What’s a Central Bank to Do?

What’s a Central Bank to Do?
April 25, 2011
Bob Eisenbeis


Faced with largely the same set of facts when it comes to their inflation outlook, some of the world’s major central banks have come to markedly different conclusions about the appropriate policy.

The ECB began to exit from its accommodative policy by increasing its policy rate by 25 basis points to 1.25% on April 7. The ECB noted that growth was improving moderately, but inflation had increased to 2.6% and was up from 2.45% the previous month. The rise was largely due to increases in energy, food, and commodity prices. The concern was the potential second round effects and that these increases could become embedded in inflation expectations.

The same day, the Bank of England kept its policy rate at 0.5%, despite the fact that inflation had been running well above its target rate of 2% for more than a year and was likely to remain so through 2011. Again, the Committee noted that the near term path for inflation was higher due to energy, imported commodities and other goods. Concern was also expressed about inflation expectations having risen in the UK, the US and the euro area relative to what they had been before the financial crisis. Finally the UK real economy was softer than that of the EU generally with output having declined by 0.5% in the fourth quarter of 2010.

While the FOMC will meet this week, Chairman Bernanke and Vice-Chair Yellen have already signaled that they view the recent increases in commodity, energy and food prices as transitory. Governor Yellen in particular provided an extremely thorough and detailed dissection of the inflation data and her views on the real economy and employment in her April 11th speech in New York. She indicated clearly that the causes of the run-up in food, energy and commodity prices were rooted in increases in global demand, combined with energy supply shocks and uncertainty about oil flow from the Middle East. Like the Chairman, she expressed the view that the increases were transitory. Most notably she attempted to debunk the widely discussed view that accommodative policies in the US were the cause of the increase in global prices. She was very clear that the main concern was for the US expansion and employment situation, that the current stance of policy was appropriate, and that QE II would be completed as scheduled. So we don’t expect any notable news coming from this week’s FOMC meeting.

These three views on the appropriate stance of policy and how individual-country central banks may think about policy shows a growing disconnect between traditional approaches to monetary policy and globalization. For example, the US economy historically has been largely isolated from the rest of the world. International markets were not particularly significant (exports and imports were roughly balanced and accounted for less than 13% of GDP). Inflation was largely a domestic issue and could be directly affected by changes in US policy rates. From the 50s through 70s, the main channel for monetary policy was through housing: when interest rates exceeded the Reg Q ceilings that banks and thrifts could pay for funds, the supply of funding to housing was cut off. Then construction declined and the effects rippled through the rest of the economy. Most of the economic models have that structure and international isolation embedded within them. Yet this is not the world that policy makers are now dealing with, as the above descriptions of the causes of the current inflation aptly illustrate.

If the major causes of inflation are external to an economy, and policy makers have domestic tools and targets for inflation and local employment, either explicitly or implicitly, then how should they respond to externally generated causes of inflation? What is the link between the central bank’s domestic policy interest rate tool and the external causes of price increases? These key questions are not currently addressed within contemporary policy frameworks employed by the FOMC, the ECB, or the Bank of England, as best one can determine.

In the current inflation environment, one can justify any one of three alternatives, and some of these are clearly being adopted. Furthermore, all can be mostly right or mostly wrong. First, a policy maker could attempt, as the US did during the 1970s oil crisis, to insulate the real domestic economy from the contraction supply shock by keeping rates low. This policy seemed appropriate and was politically acceptable, especially since the price increases were viewed as temporary. But it clearly failed, and we paid the cost with higher inflation.

Second, if one believes that the energy, food and commodities price increases are transitory, then no response is called for; and this can justify focusing on domestic employment, as is currently being done in both the US and UK. Even if the increases are permanent, doing nothing may be the appropriate policy. Permanent increases in energy, commodity, and food prices will shift these prices relative to other goods and services and generate substitution and accommodative responses by business and consumers. We may, for example, drive less and adopt more hybrid transportation alternatives – moves that are already beginning to take place – than we would if the energy price increases were viewed as being temporary. But doing nothing also has its own risks. Maintaining an accommodative policy too long risk overheating an economy and fueling both an increase in domestically-produced goods and services prices and passing along the increased prices of external goods and energy prices as second round effects. As always, timing is everything when it comes to exiting from an accommodative policy.

Third, a central bank can move to increase its policy rate to choke off inflation, as the ECB has begun to do. But this policy has certain risks associated with it. If the causes of the inflation are external to the economy, then one would not expect those prices to be responsive to a policy move by a domestic central bank. But the increase in rates will clearly impact those domestic and non-international activities that are affected by rising interest rates. Economic activity in those areas will contract, including production, employment, and prices. So the impact of responding to an external inflation source is to force a decline in an aggregate price index by contracting domestic economic activity. This seems a risky path indeed. Right now it may appear less so because policy, as ECB President Trichet stated, is still viewed as being extremely accommodative.

So what is a central bank to do, especially when policy is overly accommodative? While Vice-Chair Yellen may argue that the increase in world prices is not our fault, it is undeniable that the world’s central banks collectively have flooded world financial markets with liquidity by printing money. This situation is likely to become even worse in the near term if Japan resorts to inflation as a means to finance the cleanup and rebuilding necessitated by the recent earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters. When domestic economies are no longer insulated from international markets and forces, individual central banks can no longer go-it-alone with their policy decisions. In such a world, perhaps the best policy is to remove the distortions cause by current policies, and then attempt to avoid extremes. Unfortunately, how to get from here to there in a non-disruptive way is not at all obvious, as the ECB may soon find out.

What this means for investors is that market uncertainty is likely to remain high for some time to come, and attempting to play in international markets carries with it huge foreign-exchange and real risks that need to be hedged.


Bob Eisenbeis is Cumberland’s Chief Monetary Economist. Prior to joining Cumberland Advisors he was the Executive Vice President and Director of Research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Bob is presently a member of the U.S. Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee and the Financial Economist Roundtable. His bio is found at www.cumber.com. He may be reached at Bob.Eisenbeis-at-cumber.com.

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