Should Central Banks Target Employment?

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.

The spread of global value-chains that integrate hundreds of millions of developing-country workers into the global economy, as well as new labor-saving technologies, imply little chance of cost-push wage inflation. Likewise, the market for long-term bonds indicates extremely low inflation expectations (of course, interest rates are higher in cases of perceived sovereign default or re-denomination risk, such as in Southern Europe, but that has nothing to do with inflation). Moreover, the deleveraging underway since the 2008 financial implosion could be easier if inflation were moderately higher for a few years, a debate the International Monetary Fund encouraged  a year ago.