Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday 30 September 2012

Active and Passive at the ECB

I’ve been away and busy at the IMF, so did not respond immediately to this speech from ECB Executive Board member Benoît Cœuré on the new OMT policy. In econblog terms, the speech would be described as wonkish, but I think the ideas I want to focus on are reasonably intuitive. They are worth exploring, because they illuminate the key issue of conditionality.

In a classic paper, Eric Leeper distinguished between active and passive monetary and fiscal policies, within the context of simple policy rules. The concept of an active monetary policy is by now familiar: monetary policy should ensure that real interest rates rise following an increase in inflation, so that higher real interest rates deflate demand and put downward pressure on inflation. Leeper’s use of active and passive for fiscal policy is a little counterintuitive. A passive fiscal policy is where, following an increase in debt, taxes rise or spending falls by enough to bring debt back to some target level. If neither taxes nor spending respond to excess debt, debt would gradually explode as the government borrowed to pay the interest on the extra debt. This is the extreme case of what Leeper calls an active fiscal policy.

Now you might be forgiven in thinking that the only policy combination that would bring stability to the economy was an active monetary policy (to control inflation) and a passive fiscal policy (to control debt). This would correspond to what I have called the consensus assignment. However Leeper showed that there was another: an active fiscal policy combined with a passive monetary policy. A simplified way of thinking about this is that it represents the opposite of the consensus assignment: fiscal policy determines inflation and monetary policy controls debt, because debt becomes sustainable by being reduced through inflation. This idea, which became known as the Fiscal Theory of the Price Level (FTPL)[1], is very controversial. (For once, divisions cut across ‘party’ lines, with John Cochrane and Mike Woodford both contributing to the FTPL.) However for current purposes you can think of the FTPL policy combination as being a form of fiscal dominance. You can also think of this combination as being inferior to the consensus assignment from a social welfare perspective (see this post).

So why did Cœuré invoke Leeper’s definitions of active and passive in his speech? To quote:

“central bank independence and a clear focus on price stability are necessary but not sufficient to ensure that the central bank can provide a regime of low and stable inflation under all circumstances – in the economic jargon, ensuring “monetary dominance”. Maintaining price stability also requires appropriate fiscal policy. To borrow from Leeper’s terminology, this means that an “active” monetary policy – namely a monetary policy that actively engages in the setting of its policy interest rate instrument independently and in the exclusive pursuit of its objective of price stability – must be accompanied by “passive” fiscal policy.

Now OMT involves the ECB being prepared to buy government debt in order to force down interest rates so that fiscal policy becomes sustainable. To some that seems like fiscal dominance: monetary policy is being used in a similar way to the FTPL, in order to make debt sustainable. Cœuré wants to argue that with OMT we can get back to the consensus assignment, because OMT will allow fiscal policy to become passive again.

Now current fiscal policy in the Eurozone can hardly be described as ignoring government debt, as in the polar case of active fiscal policy outlined above. However, for fiscal policy to be passive it has to counteract the tendency for debt to explode because of debt interest payments. If interest rates are very high, because of default risk, this may require destructive and perhaps politically impossible rates of fiscal correction. In other words, default risk forces fiscal policy to be active. Although this problem is just confined to one part of the Eurozone, as Campbell Leith and I showed here, this is sufficient to force monetary policy to become passive if it wants to preserve stability.

I think this is a very clever way of describing OMT to those who believe this policy goes beyond the ECB’s remit. OMT is necessary to allow fiscal policy to become passive in countries subject to significant default risk, and therefore for monetary policy to ensure price stability. The argument, like the FTPL, is controversial: many of those who dislike the FTPL would argue that an active monetary policy is sufficient to ensure price stability. This analysis also ignores the problem of the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB) for nominal rates, which one could reasonably argue forces monetary policy to become passive.  For both reasons I did not use this argument in my post on conditionality, but without length constraints I would have.

I want to make two final points which Cœuré does not. First, a feature of passive fiscal policy at ‘normal’ (largely default risk free) levels of real interest rates is that debt correction does not have to be very rapid, and as Tanya Kirsanova and I show here, it should not be very rapid. Almost certainly the speed of debt correction currently being undertaken in periphery countries is more rapid than it needs to be to ensure a passive fiscal policy at normal interest rates. The current Eurozone fiscal rules also probably imply adjustment that is faster than necessary. As a result, no additional conditionality is required before the ECB invokes OMT. Second, this analysis ignores the problem of the ZLB, which is as acute for the Eurozone as it is elsewhere. Cœuré says that OMT is not Quantitative Easing (QE), but does not explain why the ECB is not pursuing QE. It has taken the ECB about two years too long to recognise the need for OMT – let’s hope that it does not take another two before it realises that for monetary policy to stay active in the sense described above, it also needs QE.  

[1] The Wikipedia entry on the FTPL is poor.


  1. You can also think of this combination as being inferior to the consensus assignment from a social welfare perspective (see this post).

    I read the post, and it argued for slow adjustments. Is that the sense that this policy is inferior -- because the active policy needs to be nimble? In that case, as much of the budget deficits are due to reduced revenues and increases in benefit payments, should we raise tax rates during downturns in order to have more slowly changing deficit stances?

    But if I am misreading the reason why fiscal dominance is generally inferior to monetary dominance, then please specify the reasons.

    1. When I read it, I assumed the reason is that increasing government expenditure has diminishing marginal benefits (the 101st school doesn't give as much benefit as the 100th) and increasing tax rates has increasing marginal costs (deadweight costs of distortions increase roughly with the square of the tax rate), so we generally want to smooth both G and t over time.

      Be interesting to see if Simon gives (roughly) the same answer.

      (I had to click the link to learn what "OMT" meant. "Outright Monetary Transactions" = buying government bonds in the secondary market. All the new names we are learning for what we used to call "Open Market Operations" (except OMT is a sterilised OMO, presumably via banks).)

    2. When I read it, I assumed the reason is that increasing government expenditure has diminishing marginal benefits

      OK, but

      1) Reductions in risk free rates also have diminishing marginal benefits, in the sense that risk premia go up as risk free rates fall

      2) Cutting nominal rates "works" to cut real rates because of price rigidities, but the same rigidities should work to allow nominal income flows to work, without needing to build any schools at all. E.g. the government can purchase unused labor output or unused consumption goods, or goods that are not newly produced (e.g. land).

  2. Separating fiscal from monetary policy makes little sense for the following reasons.

    1. Interest rate cuts and QE are distortionary: they skew spending towards investment, and for no good reason.
    2. There is no relationship between central bank base rates and credit card rates.
    3. The lags involved in monetary policy are roughly the same as for fiscal.
    4. In the case of the UK (but not the US), interest rate cuts and QE withdraw monetary base from the private sector because half of BoE profits are not returned to the Treasury: they disappear into a black hole in the BoE. Thus interest rate cuts and QE are possibly DEFLATIONARY.
    5. There are a HUGE NUMBER of costs associated with any investment (energy consumption, associated labour costs, etc).Thus the effect of say a 2% change in the base rate is near irrelevant.
    6. At the start of a recession, there is a SURPLUS of capital equipment. Thus more investment is exactly what is NOT needed.
    7. The Radcliffe report in the 1960s poured cold water on interest rate adjustments.
    8. The effect of interest rate adjustments is countered by flows of foreign exchange into and out of the country.
    9. Interest rate cuts exacerbate bubbles.
    10.QE increases inequalities.

    Now can someone give me a similar list of simple clear reasons for SEPARATING fiscal and monetary policy?


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.