European Central Bank Bloomberg/Getty Images

The ECB’s Illusory Independence

In one sense, the ECB is a quintessentially independent central bank: No single government stands behind it, and it is expressly prohibited from standing behind any of the national governments whose central bank it is. And yet the ECB is the least independent central bank in the developed world.

ATHENS – A commitment to the independence of central banks is a vital part of the creed that “serious” policymakers are expected to uphold (privatization, labor-market “flexibility,” and so on). But what are central banks meant to be independent of? The answer seems obvious: governments.

In this sense, the European Central Bank is the quintessentially independent central bank: No single government stands behind it, and it is expressly prohibited from standing behind any of the national governments whose central bank it is. And yet the ECB is the least independent central bank in the developed world.

The key difficulty is the ECB’s “no bailout” clause – the ban on aiding an insolvent member-state government. Because commercial banks are an essential source of funding for member governments, the ECB is forced to refuse liquidity to banks domiciled in insolvent members. Thus, the ECB is founded on rules that prevent it from serving as lender of last resort.

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