Monday, 22 December 2008

Powers and strategies for central banks

Robert Peston is looking back at the powers that the Bank of England should have had to help forestall the asset price bubble of the last few years. It's an interesting angle, because it also sheds some light on the question of what powers the Bank should have now.

He correctly points out that interest rates are too blunt a lever. When a central bank wants to be able to achieve multiple objectives - to do more than just target the inflation rate - it needs multiple tools.

Interest rates are a two-sided tool - they can be raised in peak times to moderate activity, and cut in a recession to revive it. It's instructive to ask of any proposed solution: "does it work in reverse?" to see whether it meets this standard of having symmetrical power.

The solution Peston discusses is adjusting the capital requirements of banks. In an asset boom, capital reserve requirements would be increased to reduce banks' ability or inclination to lend against assets. This would control prices.

The drawback of this solution is that it's hard to imagine us wanting to reduce capital requirements in a situation like today's. There are certainly some hints that banks should relax their criteria a little, lend more and therefore reduce the amount of capital they hold during the next year. But it's commercially and politically tricky to imagine the banks actually doing this.

An alternative solution which I'm exploring is to give central banks the ability to influence not just the amount of debt in the economy but also the amount of equity. If the Fed had the option to directly stimulate investment, this would help to address one of the problems in today's economy - that productive investment is potentially threatened. It could do this by making equity investment in certain private companies.

Government doesn't have a great track record of being an equity holder, so this would need to be done at arms-length through the central bank or another body. But if such a body did exist, it could potentially short equity assets in a price bubble (such as in 2000) as an automatic stabiliser, just as interest rates can be raised or lowered according to the projected inflation rate.

If the asset in question is property - as in 2005-2007 - then trading in debt instruments seems to have some effect. Currently we're seeing banks buying property-linked debt in the form of mortgage-backed securities, which should provide some support to the property market. Could we imagine them selling such debt in a boom? Quite possibly.

We'll never engineer a situation where each variable in the economy - consumer prices, asset prices, investment rates, saving rates - can be independently tweaked by adjusting a single dial. But mathematically, it makes sense that the number of variables to control is the same as the number of tools available to manipulate. The better our models are, the better we can predict which tool to adjust and by how much; but there's always going to be some trial and error.


Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff. Well outside my area of knowledge. Still some thoughts:

Sounds like you want the Bank to start playing the shares game in a market moving way.

A) This carries substantial risks to taxpayers if it gets it wrong. Fine for shareholders to take these kinds of risks and arguably even customers/suppliers but do we really want to set up a system where the public purse is used to speculate on share prices?

B) In theory then markets should deflate bubbles as soon as they arise. This doesn’t occur because of imperfect information. If the central bank uses information acquired as a result of its privileged place as a regulator then there are big competition and regulatory implications. If the central bank doesn’t then its not clear how it will outsmart the city boys on when to buy and sell.

Varying capital adequacy makes a lot of sense to me. I think an independent central bank could flex these rules far more easily than potentially precipitating a recession by heavy selling (to burst a bubble). I suspect many would argue we already have changed capital adequacy rules by altering the definition of what counts as collateral.

Leigh Caldwell said...

Thanks for the comment and your point is well made.

This is more of a trial balloon - I'm not at all convinced that we do want central banks taking an equity risk (though one could argue that pension funds do, and they are meant to be conservatively run).

The goal was to find a way to directly stimulate business investment rather than either financing consumption or simply transferring saving from the public to the private sector. The latter simply transfers future claims on economic returns from one set of people to another; the former at least should have some multiplier effect, but the amount of it is unpredictable to say the least.

On capital adequacy, it will be interesting to see how the performance of the Chinese banks turns out. The Chinese regulators tried to increase capital ratios on a couple of occasions over the last 4-5 years, in preference to using interest rates to cool their asset price bubble - probably because they didn't want the currency to appreciate. They are indeed relaxing the ratios now, on top of a $940 bn fiscal stimulus (bigger even than the proposed US intervention).

Graham McKean said...

It would not be sufficient by itself but one step to avoiding another housing market asset bubble would be to allow the Bank of England to set two rates: one for owner occupiers - the housing rate - and one for everything else - the general rate. The likely outcome would be that the housing rate would be at the same level or lower than the other for long periods but higher when it was necessary to choke off excessive house price booms. This would give the Bank of England a degree of flexability it does not currently have.

Geoffrey Bastin said...

The whole concept of Fractional Reserve Banking has brought about this situation so to simply suggest reducing or increasing the level of liquid assests held at any one time will not do much to stop the rot. By allowing Banks to lend more than they have in assests ( up to ten times ) is the most likely way to Inflate any economy. Inflation is not about rising prices it is about public borrowing and that borrowing is initiated by Governments and aided by Banks. The two go hand in hand. The Banks are a cartel and exist on their present terms by virtue of current legislation and Government requirement. The whole idea of them lending far more than they have in cash reserves originated after WW2 but did not become widespread until deregulation took off in the 1980's. Before that time there was self disciplin whereby money going out equalled money coming in. It's simple maths really and it's been forgotten. Now we have " products, financial instruments, fractional reserve banking" and similar jargon to cover up dodgy practices and encourage people to buy virtually everything on credit. I hope 2009 will see a return to honest Banking and lessen the need for future generations to be mortgaged before they are born.