Whose Central Bank?

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.

In the United States, from September 15, 2008 – the day that the investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy – until then-US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner announced in May 2009 that in his judgment the major US banks either had or could quickly raise adequate capital cushions, the two camps’ interests and conclusions were identical. For both, reducing the imbalance between aggregate supply and aggregate demand required, first and foremost, preserving the banking system; and preserving the banking system required boosting aggregate demand to bring it closer to aggregate supply. There was a lot of bank rescue in economic stimulus; and there was a lot of economic stimulus in rescuing banks.