June 10th, 2019

Sketch for a Counter-Sky

MECHANICAL SHADOWS

On central bank independence and the rise of shadow money

Debates over the political impacts of Central Bank Independence (CBI) reached their peak in the late 90s and early 2000s, due to rising inequality and the volatility of financial markets. Initiated with the 1977 Federal Reserve Act and Paul Volcker’s subsequent term as chairman of the Fed, CBI was, and remains, a means of isolating the more "mechanical" field of monetary policy from the fleeting interests of politicians. In order to preserve stability and credibility, independent central banks have made inflation targeting the center point of their agenda. Critics of CBI have argued that the distinction between economic science and political incentives are not as clear as they might seem; low levels of inflation may benefit creditors and investors, but they harm those whose income entirely depends on rising wages. While monetary policy has distributional and political consequences, its decision makers are insulated from public accountability.

Expanding the literature on the politics of CBI, BENJAMIN BRAUN and DANIELA GABOR examine its financial consequences. In a recently published paper, they argue that the anti-inflationary policies of central banks have catalyzed dependence on shadow money and shadow banking, key components of a broader trend towards financialization:

"In the late 1990s, the US Federal Reserve was confronted with a peculiar predicament. While the world was celebrating central bank independence as a mark of 'scientific' economic governance after the populist era of monetizing government bonds, the US Federal Reserve worried about projections that the US government would pay down all its debt by 2012. A world without US government debt, they worried, was a world filled with monetary dangers. Market participants would not have a safe, liquid asset to turn to in times of distress.

Rather than seeking to limit shadow money supply, the Fed actively encouraged its expansion, seeking market solutions to political problems. It lobbied Congress to ensure that holders of shadow money backed by private (securitized) collateral had the same legal rights to collateral as those holding shadow money issued against US government debt. The Fed also changed its lending practices, allowing banks to issue shadow money backed by private collateral to borrow from the Fed. These concrete steps contrast starkly with the picture of central banks watching passively from the margins, as financial institutions find new ways to monetize credit and circumvent rules."

Link to the article.

  • More contemporary iterations of the debate over CBI can be found in the comparison between a 2018 HKS working paper, which distinguishes between "political oversight" and "operational independence," and a 2014 Levy Institute working paper which argues there is no practical meaning of operational independence at all. Link and link.

  • A primer on shadow banking, from Stijn Claessens and Lev Ratnovski at Vox EU. Link.

  • A new article by Andreas Kerna, Bernhard Reinsbergc, and Matthias Rau-Göhring finds that the IMF’s targeted lending practices actively encouraged the proliferation of independent central banks in low income economies. Link.

  • On CBI, inflationary targets, and the 2010 Eurocrisis, by Mark Copelovitch, Jeffry Frieden, and Stefanie Walter. Link.

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