Across the advanced economies, central banks have rightly prioritized maintaining financial stability and supporting the real economy over fighting inflation with interest-rate hikes. But with financial fragility rife and public and private leverage at all-time highs, their next big test is coming.
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NEW YORK – Since early 2020, central banks across the advanced economies have had to choose between pursuing financial stability, low (typically 2%) inflation, or real economic activity. Without exception, they have opted in favor of financial stability, followed by real economic activity, with inflation last.
As a result, the only advanced-economy central bank to raise interest rates since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has been Norway’s Norges Bank, which lifted its policy rate from zero to 0.25% on September 24. While it has hinted that an additional rate increase is likely in December, and that its policy rate could reach 1.7% toward the end of 2024, that is merely more evidence of monetary policymakers’ extreme reluctance to implement the kind of rate increases that are required to achieve a 2% inflation target consistently.
Central banks’ overwhelming reluctance to pursue interest-rate and balance-sheet policies compatible with their inflation targets should come as no surprise. In the years between the start of the Great Moderation in the mid-1980s and the 2007-08 financial crisis, advanced-economy central banks failed to give sufficient weight to financial stability. A prime example was the Bank of England’s loss of all supervisory and regulatory powers when it was granted operational independence in 1997.
The result was a financial disaster and a severe cyclical downturn. Confirming the logic of “once bitten, twice shy,” central banks then responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by pursuing unprecedentedly aggressive policies to ensure financial stability. But they also went far beyond what was required, pulling out all the policy stops to support real economic activity.
Central banks were right to prioritize financial stability over price stability, considering that financial stability itself is a prerequisite for sustainable price stability (and for some central banks’ other target, full employment). The economic and social cost of a financial crisis, especially with private and public leverage as high as it is today, would dwarf the cost of persistently overshooting the inflation target. Obviously, very high inflation rates must be avoided, because they, too, can become a source of financial instability; but if preventing a financial calamity requires a few years of high single-digit inflation, the price is well worth it.