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Whose Central Bank?

Broadly speaking, economists have long split into two camps over the purposes a central bank should serve. One camp believes that a central bank should serve bankers, while the other camp believes that its primary responsibility is to maintain the robust functioning of the economy as a whole.

BERKELEY – Broadly speaking, for at least 115 years (and possibly longer) – that is, at least since the publication of the Swedish economist Knut Wicksell’s Geldzins und Güterpreis (Interest and Prices) in 1898 – economists have split into two camps with respect to what a central bank is and the purposes it should serve.

One camp, call it the Banking Camp, regards a central bank as a bank for bankers. Its clients are the banks; it is a place where banks can go to borrow money when they really need to; and its functions are to support the banking sector so that banks can make their proper profits as they go about their proper business. Above all, the central bank must ensure that the money supply is large enough that mere illiquidity, rather than insolvency, does not force banks into bankruptcy and liquidation.

The other camp, call it the Macroeconomic Camp, views central banks as stewards of the economy as a whole. A central bank’s job is to uphold in practice Say’s Law – the principle that output is balanced by demand, with neither too little demand to purchase what is produced (which would cause unemployment) nor too much (which would cause inflation) – because Say’s Law certainly does not hold in theory. In other words, a central bank’s primary responsibility is not to preserve the health of the firms that make up the banking sector, but rather to maintain the robust functioning of the economy as a whole.

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