Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Central Banks hold sway, where are the governments?

There is a common feature in the respective policy responses to the current domestic economic situations in United States and India. In both countries Central Banks are at the frontline fighting the battle, while governments appear missing in action. In many respects, both the Fed and the RBI are, in different ways and degrees, fighting not only the monetary policy but also the fiscal policy battles. This over-reach in both areas is unsustainable and is generating distortions that could set the stage for even bigger crises.

More worryingly, not only do the central banks themselves appear convinced of their leadership role, but everyone else too believes that they should keep doing more. In the process, governments are getting away lightly. Nothing can take away from the fundamental fact that only governments can sustainably bring a closure to the ongoing economic crisis and set the stage for a more sustained economic recovery.

In the US, since late 2008, the Fed has unveiled a series of policies, ranging from classic monetary policy to outright fiscal policy, to not only keep the credit market open but also to backstop aggregate demand from falling and stimulate economic growth itself. It has lowered rates to near zero and has committed to keep there till end-2014 (a period of over 6 years of extraordinary monetary accommodation), multiplied its balance sheet many-fold to over $3 trillion by purchasing a large category of assets and injecting massive quantities of liquidity, and is now experimenting with greater transparency in communicating the Fed's monetary policy processes so as to mould market expectations.

In contrast, apart from the initial stimulus plan, ARRA, the US government has largely remained at the sidelines. All this, while averting a financial meltdown and deep deflationary economic recession, has created several incentive distortions, besides postponing important adjustments. Mohamed El-Erian summed it up nicely in a recent FT op-ed,

"Despite its repeated pleas for fiscal and housing engagement, the Fed has inadvertently provided cover for other government agencies to continue avoiding difficult, but necessary, decisions. Notwithstanding these shortfalls, the Fed still feels compelled to do even more. For both moral and political reasons, it believes that it cannot be seen to stand on the sideline as the economy struggles with a deeply-entrenched unemployment crisis and political dysfunctionality – even if this means having to use even more imperfect, indirect and, increasingly, unpredictable policy measures."

Unlike in the US where economic growth and financial market stability have been the central themes, inflation and burgeoning public deficits have been the biggest concerns. RBI has been pitchforked into the frontline of the inflation battle. In turn, since the onset of the initial signs of economic strains and inflationary pressures in early 2010, the RBI has increased interest rates 13 consecutive times. In the process, it has tempered the over-heating economy and appears to have brought inflation down to more tolerable limits.

It was evident to anyone who cared to go beyong stage one that India's inflation problem was fundamentally a supply side problem and could be sustainably managed only by easing supply constraints, especially by removing infrastructure bottlenecks and increasing foodgrain production. RBI's inflation fighting policies only managed to cool the over-heating economy and bring it down to its constrained production possibility frontier.

This long-period of inflation-fighting by monetary tightening was an ideal opportunity for the government to undertake policy measures and reforms that would initiate the process of declogging the supply-side and pushing up the production possibility frontier. But nothing of that sort was forthcoming. Worse still, the government added to the problem with a series of fiscal largesse, unconcerned about the severe fiscal strains that were clearly evident.

This in turn increased government borrowings and boosted aggregate demand at a time when supply was severely constrained, therefore adding to the inflationary pressures. With interest rates rising, inflationary expectations anchored upwards and policy parlysis gripping government, investment climate weakened. Instead of expanding aggressively in a growing economy, cash rich businesses turned off their investment taps and have preferred to wait and watch.

Now, with the inflationary pressures easing, the onus is again back on the RBI to take the centerstage. Everyone calls on the RBI to lower interest rates to encourage investment. Critics accuse it of being "behind the curve" in lowering rates, just as it was accused of being similarly slow to raise rates in the first place as the recession struck.

For sure, in the coming months, the RBI will lower rates and cost of capital will come down. Businesses will start investing and economic growth will recover somewhat. But all that will be pyrrhic victories if interest rate cuts are not accompanied with policy reforms to ease supply constraints. In its absence, we will witness another short-cycle of boom followed by over-heating and slowdown. The RBI will again be forced to step in an re-enact its current role.

Markets and central banks alone cannot set the foundations for economic growth. Governments have a critical role to play in laying the policy framework for expanding the economy's production possibility frontier. Markets thrive on the enabling policy environment established by public policy actions. Paralysed governments, which cede responsibility to technocratic institutions like central banks, are merely kicking the can down the road.

Satyajit das has an excellent article in FT which outlines the distortions caused by a prolonged period of ultra-low interest rates.

Update 1 (30/4/2012)

An excellent FT op-ed on how leveraging central bank balance sheet has come to be seen as the least costless route out of a financial crisis induced recession. The unprecedented liquidity injections have undoubtedly helped backstop the lurch into full-blow depressions. By early 2009, the Fed, the ECB and the BoE had all cut their main policy rates to all-time lows, and it has remained there since. However, the challenge for central banks is not to manage the retreat from these accommodatory policies before stoking inflationary pressures and without suffering massive losses.

The use of the balance sheet as a policy tool is no longer likely to be considered unconventional. The crisis has moved it to the centre.


1 comment:

amit said...

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