of timidity has damaged the ECB’s credibility.

The ECB staunchly opposes high inflation, but has been tolerant of below-target inflation. In 2012, then-ECB President Mario Draghi famously committed to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro /zigman2/quotes/210561242/realtime/sampled EURUSD 0.0000%  . Yet he never mustered the same resolve to ensure that inflation would reach the bank’s mandated target.

Economists agree that credibility reinforces monetary-policy effectiveness. If consumers, workers, and businesses don’t believe that a central bank is committed to achieving its mandate, they will adjust their behavior accordingly. Low inflation expectations will lead to low inflation outcomes.

Those outcomes are not costless.

Surrendering its power

When inflation is too low, it is harder to push down real interest rates, particularly if citizens oppose negative nominal rates. In such circumstances, a central bank that is unwilling to commit to its inflation target partly surrenders its most important policy tool: the ability to cut real interest rates in the event of a downturn.

Forfeiting policy tools is especially problematic now that the traditional transmission channels for monetary policy are proving less effective. Easing policy is less likely to depreciate the currency and boost net exports if other central banks are doing the same.

And while loose monetary policies may boost asset prices, consumption won’t increase much if the benefits are accruing only to the wealthy.

Whenever the next downturn comes, it will be too late to remedy central banks’ shortcomings. But by making changes before they are necessary, central banks can restore their credibility.

For example, the ECB could immediately announce a “whatever it takes” commitment to a symmetric inflation target, and then back it up with a round of easing. Doing this when confidence in growth is returning would send a powerful signal that the policy change is structural and not just another belated cyclical Band-Aid.

Central bankers should also revisit legal and self-imposed policy constraints, with an eye toward amending or removing those that could hinder policy flexibility in “tail risk” scenarios. Demonstrating a willingness to act before the crisis arrives is a costless way for central banks to safeguard their most important asset: the belief that they know what they’re doing.

Larry Hatheway is group head of investment solutions and group chief economist at GAM.

This article was published with permission of Project Syndicate — Restoring Central Banks’ Credibility.

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