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Whither Central Banking?

In an environment of secular stagnation in the developed economies, central bankers’ ingenuity in loosening monetary policy is exactly what is not needed. What is needed are admissions of impotence, in order to spur efforts by governments to promote demand through fiscal policies and other means.

CAMBRIDGE – The world’s central bankers and the scholars who follow them are having their annual moment of reflection in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. But the theme of this year’s meeting, “Challenges for Monetary Policy,” may encourage an insular – and dangerous – complacency.

Simply put, tweaking inflation targets, communications strategies, or even balance sheets is not an adequate response to the challenges now confronting the major economies. Rather, ten years of below-target inflation throughout the developed world, with 30 more expected by the market, and the utter failure of the Bank of Japan’s extensive efforts to raise inflation suggest that what was previously treated as axiomatic is in fact false: central banks cannot always set inflation rates through monetary policy.

Europe and Japan are currently caught in what might be called a monetary black hole – a liquidity trap in which there is minimal scope for expansionary monetary policy. The United States is one recession away from a similar fate, given that, as the figure below illustrates, there will not be nearly sufficient room to cut interest rates when the next downturn comes. And with ten-year rates in the range of 1.5% and forward real rates negative, the scope for quantitative easing and forward guidance to provide incremental stimulus is very limited – even assuming that these tools are effective (which we doubt).

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