Friday, March 25, 2011
MUST READ! The Revolution in Central Banking
On a warm, Lisbon day last May, Jean-Claude Trichet, the ice-cool president of the European Central Bank, was asked whether the bank would consider buying euro zone governments' bonds in the open market.
"I would say we did not discuss this option," Trichet told a news conference after a meeting of the ECB's Governing Council. Four days later, the ECB announced that it would start buying bonds.
Trichet's U-turn was part of an emergency package with euro zone leaders to stave off a crisis of confidence in the single currency. By reaching for its "nuclear option", the ECB had also helped rewrite the manual of modern central banking.
That's happened a lot over the past three years. Since the early days of the financial crisis in 2008, the European Central Bank, the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have all been forced to adopt policies that just a few years ago they would have dismissed as preposterous. And the Bank of Japan responded to the Sendai earthquake and tsunami by doubling its own asset-purchase programme, to keep the banking system of the world's third-largest economy on an even keel.
For a generation, the accepted orthodoxy has been to focus on taming inflation. Financial stability has taken something of a back seat. Now, whether mandated to do so or not, western central banks have bought up sovereign debt to sustain the financial system, printed money by the truckload to stimulate their economies, sacrificed some of their independence to coordinate monetary policy more closely with fiscal decisions, and contemplated new ways of preventing asset bubbles. Some -- such as Bank of England Governor Mervyn King -- have joined wider political protests at commercial banks that are still behaving as if they are "too big to fail", and as if being bailed out is just a hazard of business.
In the measured world of central banking, it amounts to nothing short of a revolution. Otmar Issing, one of the euro's founding fathers and a career-long monetarist hawk, told Reuters that in buying government bonds the ECB had "crossed the Rubicon". The question now for the ECB -- and for its counterparts in Britain, the United States and elsewhere -- is what they'll find on the other side.
Don Kohn, a former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve, realized central banking was changing forever at a routine meeting of his peers in Basel, Switzerland, in March 2008. The shockwaves from the U.S. subprime mortgage meltdown had begun rocking banks around the world and Kohn, a 38-year veteran of the U.S. central bank, listened as one speaker after another described the fast-deteriorating economic conditions.
"It was terrible," Kohn said. "One of the people at the meeting used the phrase, 'It's time to think about the unthinkable'."
Kohn left the meeting early to return to Washington, but the line stuck in his head. He would use it a few days later to justify his support for a Federal Reserve decision to spend $29 billion to help J.P. Morgan buy investment bank Bear Stearns, which was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
That financial meltdown caused a credit crunch that triggered a severe recession and, in countries such as Greece, a sovereign debt crisis. After slashing interest rates practically to zero, central banks desperate to prevent a new global depression had no choice but to expand the volume of credit, rather than its price, by reaching for the money-printing solution known as "Quantitative Easing" (QE). In the eyes of critics, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was living up to his nickname of "Helicopter Ben" -- a reference to a speech that he gave in 2002 in which he took a leaf out of the book of the renowned monetarist economist Milton Friedman and argued that the government ultimately had the capacity to quash deflation simply by printing money and dropping it from helicopters.
Until that point, the Fed was a lender of last resort for deposit-taking banks. By invoking obscure legislation from the Great Depression, it also became a backstop for practically any institution whose collapse could threaten the financial system. Kohn and others at the Bear Stearns meeting had just done the unthinkable.
Continue reading - Reuters - Special report: The revolution in central banking