• Don’t Leave It To The Bankers

    As Gordon Brown’s tribulations mount, prompting amongst other things a reappraisal of his time at the Treasury, it is perhaps not surprising that even his most widely celebrated policy innovation – the “independent” central bank – should come under scrutiny. What is even more surprising, however, is why it was almost universally believed to be such a good thing in the first place.

    The independent central bank was of course seen as an important weapon in the monetarist armoury. Monetarism is, after all, an expression of an extreme belief in the infallibility of the market – an article of faith for New Labour. Governments cannot be allowed to intervene since any such intervention will frustrate the market’s unfettered operation. What could be more natural, therefore, than to ensure that elected politicians are excluded from the formulation of monetary policy?

    This is not, of course, quite how the independent central bank is presented to the public. The public have been sold on the idea that an independent bank is necessary if inflation is to be controlled, since politicians cannot be trusted to take the hard decisions that are necessary. But a careful study of the recent history of the battle against inflation suggests that it has very little to do with the independence or otherwise of the central bank. Inflation in the 1970s was a world-wide phenomenon, but by the mid-1980s – reflecting world conditions – it had largely been brought under control. The claim that an independent central bank is essential if inflation is to be controlled in any case looks less convincing today, with inflation running at over 4%.

    But what is really remarkable about an independent central bank is that it is a major step away from democratic government. The price we pay, in other words, is not just an economic one, but is a significant weakening of our democratic institutions. What is identified as the over-riding issue in economic policy is now the exclusive preserve, not of elected governments, but of unaccountable officials.

    How this has been accepted is even more of a mystery when one considers that the “independent” central bank is in no sense objective or neutral. It is a bank. Its main clients are banks. It is staffed by bankers. It can be relied upon always to put the interests of the financial establishment ahead of those operating in the rest of the economy. Our economic policy is, in a very real sense, made in the interests of the holders of existing assets rather than of those who live and work in the real economy where new wealth is created.

    This bias seems more extreme the longer one looks at it. Not only has the Monetary Policy Committee ensured that the productive sector should bear the burden of its counter-inflationary measures. It seems also to have deliberately averted its gaze from the factor that really is the primary cause of inflation – the huge rise in bank lending.

    How have we arrived at this remarkable situation? It is not surprising that the bankers themselves should support and welcome it. Economists, too, will naturally feel that the authority and credibility of their profession have been underpinned by this recognition that it is only the high priesthood that is competent to address these important issues.

    But why have politicians so readily accepted this substantial diminution of their powers? The answer is that it is very convenient for politicians to be able to contract out the most difficult decisions they are faced with. How useful it has been for Ministers to be able to pin responsibility on the Bank and to claim that the travails of the economy are caused by the mechanistic workings of the market and of essential monetarist disciplines rather than actual policy decisions.

    But is it not time that we reminded them of their responsibilities? If they want to exercise power in a democratic society, they should not be allowed to pick and choose which responsibilities they accept.

    There is of course an important role for an effective central bank. A central bank is essential to maintain a proper prudential supervision of banks and of the financial sector more generally – something that has been sadly missing from the scene over recent years. A central bank will regulate and enable the banks to interact in an efficient way that benefits the economy as a whole. The central bank will be an important source of advice on financial matters. But none of this requires the central bank to be immune from challenge or that its actions should be free from debate and discussion, particularly when it is uniquely entrusted with the power to give expression to a narrow and bank-dominated view of the true purpose of economic policy.

    The growing economic crisis demands that sacred cows should no longer be immune. Even in New Zealand, where the modern fashion for an “independent” central bank first surfaced, the debate is being re-opened. If we want an economy that more faithfully serves the interests of all of us, and not just those of a small self-interested minority, economic policy should be restored to the democratic arena.

    Bryan Gould

    4 September 2008

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 6 September.