Central Banking’s Final Frontier?

As central bankers worldwide continue to struggle to boost growth, inflation, and unemployment, the real issue is not whether more powerful monetary instruments are still available. The question is whether using them is necessary – or even threatens to do more harm than good.

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LONDON – Have central bankers run out of ammunition in their battle against deflation and unemployment? The answer, many policymakers and economists writing for Project Syndicate agree, is clearly No. “Monetary policymakers have plenty of weapons and an endless supply of ammunition at their disposal,” says Mojmír Hampl, Vice-Governor of the Czech National Bank. The real issue is not whether more powerful monetary instruments are still available, but whether using them is necessary – or even threatens to do more harm than good.

There are, in principle, four broad ways to add more stimulus to the world economy. The obvious course is to keep cutting interest rates, if necessary deeper into negative territory, as suggested by Koichi Hamada, economic adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In Hamada’s view, interest-rate cuts work mainly by weakening currencies and so boosting exports. Likewise, Raghuram Rajan, Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, believes that “exchange rates may be the primary channel of transmission” for monetary easing, but worries that currency depreciation is a zero-sum game for the world as a whole.

A bigger problem is that rate cuts may not weaken currencies at all. As I noted six months ago, the fact is that the “widely assumed correlation between monetary policy and currency values does not stand up to empirical examination.” Indeed, Hamada admits that Japan’s recent rate cuts perversely strengthened the yen: “The effects on the yen and the stock market have been an unpleasant surprise.”

A second option, implemented in March by the European Central Bank and supported by Hans-Helmut Kotz, a former chief economist of the Bundesbank, is to expand so-called quantitative easing (QE). Emulating the approach adopted in 2010 by the US, the ECB is boosting liquidity by purchasing long-term government bonds and other financial assets.