Is there room for Austrian ideas at the top table?

[Editor’s note: now that Steve Baker MP is on the Treasury Select Committee, it should be of interest to all Austrianists, and those interested in monetary reform in general, to re-visit Anthony Evans and Toby Baxendale’s 2008 paper on whether there is room for Austrian ideas at the top table. Within the paper they also reference William White, of the BIS, who has made several comments in the past that are sympathetic to the Austrian School. The recent BIS Annual Report, at least relative to individual, national central banks, shows some consideration of the distorting effects of monetary policy, and the cleansing effects of liquidation (note that the BIS does not face the same political pressures as supposedly independent national central banks).  It will be of major importance to followers of the Austrian School around the world to follow the progress of Steve as things develop. Below is the introduction to the paper, the paper in its entirety can be downloaded here aje_2008_toptable]




At a speech in London in 2006 Fynn Kydland surveyed ‘the’ three ways in which governments can achieve credible monetary policy: the gold standard, a currency board or independent central banks. After taking minimal time to dismiss the first two as either outdated or unsuitable for a modern, prosperous economy the majority of the speech was focused on the latter, and the issue of independence. However, the hegemony of this monetary system belies the relative novelty of its use. Indeed the UK presents an especially peculiar history, given the genesis of independence with the New Labour government of 1997. A decade is a short time and two large coincidences should not be ignored. First, independence has coincided with an unprecedented period of global growth, giving the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) a relatively easy ride. Second, the political system has been amazingly consistent with the same government in place throughout, and just two Chancellors of the Exchequer (Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling). These two conditions have meant that from its inception the UK system of central bank independence has not been properly tested.

Our main claim in this article is that monetary policy has converged into a blend of two theoretical approaches, despite there being three established schools of thought. We feel that there is room at the top table of policy debate for more explicit attention to Austrianideas, and will survey emerging and prevailing attention amongst policy commentary.


Troubling times to be a central banker


Current economic conditions are proving to be of almost universal concern. In the UK general price levels are rising (with the rise in the consumer price index (CPI) hitting 3.8% and in the retail price index reaching 4.6% in June 2008) whilst output growth is falling (with GDP growth slowing to 0.2% in quarter two 2008), raising the possibility of stagflation. This comes after a serious credit crunch that has led to the nationalisation of Northern Rock and an estimated £50 billion being used as a credit lifeline. Most of the prevailing winds are global and are related to two recent financial bubbles. From late 2000 to 2003 the NASDAQ composite index (of primarily US technology stocks) lost a fifth of its value. This was followed with a bubble in the housing market that burst in 2005/06 leading to a liquidity crisis concentrated on sub-prime mortgages. Although the UK has fewer sub-prime lendings, British banks were exposed through their US counterparts and it is now widely acknowledged that a house price bubble has occurred (the ratio of median house prices to median earnings rising steadily from 3.54 in 1997 to 7.26 in 2007) and that a fall in prices is still to come. Also worrying, we see signs that people are diverting their wealth from financial assets altogether and putting them into hard commodities such as gold or oil.

Although academic attention to developing new models is high, there seems to be a request on the part of central bankers for less formal theory building and more empirical evidence.

Alan Greenspan has ‘always argued that an up-to-date set of the most detailed estimates for the latest available quarter are far more useful for forecasting accuracy than a more sophisticated model structure’ (Greenspan, 2007), which N. Gregory Mankiw interprets to mean ‘better monetary policy . . . is more likely to follow from better data than from better models’. But despite the settled hegemony of theoretical frameworks, there is a genuine crisis in some of the fundamental principles of central bank independence. Indeed three points help to demonstrate that some of the key tenets of the independence doctrine are crumbling.


Monetary policy is not independent of political pressures


The UK government grants operational independence to the Bank of England, but sets the targets that are required to be hit. This has the potential to mask inflation by moving the goalposts, as Gordon Brown did in 1997 when he switched the target from the retail price index (RPIX) to the narrower CPI. Although the relatively harmonious macroeconomic conditions of the first decade of UK independence has created little room for conflict, the rarity of disagreement between the Bank of England and Treasury also hints at some operational alignment. On the other side of the Atlantic the distinction between de facto and de jure independence is even more evident, as Allan Meltzer says,

The Fed has done too much to prevent a possible recession and too little to prevent another round of inflation. Its mistake comes from responding to pressure from Congress and the financial markets. The Fed has sacrificed its independence by yielding to that pressure.’


Monetary policy is not merely a technical exercise


The point of removing monetary policy from the hands of politicians was to provide a degree of objectivity and technical competence. Whilst the Treasury is at the behest of vested interests, the Bank of England is deemed impartial and able to make purely technical decisions. In other words, the Treasury targets the destination but the Bank steers the car. But the aftermath of the Northern Rock bailout has demonstrated the failure of this philosophy. As Axel Leijonhufvud says,

monetary policy comes to involve choices of inflating or deflating, of favouring debtors or creditors, of selectively bailing out some and not others, of allowing or preventing banks to collude, no democratic country can leave these decisions to unelected technicians. The independence doctrine becomes impossible to uphold [italics in original].’

As these political judgments are made, there will be an increasing conflict between politicians and central bankers.


Inflation targeting is too simplistic


The key problem with the UK is that a monetary system of inflation targeting supposes that interest rates should rise to combat inflation, regardless of the source. Treating inflation as the primary target downplays conflicting signals from elsewhere in the economy. In an increasingly complex global economy it seems simplistic at best to assume such a degree of control. We have seen productivity gains and cheaper imports that should result in falling prices, but a commitment to 2% inflation forces an expansionary monetary policy. As Joseph Stiglitz has said, ‘today inflation targeting is being put to the test – and it will almost certainly fail’. He believes that rising commodity prices are importing inflation, and therefore domestic policy changes will be counterproductive. We would also point out the possibility of reverse causation, and instead of viewing rising oil prices as the cause of economic troubles, it might be a sign of capital flight from financial assets into hard commodities (Frankel, 2006). Underlying this point is a fundamental fallacy that treats aggregate demand as being the main cause of inflationary pressure. This emphasis on price inflation rather than monetary inflation neglects the overall size of the monetary footprint, which is ‘the stock of saved goods that allow entrepreneurs to invest in more roundabout production’ (Baxendale and Evans, 2008). It is actually the money supply that has generated inflationary pressures.

The current challenges have thus led to an increasingly unorthodox use of policy tools, with the British government making up the rules as it went along over Northern Rock, and the Fed going to the ‘very edge’ of its legal authority over Bear Stearns. Paul Volcker made the accusation that ‘out of perceived necessity, sweeping powers have been exercised in a manner that is neither natural nor comfortable for a central bank’, McCallum’s rule and Taylor’s rule fall by the wayside as the New York Times screams out, ‘It’s a Crisis, and Ideas Are Scarce’.