Given the success that central banks have had in targeting inflation over the last decade or so, the recent increase in their powers, and the broadening of their remit to include economic growth, has been largely welcomed by the markets. But have we put too much faith in central banks abilities? And, with record levels of peacetime government deficits and the clear political incentive to tolerate higher levels of inflation, have we come to overestimate their commitment to reining in prices?
In this note, which is part of our quarterly Panoramic series, we argue that we are seeing potential upside risks to inflation as central banks continue to preside over the biggest coordinated global monetary stimulus that we’ve seen in recent history. In our view, the expansion of central banks’ balance sheets signals an unspoken shift in these institutions’ remits that could have important consequences for future inflation rates. It is a phenomenon we have coined “central bank regime change”.
The Bank of England and European Central Bank seem no longer to be primarily focused on delivering price stability. Their new mandate now covers supporting domestic banking systems, offsetting the effects of government austerity measures, bolstering trade and implementing the conditions needed to generate jobs and economic growth.
With central banks’ macroeconomic responsibilities straying ever further into what was previously the state’s domain, their independence is looking increasingly fragile. The hijacking of monetary policy by politicians cannot be ruled out, especially if it enables them to inflate their way out of their growing debt burden. If we get to this stage, inflationary pressures will rise, although central banks’ credibility will be tarnished and policy responses rendered ineffective.
In our view, there are potentially plenty of reasons to expect the current period of low inflation to come to an end. Central banks are still thinking of new ways to ignite growth and they appear to be increasingly tolerant of above-target inflation. But are they moving ever closer to a major policy error that could ruin their inflation-targeting credibility? And should we all start thinking about inflation again?
To read the latest Panoramic, please follow this link.