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This is a personal blog. Although the authors are affiliated with Coda Payments, the views expressed here are their own.

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Sunday
Feb032013

Central Banks aren’t accountable—by design

One of the risks that banks and non-bank financial institutions alike must manage is the untrammeled power that financial regulators have to make or break their businesses. Of course, plenty of other sectors are heavily regulated; but central banks are unusually muscular, independent regulators.

It turns out there’s a good reason for this. The original function of central banks, and their most important role even today, is managing the stability of the national currency. By creating money or taking it out of circulation (achieved these days by manipulating interest rates), central banks defend against inflation. It turns out that this is highly susceptible to meddling from politicians, whose calculus is short term and who often seek to interfere with decision-making at central banks in an effort to goose the economy and, at the same time, their own popularity. In the long run this kind of interference is disastrous, because it can lead to dangerous levels of inflation. For this reason, it has become customary to charter central banks with a very high degree of autonomy, and central bankers jealously protect this independence to preserve their credibility in the eyes of the markets.

Over time, the mandate of many central banks around the world has been expanded to include regulatory responsibilities created by legislation (for example, supervising banks) and in many cases to financial policymaking. This evolution was natural: central banks were and are well positioned to understand the inner workings of the financial system given their interest in the role that financial intermediaries play in money creation.

But a problem has emerged. In democratic societies, we expect that policymakers will be accountable to the will and interests of voters. Normally, when governments delegate policymaking (rather than embedding it directly into law) they do so by bestowing such authority on government agencies. While this insulates the policymaking process from seedy business of legislative horse-trading, it still leaves technocratic policymakers exposed to the pressures of democratic politics, since they are situated within bodies that are ultimately headed by politicians or political appointees.

When financial regulation emanates from an independent central bank, no such pressure is brought to bear. And this is something to worry about. There are too many countries where important innovations are being kept from consumers by financial regulators. To take just one obvious example, the governor of the central bank in Nigeria has decided that he doesn't think that mobile operators should be allowed to offer payment services. Given the power vested in his office, he has been able to bar them from doing so without giving much thought to whether ordinary Nigerians want or approve of this policy.

In cases like this, I can’t help but wonder if outcomes would be better if consumers’ voices were heard a bit more loudly in the policymaking process.

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