In a presentation to this year’s annual meeting of the American Economic Association, Alan Blinder argues that the circumstances—low inflation and low nominal interest rates, persistent excess capacity, and fiscal policy paralyzed by large debts—that have forced central banks to operate through unconventional policy will be a recurring feature of the economic landscape. “We can’t stuff the crazy aunt back in the closet”.
According to Economist Magazine, of the rich world’s four major central banks, Britain’s and Japan’s already have their policy rates stuck near zero and the fourth, the European Central Bank (ECB), is likely to get there this year. Meanwhile, the balance-sheets of all four institutions have ballooned as they expand the volume and range of assets and loans they hold (see charts below).
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Whatever central bankers do, they cannot repair problems best fixed by politicians, such as America’s incoherent fiscal policy or Europe’s fractured institutions. Asked about the ECB’s aggressive new lending to banks, Masaaki Shirakawa, the governor of the Bank of Japan, said it could “buy time”. But he warned it could backfire if politicians fritter away whatever time the central bank has bought. Unfortunately, that risk is never low.