Monetary policies have traditionally not been concerned with the subject of inequality, even when their role has been to help the economy achieve full employment. Rather, policymakers have generally limited themselves to a macroeconomic approach guided by statistics such as aggregate growth, inflation, unemployment rates and average wage rates. But in recent years, the subject has made its way onto the agenda of a growing number of central bankers.
Former Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen set this change in motion and seems to have attracted a certain number of monetary policy followers. In the United States, Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has often voiced his support of this approach. In January 2017, with Ms. Yellen’s support, he even went so far as to create the “Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute”, whose mission is to promote research that “will increase economic opportunity and inclusive growth and help the Federal Reserve achieve its maximum employment mandate”.
In Europe, the topic has become an important factor in Mario Draghi’s adjustments to monetary policy over the last two years. As Janet Yellen began to do in January 2014 by developing a series of complementary unemployment indicators, so the ECB chairman has regularly made reference to labor market slack and called attention to the risk of relying solely on the unemployment rate, which has become less and less representative of economic reality. He regularly speaks of underemployment, forced part-time work and multiple jobs to justify the continuation of hyper-accommodative monetary policy despite clearly improved economic conditions in the euro zone since the start of last year.
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If we’re correct in assuming the Federal Reserve is not about to start scaling back its asset purchases, worldwide liquidity injections should hit a new high next year. Whereas the aggregate balance sheet of the four leading central banks showed little change in the first half of 2013, we can expect widespread central bank activism over the next few quarters:
- At a rate of 85 billion dollars a month, the Fed’s asset purchases should amount to 1.02 trillion dollars a year.
- The Bank of Japan will be adding anywhere from 600 to 718 billion dollars to its balance sheet as it strives to meet its target of expanding Japan’s monetary base by between 60 and 70 trillion yen a year (making it some 40 percent larger than at the beginning of 2013).
- The Bank of England will be buying 610 billion dollars’ worth of Gilts in connection with its objective to purchase 375 billion pounds of assets via its Asset Purchase Facility.
- The ECB’s probable upcoming LTRO is likely, in our estimate, to provide Europe’s banks with between 250 and 500 billion euros, or 350 to 750 billion dollars.
The “Big Four” should thus be injecting a cool 1.6 to 2.5 trillion dollars into the system in annual terms (at a pace of 135 to 208 billion a month). This should continue, if not throughout 2014, then at least through the early part of the year. In the low-case scenario, that would equal 10 percent of American GDP; in the high-case scenario, it would equal almost the entire size of France’s economy in 2012! But whether the ECB follows suit or not, the annual flow of fresh liquidity should return to the highs seen in 2011 and 2012—and for the ECB’s LTROs, could even set a post-2008-crisis record.
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The reflation policies pursued by the major central banks don’t seem to be paying off. Even with key rates at historic lows everywhere and widespread use of unconventional policy tools, lending activity remains flat and economic growth anemic. Moreover, although strong commodity prices and rising taxes have kept price levels up until recently, the inflation rate is starting to sag—in a serious way. A lack of monetary policy coordination, the inability of central banks to offset the impact of fiscal tightening, and the still-crippling effect of deleveraging on growth are the primary ingredients of this collective failure. They are also a cause for concern. If they persist, we may well be heading for a much longer crisis than is commonly assumed—and for creeping deflation that could lead economic policy-makers to act rashly. But let’s be clear about one thing. The problem is not that central banks shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing; it’s that their combined efforts haven’t gone far enough.