Why we need better central bank accountability

07 July 2016

Jacqueline Best - SPERI Honorary Research Fellow & Professor of Political Studies, University of Ottawa

New reforms, underpinned by three basic principles, are needed to make central banks fully accountable

As the Bank of England scrambles to respond to the economic shock of the Brexit vote, reducing the capital requirements for banks and preparing to raise interest rates once again, we are reminded once again of the power of central bankers and how much of the direction of our national economies, and arguably of the global economy, hinges on the decisions they take.

Photo by Umesh Soni on Unsplash

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the power of central banks has grown, as they have used unorthodox tools to stimulate the economy, taken a greater role in financial regulation, and put themselves in more politically sensitive positions, including the tough debt negotiations with Greece.

In spite of this powerful role, central bankers are remarkably insulated from democratic oversight.  As a recent ‘Buttonwood’ column notes in The Economist, ‘Janet Yellen and Mario Draghi are very important players in the world economy, arguably more important than the US President or the German chancellor.  And yet they are not elected; if voters do not like the job they are doing, they cannot get rid of them.’

There is a great deal at stake in decisions about monetary policy, as I suggest in a recently published article in Ethics & International Affairs.  Central banks not only define the broad direction of the economy but also create winners and losers.  Consider, for instance, the disparate reactions of a prospective first-time home buyer and a retired couple living on their savings to the prospect of yet another drop (or increase) in the interest rate.

Central bank independence in its current form is relatively recent.  Elected leaders exercised considerable influence over monetary policy in the post-war era, seeking to achieve the right ‘trade-off’ between full employment and inflation.  It was only in the 1980s that policymakers moved away from this kind of Keynesianism and embraced the ideas of Milton Friedman, who advocated the creation of an independent monetary authority.

Friedman and other economists believed that if governments were given any discretion over monetary policy they would adopt inflationary policies because these were more likely to be popular with the electorate.  They argued that the only way to ensure price stability was to radically limit the government’s influence over monetary policy by making central banks autonomous and requiring them to stick to a simple rule, such as an inflation target.  By the late 1990s, central banks in over thirty countries had gone down this path and were using some form of inflation targeting.

The current model of central bank governance does provide for a certain kind of accountability—but only a very narrow one.  Ensuring accountability generally involves three elements: broadly-agreed upon standards, information on whether they are met, and sanctions if they are not.  Because the principle of central bank independence involves a very limited set of standards—specifically, the achievement of an inflation target—and very few opportunities for sanction, the main mechanism for accountability is provided by publishing information about the bank’s activities.  Hence we have seen the rapid expansion of central banks’ commitment to providing more and better information about their models and decisions in recent years.

Unfortunately, while this informational form of accountability may have worked during the stable years of the ‘Great Moderation’ (from the mid-1980s to the 2008 crisis), it is no longer up to the task in the volatile post-crisis era.

The Bank of England’s Governor Mark Carney has recently warned that the United Kingdom has ‘entered a period of uncertainty and significant economic adjustment.’  Even before the Brexit vote, Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz and US Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen had both suggested that growing economic uncertainty is reducing the effectiveness of the simple models and rules that central banks have long relied on.

What these bank governors have not acknowledged (unsurprisingly) is the challenges that this growing uncertainty poses for existing forms of accountability.

If uncertainty limits the effectiveness of rule-based policy, then it ultimately requires greater discretion on the part of policymakers.  This is not a problem in itself (here I would disagree with those Republican lawmakers who would bind the Fed even further with more stringent rules).  More discretion does, however, require a more robust form of accountability.

There are three basic principles that should underpin any such reforms:

1) Fostering more deliberation and dissent

While the informational model of accountability obligates decision-makers to explain their actions, it reduces this process to a simple publication of data.  What is missing is the back and forth of question and answer—the process of genuine debate and deliberation.  By the mid-2000s, central bankers were being treated like oracles, with Alan Greenspan as the most revered among them.  There must be more room for dissent—both among those with the power to set monetary policy and in the wider society that is affected by those policies.

2) Ensuring that central banks are answerable to the wider public

Because financial issues are complex and their impacts are often diffuse, monetary policy questions rarely become salient enough to mobilise public action.  In this context, the power of sanction actually shifts away from the two groups to whom central bankers should be accountable—the government and the public—and toward financial actors, who can impose very serious sanctions on central banks if they disagree with their policies.  Without overly politicising monetary policy, we need to find creative ways of ensuring that central banks are more accountable to the wider public.

3) Broadening the objectives against which their actions are judged

One way of ensuring that monetary policymakers are accountable to the public is to ensure that the issues that affect citizens are reflected in the standards that guide bank policy.  At present, most of these issues are not officially on the agenda, which is constrained by the goal of achieving a very low level of inflation.

A number of commentators have recognized this dilemma and have suggested that today’s inflation targets may no longer be appropriate.  A recent Federal Reserve working paper suggests that increasing the current inflation target and supplementing it with a nominal GDP target makes economic sense.  Such moves to broaden the objectives used to guide central bank decisions would also go some way toward increasing their accountability.

As central banks take on an increasingly powerful role in these highly uncertain times, it is time to find new ways of ensuring that they are more fully accountable.

A version of this blog first appeared on the Carnegie Council’s Ethics & International Affairs website.

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