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Weekly Economics Series:Central Banking’s New Club Class

NEW YORK – In the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the world’s central banks
played a critical role in rescuing the global financial system. They stepped in when
private markets froze, acting as lenders and dealers of last resort, and provided
additional liquidity to grease the wheels of finance.

These central banks offered their services primarily to domestic actors, but they
also extended their largess to foreign private entities. Indeed, even foreign states
benefited after central banks entered into swap agreements, giving one another
unlimited access to their respective currencies. This has created a worrying
precedent.

Originally created as a temporary fix in 2007, the swap lines established at that
time connecting the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the Swiss
National Bank have been extended each time a new crisis has unsettled the markets.
More recently, however, six central banks announced that they had made their swap
lines permanent.

But did these central banks have the legal authority to do so? And, even if they
did, should they have used it?

The original swap lines might fairly be classified as emergency measures. But what
may be permissible and justifiable in a financial emergency may not be appropriate
as standard practice during normal times.

Central bankers might argue that we have entered a state of permanent market crisis
analogous to the never-ending “war on terror.” But even this frightening analogy
does not answer the question of whether central banks should assume positions of
power in international relations.

Of course, a central bank’s mandate is price stability in the national economy that
it serves, and price stability is influenced by exchange rates. So a case can be
made that central banks should have the power to intervene in foreign-exchange
markets, and that this power should – at least in times of crisis – include
commitments to foreign central banks to provide unlimited liquidity in the domestic
currency.

What is less clear, though, is whether the same justification can be used by central
banks to create permanent swap lines with just a few other central banks of their
choosing. This is akin to an announcement on a cruise ship approaching an iceberg
that the crew will definitely rescue first-class passengers but not necessarily
others.

Not every country’s central bank – not even every “friendly” country’s central bank
– has been invited to join the swap-lines club. Membership is restricted to the
United States Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank, the
Bank of Japan, the Swiss National Bank, and the Bank of Canada.

There may be a legal rationale for this neo-imperial elitism. The so-called C-6
might argue that, given their price-stability mandate, only central banks of
countries whose economic fate might destabilize domestic prices should receive
privileged access to domestic currency.

But the choice of monetary partners is nonetheless a matter of judgment. For
example, why Canada and not Mexico? Aren’t both members of NAFTA? Why Switzerland
and not Brazil, one of the largest emerging markets?

Picking partners is an inherently political act. It bestows access to high-demand
currencies on a select few, relatively strong, countries precisely when the weakest
countries are at their most vulnerable. Having been left outside the club, these
countries have no option but to self-insure by accumulating foreign-exchange
reserves.

Indeed, empirical research suggests that countries without explicit or implicit
access to liquidity tend to hold much higher reserves than the privileged few – only
to be blamed by the same privileged few for contributing to global imbalances by
hoarding excess reserves.

The C-6 swap club’s members may be correct in thinking that global finance requires
more proactive central banking. But is it fair or right that they should be allowed
to take matters into their own hands and determine a system of international
monetary management designed to serve their own interests, with little regard for
other, equally exposed, countries?

The joint announcement by the C-6 cements the great divide between first-class and
coach economies. We are being asked to trust that these select central banks will do
the right thing.

Trust is important. But when it comes to political decision-making, democratic
control and accountability are essential.

Katharina Pistor is Professor of Law at Columbia Law School.

source:Project Syndicate, 2013.

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