Wishing for central banks to act in the interest of working people rather than the financial industry is about as fruitful as hoping a starving wolf won’t eat the chicken that was just placed next to it. Pigs will fly, the Amazon will freeze over and Wall Street will give all its money away before a central bank in the capitalist core goes against its raison d’être.
We need no fresh reminders of central bank behavior. Consider that just five central banks — the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, Bank of England and Bank of Canada — handed out about US$10 trillion (€8.8 trillion) to artificially prop up financial markets in the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic on top of the US$9.36 trillion (or €8.3 trillion at the early 2020 exchange rate) that was spent on propping up financial markets in the years following the 2008 global economic collapse.
So about $20 trillion — that’s the equivalent of a year’s gross domestic product of Japan, Germany, India, the United Kingdom, France and Italy combined — to reward the most parasitic portion of the economy, an industry that confiscates money not only from all of you who work for a living but from industrial capital as well. What did you get? Little or, more likely, nothing. Actually, what you have been getting for the past year is worse than nothing. And that brings us to the topic of interest rates. Although we ordinary mortals are not supposed to comprehend the mystical alchemy of the practitioners of high finance as they conjure the forces of capitalism to magically guide the economy to a steady course, in reality there is no mystery.
Given a choice among the Federal Reserve’s three congressionally mandated goals — maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates — employment is what is jettisoned every time. The European Central Bank is a little more honest by listing its single goal to be to “maintain price stability.” The Bank of Canada is somewhere between those two by stating that its mandate is “to promote the economic and financial welfare of Canada.”
Of course, with bankers defining “welfare of Canada,” we need not hold our breath in anticipation of how that “welfare” will be determined. Although there are reasons for the sudden appearance of price inflation from early 2022, this really isn’t a mystery, either. Ongoing supply-chain disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, drastic rises in fuel prices due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Western cutoff of Russian energy in response, and good old fashioned corporate greed account for the past year’s inflation, not wage increases. How to respond? The world’s central banks responded in unison — throw people out of work to dampen the economy.
Indeed, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail to be hit hard. Perhaps central bank officials do have other tools, but can’t seem to find anything other than the hammer. The hammer here is interest rates, and they have been using their one and only inflation-fighting tactic of rapidly raising interest rates to slow down the economy. By making it more expensive to borrow money, business and consumer spending will slacken and when that happens, layoffs follow.
When the hammer is the only tool and it is used on you
Inflation is not good, but central bank officials are not using their hammer because they are upset that you are paying more for groceries but rather because inflation reduces the value of speculators’ financial assets. Just as the then chair of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, plunged the United States into what was then the steepest recession since the Great Depression by raising interest rates to unprecedented highs, and thereby causing unemployment to skyrocket to 10.8% — with the enthusiastic support of the Reagan administration even though Volcker was an appointee of Jimmy Carter — interest rates have risen sharply this year. Nowhere near to the extent of the early 1980s, yet, but enough to make a recession a real possibility in 2023.
Here are a few numbers to illustrate this:
- The Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate to 4.375% in December 2022, up from 0.125% at the start of 2022, with more to come.
- The European Central Bank has raised its benchmark rate for lending to banks to 2.5%, up from years of 0%, with more raises expected.
- The Bank of Canada raised its policy interest rate seven times in 2022, to 4.25% from 0.25% in March.
- The Bank of England raised its interest rate eight times in 2022, reaching 3.5% in December 2022, with further raises expected.
The bottom line is that you’ll pay more to use your credit card and the price of mortgages (and rents) will rise even higher; housing costs are already obscenely high because housing is a commodity. Bank profits, however, will go up — and there is nothing more important than that for bankers, in or out of central bank offices.
So although there are always a few spare trillions dollars or euros or pounds or yen lying around to shovel into the bottomless pockets of financiers, it’s crumbs for you if you are lucky. Thus central banks are acting in the interest of speculators with these rapid-fire interest rate increases just as they did for years following the 2008 economic crash that financiers caused and then again in the wake of the sudden 2020 downturn triggered by the pandemic. Their standard solution to recessions is to throw more money at banks and inflate another stock-market bubble. Now that wages have temporarily ceased falling (and even slightly nudged upward) and unemployment has fallen sharply, it’s time to apply a different medicine, one that, in a remarkable coincidence, also punishes working people and rewards speculators.
So, are central banks simply evil people? Is it time to “end the Fed” as Federal Reserve critics frequently call for in the United States? Or to put an end to other central banks?
Ironically, the answer is no.
That answer certainly is counter-intuitive. Why shouldn’t we be rid of institutions that do so much to perpetuate, and widen, inequality, and which are run by bankers for the benefit of bankers despite being formally government institutions? Simply put, if you don’t like what the Federal Reserve, or the European Central Bank, or any other central bank does, what you actually don’t like is the capitalist system. The Federal Reserve, for example, is surely (as its critics accurately charge) a far too secretive, unaccountable branch of government that protects the interests of financiers at the expense of everybody else. Nothing unique there. The European Central Bank is perhaps the world’s most undemocratic central bank — it is the most powerful entity in the European Union and is completely unaccountable to anyone, openly operating on behalf of European finance capital.
Recall how Greece was treated by the European Central Bank during the country’s financial crisis of the mid-2010s. The ECB issued a series of diktats that cut off all funding for the Greek government, including from Greek banks, in order to bring the new Syriza government to its knees and force a full surrender to punishing austerity imposed by it, the European Union and International Monetary Fund. So harsh were these measures that the IMF reportedly said the ECB was too extreme in its austerity measures! The Greek economy was crushed to ensure banks that lent to Athens, in particular French and German banks, would be repaid in full no matter the cost to Greeks.
No sense reforming what can’t be reformed
Democratically accountable central banks that promulgated policies to increase employment and toward a socially responsible financial system would be welcome reforms. But such a reform is an impossibility, and not simply because central banks are outside any democratic accountability under the official rationale of lessening “political interference” in economic decision-making but in reality because finance capital is so powerful that it can demand, and has received, the right to act without constraints in its own interests. As much as powerful capitalists possess the ability to bend government politics toward their preferred outcomes, finance is the only industry that has government departments dedicated to it, that its executives manage independently of any other government entity.
If it can’t be reformed, why not get rid of it? Eliminating central banks while keeping the rest of capitalism in place is a pointless idea because they are a necessity in advanced capitalist countries, which is why each has one. And, perversely, eliminating the central bank would actually increase the dominance of financiers and would make the booms and busts of the capitalist business cycle sharper than they already are.
Strange as it seems today, there was a populist component to the creation of the Federal Reserve. Populists of the late 19th century wanted a more elastic currency so that the government could extend emergency credit when the economy collapsed (as it then frequently did) rather than be handcuffed by the gold standard. In those days, when a crash happened, the U.S. government had to turn to the biggest robber barons of the day, such as J.P. Morgan, and ask them directly for a bailout.
Banks hoarded their reserves during crashes, making the downturns worse, and could issue their own banknotes, helping to fuel bubbles. But, since we are talking about the United States, it took a consensus on Wall Street and not popular demand for a central bank to be created in 1913. Financiers had come to believe that a central bank would temper the extremes of booms and busts, thereby stabilizing the economy. Industrialists joined financiers in that consensus.
Needless to say, the capitalists and not the populists were the drivers of Fed policy from the beginning. But a central bank does, albeit in a highly inegalitarian manner, stabilize a national economy through regulating credit and alternately tightening and loosening monetary policy. Central banks in all advanced capitalist countries manage domestic money supplies and currencies, a crucial task in today’s world in which markets subject to wild swings set prices for everything.
Somewhat similarly, the Bank of England, created in 1694 by royal charter, “was founded to ‘promote the public Good and Benefit of our People,’ ” according to its website. Despite that lofty sentiment, the bank admits it was created primarily to fund a war against France. The Bank of England was nationalized in 1946 and although it remains wholly owned by the British government, it, like central banks generally, is “independent” — in other words, completely free of democratic accountability. That independence” was granted by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997. Not for nothing did Margaret Thatcher say her greatest accomplishment was “Tony Blair and New Labour.”
It won’t come as a surprise that financial institutions are skilled at finding ways around central bank policies. Not that central banks don’t act in those interests — the Fed under Alan Greenspan encouraged the 1990s stock market bubble and the real estate bubble of the 2000s, and following the 2008 crash, Ben Bernanke was focused on the then long non-existent phantom of inflation while ignoring the all too real problem of high unemployment. The European Central Bank is, if anything, even more guilty of that than the Federal Reserve.
If central banks went away, financiers wouldn’t
The entire capitalist system acts to benefit capitalists (industrialists and financiers) to the detriment of working people. Why should we expect an arm of a capitalist government to act any different? If central banks were eliminated, the exact same powerful capitalist interests would continue to bend government policy to their preferred outcome and would continue to exercise the same dominance over government, social institutions and the mass media. The only difference would be that the economy would become more unstable than it already is because there would be less ability on the part of governments to dampen excesses. Why would that be good?
Capitalism is an unstable system that will always have booms and busts, and as time goes on the busts tend to worsen. (That tendency was temporarily kept at bay after the Great Depression by significant reforms, but those reforms have been undone and the tendency has reasserted itself.) Capitalism is a system in which those who amass the capital thereby amass power, and power translates into the ability to bend the rules to preferred outcomes or to bypass the rules. Money concentrates into fewer hands and wages are squeezed to facilitate the upward flow of money. Those who succeed are the people endowed with outsized desires to acquire and the personality traits that enable those desires to be met.
Yes, those people so endowed can and do create policy for central banks. Eliminating those banks wouldn’t touch the ability of people so endowed to suffuse their viewpoints and favored policy outcomes throughout a capitalist society, nor would it touch their ability to leverage their outsized wealth and the power their wealth gives them to shape government policy and public opinion making to benefit themselves. Getting rid of government would actually intensify the dominance of industrialists and financiers in all spheres of life. The dominance of a globalized class that maintains power through a web of institutions and scrambles to manage ceaseless instability — not a small cabal of bankers who somehow control everything, an idea rooted in Right-wing conspiracy theories that easily shade off into anti-Semitism.
None of the foregoing is to suggest that we should simply accept the brutal, dehumanizing capitalist system. But rather than hankering for reforms that might actually make it worse, a better world with an economy designed for human needs is what we should be after. If we blame central banks instead of the system that it is a component of, then we are doing nothing more than blaming the messenger. Capitalist markets are nothing more than the composite expression of the interests of the largest industrialists and financiers, and allowing those markets even greater freedom is what we should be fighting, not tacitly helping.