Did you know that central banks have not always been State-owned banks? The vast majority of them were in the hands of the public before the wave of nationalisations that took place right after the end of WWII. And the system did not work bad at all; the record of both price stability and financial stability before 1913 was certainly impressive. True, bank panics also occurred but the different response taken to such crises is the key to understand the pros of a monetary system fully in the hands of the public and market participants. And, a regards price stability, from approx. 1870 to 1913 most developed (and other less developed) economies ran the gold standard as the rule to determine the amount of money in the economy; a standard which very much tied the hands of central banks and governments as regards money creation. The outcome of the running of a system which preserved monetary stability for a 50 year-time period limited was (not surprisingly for any monetary economist!) was true price stability (by true, I mean that the price level in 1870 was roughly similar to that in 1913), and a growing and rather stable financial system on the whole.
Why was such a ‘miracle’ possible? There is no mystery nor secrecy about it at all! It was the establishment of the right institutions and policies to discipline both the Treasury and a highly independent (actually privately-owned!) central bank what explains such a favourable outcome. And, did you know something even more striking? Several central banks are traded in the market in our days in different ways: the Swiss National Bank, Belgium Central Bank, Reserve Bank of South Africa, Greece Central Bank and Bank of Japan. Historically speaking as I said above this is not an anomaly but the norm before the 1940s. Given the poor record of our monetary authorities since then and the miss-management of the recent financial crisis, why not extending private ownership even further and thus mitigate the threats of a politically-exposed (some will say ultimately ‘controlled’) central bank?
In an interview with Standard and Poor’s, ‘New way forward or outdated anomaly? The future of publicly traded central banks’ (S&P Global. Market Intelligence), I advocate for central banks to return to the public and the banking sector, in order to guarantee their independence from governments and thus be able to achieve a more sound and stable monetary system. You will find the arguments in favour of a more independent central banks, owned by market participants in many references. Here I will just mention two of them, one written by Tim Congdon (Chairman of the Institute of International Monetary Research), Central Banking in a Free Society (IEA), and the other by myself with Pedro Schwartz (Visiting Professor, University of Buckingham), Central banks; from politically dependent to market-independent institutions (Journal of Economic Affairs); both pieces written in the midst of the Global Financial Crisis (2008-09) and the observed mismanagement of the lender of last resort function of central banks.
Find below an extract from the interview with my arguments:
‘Those in favor of privately owned central banks say such institutions would be better equipped to preserve market stability and could help prevent future financial crises.
“If publicly traded or owned by the banking sector … the market incumbents will have a genuine interest in setting clear … rules for the central bank to maintain financial stability over the long term,” said Juan Castañeda, director of the Institute of International Monetary Research at the University of Buckingham in England.
In the event of another financial crisis, a central bank would be fully independent to intervene at a bank in need, and any injection of capital would come from the banking or private sector, Castañeda said. Situations like the nationalization of Northern Rock by the Bank of England at the outset of the global financial crisis could be averted were central banks not in public hands, he argued.
“Those are the things that you can avoid if your central bank is publicly traded,” he said, citing the late 19th century example of U.K.-based Barings Bank, which faced bankruptcy but was saved by a consortium of fellow lenders, helping to stave off a larger crisis.
Oversight of a central bank would belong to the bank’s shareholders, although national authorities would also have a say because of the bank’s management of monetary policy and financial stability.’
It is not surprising Tim Congdon and myself advocate for more independent central banks (privately-owned) as a way to protect them from political interference in the development of its functions. I do believe this would contribute to a more sound running of monetary policy and to less financial instability in the future. If publicly-traded or owned by the banking sector (following the US Fed model), market incumbents will have a genuine interest in setting clear mandates/rules for the central bank to maintain financial stability over the long term. Should another financial crisis occur in the future (that it will), the central bank will have free hands to intervene promptly and avoid the contagion of panic in the market (by the application of its lender of last resort function). And if any injections of capital were needed, it would be the banking sector (or the private sector as a whole) which would bail-in the bank in crisis and, most likely, taxpayers’ money will not be needed again.
Of course this alternative arrangement is fully compatible with the central bank be given statutory functions (such as an inflation target for example) and be subject to parliamentary oversee; so the Governor will have to answer not just to the Bank’s shareholders but to Parliament as well in relation to the running of monetary policy and financial stability (find further details on these arrangements in Congdon’s 2009 work mentioned above).
PS. An excellent narrative of the flaws of the current system can be found in Milne and Wood (2008)’s analysis of Northern Rock bank crisis in the UK.