Should Central Banks Target Employment?

US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently announced that the Fed will keep interest rates at close to zero until the unemployment rate falls to 6.5%, provided inflation expectations remain subdued. It is a welcome breakthrough, and one that should be emulated by others – not least the ECB.

WASHINGTON, DC – On December 12, US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced that the Fed will keep interest rates at close to zero until the unemployment rate falls to 6.5%, provided inflation expectations remain subdued. While the Fed’s governing statutes, unlike those of the European Central Bank, explicitly include a mandate to support employment, the announcement marked the first time that the Fed tied its interest-rate policy to a numerical employment target. It is a welcome breakthrough, and one that should be emulated by others – not least the ECB.

Central banks’ statutes differ in terms of the objectives that they set for monetary policy. All include price stability. Many add a reference to general economic conditions, including growth and employment or financial stability. Some give the central bank the authority to set an inflation target unilaterally; others stipulate coordination with the government in setting the target.

There is no recent example, however, of a major central bank setting a numerical employment target. This should change, as the size of the employment challenge facing the advanced economies becomes more apparent. Weak labor markets, low inflation, and debt overhang suggest that a fundamental re-ordering of priorities is in order. In Japan, Shinzo Abe, the incoming prime minister, is signaling the same set of concerns, although he seems to be proposing a “minimum” inflation target for the Bank of Japan, rather than a link to growth or employment.

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