This is a follow up to my last post on Corbyn and central bank independence (CBI). No apologies for returning to this topic: not often do you get to talk about policies that are in the process of being formulated. One of the influences that is said to be important for John McDonnell (the new shadow Chancellor) and his advisors is Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
A comment I sometimes get on my posts is that my arguments are similar to those put forward by followers of MMT. I have not read much MMT literature, but in what I have read I have normally not found anything I take great exception to. On some issues, like the way monetary policy continues to be presented in textbooks, they definitely have good reason to complain about the mainstream. However their account of the way monetary and fiscal policy work seems quite a close match to what many mainstream economists think, which I guess is why my arguments can be similar to theirs.
One area of apparent difference, however, is CBI. You will sometimes hear MMT people talk about CBI being a ‘sham’, whereas mainstream macro attaches great importance to CBI. So which is right? Part of the problem here is that CBI in the UK (where the government decides the goal the Bank has to achieve) is rather different from that in the US (where the Fed has much more discretion over the choice of targets) and the Eurozone (where the ECB is largely unaccountable and has huge power). I’m just going to talk about the UK set up. (For a MMT perspective on the US, see here.)
CBI in the UK, established by Gordon Brown and Ed Balls in 1997, is no sham. The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) decides when and by how much to change interest rates, and government has no influence on the MPC. How do I know this? From observation and from a huge number of conversations with MPC members. Since 2009 the MPC has decided when and by how much to do QE. Any Treasury authorisation to do QE was a formalisation that essentially followed Bank wishes, but it never specified when and how much QE should happen. So a fair description of the UK set up is that the government defines the goals and instruments of policy, and the MPC decides how to use those instruments to best meet those goals.
I would agree with the comment that this set up leaves the government taking big strategic decisions, like what the target should be. But CBI as defined in the UK still has two major advantages over the pre-1997 alternative
party political motives for changing interest rates are ruled out. I know such motives influenced at least the timing of rate changes before 1997. (How do I know - same answer as before.)
it forces governments to be explicit about their goals, and the relative priorities among these. I personally believe this has an important role in conditioning (but not determining) expectations, which is very useful. (Yes you can call me a New Keynesian for this reason.)
You could add time inconsistency and credibility issues in there as well if you like. (Giving this to secondary importance perhaps makes me less of a New Keynesian.)
Are there any negatives to set against this? One argument you often hear is that CBI is anti-democratic, but I really think this is just nonsense in the UK context. Government delegates technical decisions all the time, and as long as there is strong accountability (which in the UK there is), the right people are on the MPC and they are truly independent (from government or the financial sector) this works well. When governments only face elections every 5 years and elections are won or lost over a whole range of issues, quite why a Chancellor deciding when to change rates following secret advice is more democratic is unclear. It also improves democracy because, as Chris points out, the Chancellor is not held to account for the technical mistakes of his advisors.
A more important argument against CBI is that it makes money financed fiscal expansion much more difficult. A government that is obsessed by the size of its deficit might not undertake a bond financed fiscal expansion when a fiscal expansion is needed. It might have undertaken a money financed fiscal expansion, but CBI prevents it doing this because the central bank controls money creation. However this problem can be easily avoided by (a) taking a more sensible view of government deficits and debt, as MMT would also advocate, or (b) allowing helicopter money.
It is (a) that makes the debate over Corbyn’s QE particularly ironic. A National Investment Bank can be set up perfectly well based on borrowing from the market, and you can ensure it gets the funds it needs by a government guarantee. The only reason you would avoid trying to do that is because the NIB debt would count as part of the government’s deficit, and you were worried about the size of the deficit. The last people who should be worried in this way are followers of MMT.
Scott Fullwiler has an elaborate discussion of why Corbyn’s QE does not interfere with CBI, but concludes: “As such, government guaranteed debt of the NIB would be effectively the same thing as plain vanilla deficits, which as shown above is not different in a macroeconomically significant way from Overt Monetary Financing of Government via People's QE.” Which begs the question, why not go with plain vanilla deficits to fund the NIB. If it is because you are worried about the political costs of higher deficits, that will be as nothing compared to the political costs of instructing the Bank to finance a NIB.
So where does this apparent antagonism for CBI come from? Perhaps it comes from a tendency of some from the mainstream to make too much of CBI. To imply that the more independent a central bank is the better, regardless of who determines goals, whether there is accountability and who makes the decisions. Proof that independence is not all that matters is provided by the ECB. But we should not let the bad drive out the good. If Labour abandons the innovations made by Brown and Balls, I think it will be a classic example of the triumph of ideology over both good economics and self interest.