Few disagree that the recent remarks on corporate governance and investment made by Andy Haldane (Chief Economist at the Bank of England) are interesting, and that if they start a debate on short-termism that would be a good thing. As Will Hutton notes, Hillary Clinton has been saying similar things in the US. The problem Tony Yates has (and which Duncan Weldon, the interviewer, alluded to in his follow-up question) is that this is not obviously part of the monetary policy remit.
Haldane gave an answer to that, which Tony correctly points out is somewhat strained. Perhaps I could illustrate the same issue by going down a better route that Haldane could have used. He could say that the causes of low UK productivity growth are clearly under his remit, and one factor in this that few dispute is low investment. If he was then asked by an interviewer what might be the fundamental cause of this low investment, Tony would argue that his reply should be that he couldn’t really comment, because some of those reasons might be too political.
I have in the past said very similar things to Tony when talking about the ECB, and their frequent advice to policymakers on fiscal rectitude and structural reforms. My main complaint is that the advice is wrong, and I puzzle over “how the ECB can continue to encourage governments to take fiscal or other actions that their own models tell them will reduce output and inflation at a time when the ECB is failing so miserably to control both.” But I have also said that in situations where fiscal actions have no impact on the ability of monetary policy to do its job (which is not the case at the moment), comments on fiscal policy are “crossing a line which it is very dangerous to cross”.
However I am beginning to have second thoughts about my own and Tony’s views on this. First, it all seems a bit British in tone. Tony worked at the Bank, and I have been involved with both the Bank and Treasury on and off, so we are both steeped in a British culture of secrecy. I do not think either of us are suggesting that senior Bank officials should never give advice to politicians, so what are the virtues of keeping this private? In trying to analyse how policy was made in 2010, it is useful to have a pretty good idea of what advice the Bank’s governor gave politicians because of what he said in public, rather than having to guess. (Of course private advice to politicians is never truly private, but this hardly helps, because with secrecy it allows politicians to hint that advice of a particular kind was given when it might not have been.)
The issues of MPC external member selection that Tony worries about are real enough, but perhaps that illustrates problems with the selection process. My guess is that the Treasury would be inhibited about choosing an MPC member who had previously been strongly critical of the government on other issues anyway. As I said my main complaint about the ECB is the nature and context of the advice they give, and at least by making it public we know about this problem.
It is often said that central bankers need to keep quiet about policy matters that are not within their remit as part of an implicit quid pro quo with politicians, so that politicians will refrain from making public their views about monetary policy. Putting aside the fact that the ECB never got this memo, I wonder whether this is just a fiction so that politicians can inhibit central bankers from saying things politicians might find awkward (like fiscal austerity is making our life difficult). In a country like the UK with a well established independent central bank, it is not that clear what the central bank is getting out of this quid pro quo. And if it stops someone with the wide ranging vision of Haldane from raising issues just because they could be deemed political, you have to wonder whether this mutual public inhibition serves the social good.