Thinking through central bank independence

Financial Express, 9 September 2009

The rationale for central bank independence

The starting point of modern thinking on monetary policy is the issue of central bank independence. Watching the world across the centuries, a pattern has been found that non-independent central banks distort monetary policy to support the incumbent political party. When elections are approaching, rates tend to be dropped. This makes households feel a bit happier and more inclined to vote for the incumbent. This threatens the fairness of elections. And after elections, it tends to kick off higher inflation. Non-independent central banks are thus associated with election-induced fluctuations. Instead of monetary policy being a force for stability, it becomes (to some extent) a source of shocks for the economy, and of unfairness in elections.

Major countries have chosen a remarkable solution: politicians relinquish control over the central bank. This is a truly rare feature in public administration. In almost all other elements of government, democracies work by holding politicians accountable in elections, and giving politicians the reins in public administration. In this one area, the world has done something unusual.

This requires accountability mechanisms

Two issues follow hard on the heels of independence. First, independence goes with a narrowing of the functions of the central bank. There is no economic case for having independence from politicians for functions such as running the payments system, regulating or supervising financial markets or banks, running a bond exchange and depository, manning a system of capital controls, etc. The rationale for independence is limited to one specific problem: that of setting the short-term interest rate of the economy. Hence, giving RBI independence requires narrowing down its functions to the core where economic logic suggests independence. All other functions need to be placed in conventional agencies, with control in the hands of accountable politicians.

The second issue is that of accountability. The standard route of accountability through elections is being eschewed in this unique problem. But a central bank cannot be handed over to a set of unelected officials with no accountability. This would induce abuse of power, where the agency will focus on its own interests at the expense of the country.

The solution involves transparency, predictability and inflation targeting. The agency must be fully transparent about everything that it does. It must use rules rather than discretion, so as to limit the extent to which discretionary power is wielded by unelected officials. They must write down a monetary policy rule, discuss this in public, and live by it. The third element of accountability is inflation targeting. Independent central banks must have a quantitative monitorable target. Setting an inflation target for the medium term binds the agency to achieving a goal, as opposed to arbitrary exercise of power without accountability.

Commen sense and monetary economics come together

All this reasoning is rooted in the basic hygeine of good public administration. Once we accept the starting premise -- that central bank independence is desirable -- then careful thinking about public administration leads us to the remaining conclusions: narrow the functions placed in an independent central bank to only those where independence is required (i.e. setting the short-term interest rate), have full transparency, have a monetary policy rule, and require inflation targeting.

In historical sequence, the above reasoning led the way in monetary policy reform. It was a bit later that the best monetary economists started closing their models by putting in an inflation targeting central bank. They found it works very well. So in this strategy for monetary policy reform, we have a happy consensus between the common sense of good administrators and the state of the art of monetary economics. The central banks of the bulk of OECD GDP are now de facto or de jure inflation targeting, and the emerging markets with high standards of governance have also made the switch. De jure inflation targeting is particularly important in countries with weak institutions, where the behaviour of an agency that is not tied down by law can be more erratic.

Indian monetary policy reform

The Indian monetary policy debate is about the key ideas of the successor to the RBI Act of 1934, which was drafted by the British in the 1920s. The authors of this act never envisioned the conditions of 2009, either in terms of the Indian economy, or our knowledge of monetary economics. In this debate, RBI staff are interested parties and have to recuse themselves.

Operationalising inflation targeting involves addressing many practical problems. A focus on these practical problems is premature. All these practical problems can be solved - as has been done myriad times in other countries - once the principle is accepted. The existence of these practical problems does not invalidate the basic strategy.

One periodically encounters criticism of low inflation as the prime goal of monetary policy. However, anyone who proposes that inflation targeting is not the answer has to come up with an alternative accountability mechanism, for no democracy can have an independent central bank without accountability. In addition, advocates of novel schemes have to explain why India should be a guinea pig for something not found in good countries.

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