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Central Banks and the Bottom Line

MUNICH – Around the world, central banks' balance sheets are becoming an increasingly serious concern – most notably for monetary policymakers themselves. When the Swiss National Bank (SNB) abandoned its exchange-rate peg last month, causing the franc to soar by a nosebleed-inducing 20%, it seemed to be acting out of fear that it would suffer balance-sheet losses if it kept purchasing euros and other foreign currencies.

Similarly, critics of the decision to embark on quantitative easing in the eurozone worry that the European Central Bank is dangerously exposed to losses on the southern eurozone members' government bonds. This prompted the ECB Council to leave 80% of those bond purchases on the balance sheets of national central banks, where they will be the responsibility of national governments.

In the United States, meanwhile, the "Audit the Fed" movement is back. Motivated by growth in the Federal Reserve's assets and liabilities, Republicans are introducing bills in both chambers of Congress to require the Fed to reveal more information about its monetary and financial operations.

But should central banks really worry so much about balance-sheet profits and losses? The answer, to put it bluntly, is no.