Central bankers feel the heat as populists demand easy fix
Economic slowdown has governments under pressure and rate-setters are being blamed for tightening their policy
Central bankers from the US to Europe are coming under pressure from their governments to loosen their purse strings again as a decade of accelerating economic growth and booming markets fuelled by cheap cash comes to an end.
For 10 years since the global financial crash of 2008, the US Federal Reserve and other central banks across the world have engineered a global upswing through ultralow interest rates and massive money-printing programmes.
As inflation recovers, rate-setters are now tightening their policy, leaving indebted governments, entrepreneurs and households feeling the pinch from higher borrowing costs and, in fragile emerging economies, sliding currencies. What started as an issue for countries with sizeable US dollar debt, such as Argentina and Turkey, is now reaching the world’s richest and supposedly most advanced economies in the US and eurozone.
US President Donald Trump launched a scathing attack on the Fed last week for being “too aggressive” in raising rates and labelled the institution “crazy”, “loco”, “ridiculous” and “too cute”.
Earlier in 2018, Italy’s governing parties floated the idea of getting the European Central Bank (ECB) to forgive some of the country’s huge debt pile or offer a guarantee on it. The central banks of Turkey and SA have also been blamed by their governments for being too tight with their policy.
The clash threatens to tarnish the golden rule of developed financial systems for the past three decades: keep the money-printing presses away from elected politicians if you want to keep inflation in check.
This risk, part of a global wave of populism and aversion towards technocrats, worried policymakers at the IMF’s annual meetings last week. “They’re asking to change rates, [debt] cancellation, they’re asking them to do other things, buy bonds,” ECB President Mario Draghi told a press conference at the IMF meeting on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. “This is one of the risks in the geopolitical sphere.”
Barry Eichengreen, a professor at Berkeley, said governments had more to lose than gain by discrediting their central banks. “Seriously infringing on the independence of the central bank would elicit a negative market reaction,” he said. So far, monetary guardians have stood their ground. Eurozone central bank sources at the IMF meeting told Reuters that Italy would not receive any help from the ECB unless it secures a bailout from the EU, which comes with stringent conditions in terms of budget tightening and economic reforms.
The Fed’s chair, Jerome Powell, did not react to Trump’s comments but he bagged a resounding endorsement from IMF MD Christine Lagarde. Another central banker attending the Bali meeting said he was not giving Trump’s comments too much weight. “I’d take him seriously if he removed Powell but I don’t think he’d do that,” the official said.
Lesetja Kganyago, governor of the SA Reserve Bank, said at the Bali summit rate-setters needed to be “given the space to act independently without political interference”. Even in countries where central bank independence is weaker or absent, monetary guardians are putting up a fight.
Turkey’s central bank in September raised its benchmark rate by a hefty 625 basis points to boost the lira despite harsh criticism from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But Richard Portes, a professor at the London Business School, said the issue was not likely to go away until central bankers became more accountable and transparent. “Monetary policy has political consequence even though central banks are run by technocrats,” he said. “They must have interchange with the people.” Reuters