5. P OLICY IMPLICATIONS AND LINES OF REFORM OF THE ECB STRATEGY
5.3. The relative success of the ECB
We can address two questions. The first is simply how successful the ECB has been in achieving its own targets. The second is whether the ECB could have performed better, both in achieving its targets more closely and in achieving them at lower cost (measured perhaps in terms of output fluctuations). There is however a third issue which to some extent is peculiar to the euro area which also has an impact on policy. We consider that first.
In any economy there will be variations in the appropriateness of monetary policy for individual regions or industries, or even for individual households and firms. More than that, some industries are disproportionately affected by monetary policy compared to others. This is in part the normal concern that monetary policy is a blunt instrument and does not tackle inflationary problems in the economy in a manner that is closely focused on their origin. In a well-developed unitary economy, even a diverse one like Canada or the United States there are various corrective mechanisms that will offset this poor aim, particularly fiscal redistribution. In the euro area not only are such mechanisms very limited but the area itself is only in the process of coming to terms with the common policy and the single currency area. While this would imply simply a cost to a single monetary policy if the problem were symmetric but the policy was still appropriate, inflationary processes are very obviously asymmetric.
This is perhaps illustrated best by the case of house price inflation. Taylor (2008) shows (Figure 36) that if one considers the departures of the single monetary policy from what would be implied by a Taylor rule applied individually to each country, the cumulative departures are clearly positively related to housing investment. Applied to prices this generates a much stronger cycle in the countries for whom policy is ‘too loose’ and a consequently sluggish performance for those for whom the policy is too tight. However, with asymmetry the consequences for those countries for whom the policy is too loose will be much more extreme. While this may imply that monetary policy should take account of such asymmetries on the whole this is not a problem that a single monetary policy can address. It simply reflects that the euro area is not an optimal currency area. Finding other policies to offset this effect until such time as the area approaches such an optimal state will be difficult but clearly some progress can be made through the tax system.
Source: Taylor (2008)
To some extent deficiencies in the overall setting of policy by the ECB will simply reflect the problem of overcoming this heterogeneity.
Assessing the success of ECB monetary policy simply in terms of the achievement of its objectives tells us relatively little. Since the first year or so when much of inflation will have been determined by the predecessor central banks, inflation was above 2% in every year and averaged 2.2% in 2001-2007. (It was 3.3% in 2008.) The ECB has tended to try to explain this away by suggesting that this period has been subject to a number of special factors but this is true of any period. 8-10 years is quite long enough for a learning period. Normally, in any process of learning, policy will overshoot in both directions. It is difficult to zero in directly on the target. The common experience of inflation targeting countries for example has been that initially they overestimated how high interest rates would have to be to contain inflation. Then followed a period when they eased too much as they tried to find where the new equilibrium was but after that their track record has been quite good.
It is clear therefore that there are some persistent errors in the ECB’s processes. One option would be that the Eurosystem’s forecasting has been biased. This is certainly the general experience that Beck and Wieland (2008) attribute to both the Federal Reserve and the Bundesbank over the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The ECB itself noted an error that had introduced a downward bias into its Narrow Inflation Projection Exercise. If the information input is somewhat biased it is difficult for policy-makers to overcome this as they have to make judgements that disagree with their assessment of the impact of a policy stance. However, in time one would expect just that adjustment to take place. This therefore implies that even if there have been errors in the outlook presented to policy-makers, there have been problems in policy-making as well.
One commonly cited cause is the Eurosystem’s decision-making process whereby a large committee agrees on policy actions by ‘consensus’. If other monetary policy committees operate by something that is closer to a simple majority then they would tend to be more activist. Some inflation targeting countries, such as the UK and the Czech Republic, have indeed shown rather more dissent from the agreed policy but in general, the number of those ‘outvoted’ in monetary policy committees who feel sufficiently strongly that they need to record their dissent is quite small.
It is probable that the Governing Council has been rather over-obsessed by the need to show unity in supporting their decisions and have hence been rather keener on unity of view than may have been the case elsewhere. Other monetary policy committees permit the public expression of different points of view and have not found that their credibility has been undermined be such diversity. Under uncertainty everyone expects views to differ and seeing the extent of the difference makes policy more predictable. Both the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan have been able to convey more information about the extent of uncertainty by publishing Board members' views about the future values of key variables in the economy that affect policy. These do not identify which members thinks what but they give an idea of the distribution of views. Since markets appear to find this useful the ECB could beneficially make a similar move, which would result in a more predictable policy. However, as to the reform of the ECB communication policy, the views need not be identified with individual Governing Council members in order to avoid national governments pressure.
One obvious cause of a less active policy has been that the ECB has not wanted to surprise markets and has hence tried to make its policy intent clear in advance, thus to some extent virtually delaying decisions by a month. However, delay should not lead to a bias in favour of inflation unless shocks are asymmetrically in favour of inflation.
One trend used elsewhere among inflation targeting central banks that the ECB has resisted to is to give a clear idea of the requirement on future policy to bring inflation back into line. Only the current decision is announced with oblique indications of future steps through the use of code words such as ‘vigilance’. A more direct approach, setting out a path, as is practised in Norway, Sweden and New Zealand could be helpful to give greater credibility to the willingness to act. A step in the right direction, however, was moving the forecasting basis from an artificial ‘constant policy’ criterion to a more realistic use of ‘implicit market assumptions’. Without that, forecasts tend to be inconsistent and implicitly take the effect of likely policy into account so that the forecasts always turn out to be relatively on target. One consequence of this is that, in simulations, it will always look as if policy can achieve relatively little, thereby introducing a bias against strong action.
However, Taylor (2008) provides a neat assessment of the ECB, which offers a very plausible explanation. He attributes much of the mis-setting of policy to a tendency to follow US interest rates. He documents dramatically how since 2001 the Federal Reserve has deviated from what a simple Taylor Rule would prescribe (Figure 37). While short period deviations are nothing unusual a sustained deviation on this scale will result in a major inflationary distortion. Taylor then applies the same methodology to the euro area and shows that the ECB’s own departure from a Taylor rule can largely be explained by the degree to which the ECB has followed the interest rate setting of the Federal Reserve (Figure 38).
Source : Taylor (2008) Figure 38
ECB actual rates vs. Taylor rule fitted rates
It is difficult to explain the origins of this excess following of the actions of the Federal Reserve but there are two obvious candidates of explanations. The first is simply that the decision-makers all have an experience in countries that were small relative to the United States and that were much more open than the euro area is to external trade. Applying that experience would assign a higher role to US policy in determining economic conditions in the euro area than was actually the case. A second explanation would be an understandable diffidence in suggesting that a new player could have an extensive and different impact on activity and inflation. A third explanation is that the Governing Council had similar misperceptions of the inflationary pressures in Europe to those their colleagues in the FOMC had of the US.
Perhaps what is most disturbing is that John Taylor attributes an important part of the US’s failure to emerge from the recession as being due to a misperception of the causes of the current problems. The ECB appears to be going down the same policy route, with a delay. If that is similarly driven by an incorrect perception of the nature of the crisis then it too will prolong the recession. Taylor is firmly of the view that current problems are caused by risk not by lack of liquidity – pursuing the wrong objective will simply lead to an ineffective programme of quantitative easing as was observed in Japan in the ‘lost decade’. Moreover, the persistent downward bias of official interest rates compared with rate levels compatible with long-term price stability indicates that both economies have run too easy monetary policies, possibly one of the causes of the recent instability in the markets. A decade of apparently low inflation as measured by consumer price indices induced a cheap credit policy that contributed to the onset of the present crisis.
The ECB sets some store by having a monetary policy that is not very responsive or active but steady. However, this in itself can cause greater fluctuations in the economy as it allows booms/inflation to develop further and recessions to be deeper. An ideal policy is anticipatory but often not feasible, a lagging policy can be just as destabilising.