Celebrity Central Bankers

CAMBRIDGE – Why do the comments of major economies’ central bankers command outsize attention nowadays? It is not as if they change interest rates all of the time. Nor have they developed new, more robust models for analyzing the economy. On the contrary, major central banks’ growth and inflation forecasts in the years since the financial crisis have consistently overestimated both growth and inflation – and by wide margins.

There are many good reasons for the attention lavished on monetary policymakers, including the rise of central-bank independence, public acceptance of the need to appoint highly competent technocrats to oversee the money supply, and the deepening of financial markets. And many central bankers have been rightly lauded for their role in preventing a global meltdown during the financial crisis.

Even so, given the numerous uncertainties surrounding macroeconomic forecasts and the effects of policy instruments (not least quantitative easing), many academics find it puzzling that central bankers’ speeches and statements generate so much fanfare. And for all of their heroics during the financial crisis, many central bankers have been far too inflexible in the aftermath, worrying too much about overshooting inflation targets, and too little about deflationary dynamics. Moreover, central bankers bear a share of the blame for the crisis in the first place, mainly owing to lax regulatory policy.

Many central bankers portray former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan (who served from August 1987 until January 2006) as the culprit, saying that he projected an image of central-bank omnipotence that is not warranted in theory or practice. But this critique is overblown: Greenspan is long gone, but the focus on central-bank pronouncements is greater than ever.