Just how much should central bankers express views about fiscal policy? One reasonable response is not at all. Yet fiscal actions can have implications for monetary policy, so vows of silence are both difficult to sustain, and potentially withhold important information from the public.
For example, I have recently suggested that it is almost undeniable that fiscal austerity when interest rates are at the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB) makes it more difficult for monetary policy to do its job. If I was a monetary policy maker, I would want to make that clear to the public, if only to avoid getting all the blame when things go wrong. I have praised Ben Bernanke’s recent comments to that effect, which he reaffirmed more recently. Of course, outside the Eurozone, it would be seen as wrong for central bankers to condemn these policies, but it must be right for them to point out that it causes them difficulties.
So there should not be a taboo on central bankers talking about fiscal policy, when it influences their ability to do their job. Policy makers at the European Central Bank (ECB) are particularly fond of talking about fiscal policy and structural reform. Here is just one recent example, but the ECB’s own research confirms that “the ECB communicates intensively on fiscal policies in both positive as well as normative terms. Other central banks more typically refer to fiscal policy when describing foreign developments relevant to domestic macroeconomic developments, when using fiscal policy as input to forecasts, or when referring to the use of government debt instruments in monetary policy operations.”
So why does the ECB stand out here? One hypothesis that appears not to work is that the ECB has been dragged into commenting on fiscal issues by the Eurozone crisis. We could question, as Carl Whelan does (pdf), why the ECB is part of the Trioka? Was it dragged, or did it invite itself? However, as the ECB research cited above shows, the ECB’s unusual interest in making normative statements on fiscal policy predate this crisis period.
One strong clue is the nature of these interventions. Bernanke warns that excessive fiscal tightness could slow down the US recovery, and because of the ZLB the Fed’s ability to counteract this is at least uncertain. The ECB always urges European governments to make fiscal policy more restrictive. That suggests that it either has a completely different view about the macroeconomic conjuncture in the Eurozone compared to the US (unlikely), or that it believes in expansionary austerity (see below), or that it is concerned about something else (much more likely). The something else which many economists would point to is fiscal dominance.
The ECB and many other European policymakers seem obsessed by the fear that monetary policy will not be able to do its job because of excessive budget deficits in individual Euro member states. So how reasonable is this fear, and is the Eurozone special in this respect, so as to explain the ECB’s unusually vocal behaviour compared to other central banks? The answer is I believe quite clear - the ECB has less to fear from fiscal dominance than any other central bank!
It was partly to show this that I wrote two recent posts on budget deficits and inflation. In the first, I made the widely accepted point that monetary policy can always neutralise the impact of higher debt on inflation by raising interest rates, if fiscal policy makers raise taxes or cut spending sufficiently to stabilise debt. Once you eliminate market panics through OMT, then it is absolutely clear that all Eurozone countries are doing that. So there is no present threat of fiscal dominance.
But imagine there was. In a second post I looked at the possibility that a fiscal policy maker might not even attempt to stabilise debt. In that case, a conflict between fiscal and monetary policy could emerge. Yet I argued that in any resulting game of chicken, if the central bank was able and prepared to allow governments to default and not monetise the deficit, it could retain control of inflation. Now in nearly all countries the government has ultimate power, so it could force the central bank’s hand (although at perhaps a very high political cost). However the one exception is the ECB. The ECB is in a better position to resist fiscal dominance than any other central bank.
So we should see much less of a concern about budget deficits from the ECB than from other central banks, yet we actually see the opposite. I can think of only three explanations for this apparent contradiction. The first is that the ECB does not understand its own position. The second is that the ECB is really concerned about the distributional effects if countries pursue different fiscal paths. Yet if that was the case, they should be focusing on relative fiscal positions, rather than always suggesting lower deficits are good. The third possibility is that the ECB is using its position of authority to pursue other economic or political goals that have nothing to do with its mandate. The ECB is also fairly unique in its lack of accountability. Perhaps for that reason, it feels no inhibition in being free with its opinions on economic issues, even when they have no bearing on its ability to control inflation.
This third explanation may also help explain the reluctance of the ECB to act as a sovereign lender of last resort. We had two years of an existential Euro crisis before OMT was introduced. The argument that is generally used to explain this reluctance is the ECB’s fear of fiscal dominance. However, as I have argued, the ECB has much less to fear on this account than others central banks, yet other banks were quick to undertake Quantitative Easing. As this piece reminds us, and as is noted by Peter Dorman here, pressure from the bond market can be very useful in helping achieve certain economic and political goals. So even though these goals have nothing to do with the ECB’s mandate, the ECB might be reluctant to see those pressures reduced by its own actions.
I would like to be wrong about this. But if I am not, I think it is important to understand what it reveals. To quote Peter Dorman: “In their own minds they probably see neoliberal reforms as self-evidently beneficial to the point that there is no need to spell them out or argue for them: everyone they know understands that this has to be the solution.” They are just giving good economic advice, advice that is needed because politicians too often respond to vested interests rather than sound economic reasoning.
If this reading is correct, then we have a serious problem. In this view about what is good economics, Keynes has completely disappeared. Not only the Keynes who showed why cutting government spending at the ZLB was a foolish thing to do, but also the Keynes who emphasised that prices in financial markets may not reflect fundamentals but instead just what market participants thought that other participants would do. This is the Keynes whose ideas (or interpretation of those ideas) feature heavily, and very positively, in every economics textbook, including those used by those teaching in Eurozone countries. So what remains a real mystery to me is how the elite who make policy in the Eurozone can feel it is legitimate to promote a view about what is good economics which contradicts what economists in the Eurozone teach.
For central bankers to give advice on economic issues that are outside their remit but which pretty well every economist would sign up to is one thing. Of course central bankers will have their own private views on more controversial matters. However it seems to me that to give public advice on economic issues that are outside their remit which are also highly controversial (and contradict what is in the textbooks) seems to me to be crossing a line which it is very dangerous to cross.
 This is the insight behind the idea, emphasised by De Grauwe, that there may be a ‘bad equilibrium’ in the market for Eurozone government debt, which the ECB through OMT can help avoid. (For those unfamiliar with this idea, a good place to start is this piece by De Grauwe and Li.) It is interesting that the ECB, in justifying OMT, tends to favour the argument that the market has unjustified fears of Euro break up, rather than that the market is not looking at fundamentals. It is using an argument that remains consistent with Ordoliberal ideas.