Far from stepping back, top central banks are set to double down

Mon Oct 10, 2016 1:04am EDT
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By Howard Schneider and Leika Kihara

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Central banks' repeated warnings that there are limits to what they can do to bolster the sputtering world economy could suggest they are about to pull back and pass the baton to governments.

But a steady flow of research and a new tone in the debate among policymakers and advisers points in a different direction: rather than retreat, central banks are preparing for the day they may need to do more, even at the risk of antagonizing politicians who argue they already have too much power.

The shift can be seen in the acknowledgment by Federal Reserve policymakers that their massive $4 trillion balance sheet will not shrink anytime soon, or that asset buying may become a "recurrent" tool of future monetary policy. It can be seen in the comments of Bank of England officials who talk of crisis-fighting tools as now semi-permanent fixtures, or in the Bank of Japan developing a new monetary policy framework, in this case targeting long-term market interest rates.

Driving those developments is an emerging consensus among policymakers who now acknowledge that the global financial crisis has led to a fundamental shift toward low inflation, tepid growth, lagging productivity and interest rates stuck near zero.

"We could be stuck in a new longer-run equilibrium characterized by sluggish growth and recurrent reliance on unconventional monetary policy," Fed Vice Chair Stanley Fischer said last week.

For years, Federal reserve and other policymakers have discounted such a scenario, arguing that temporary factors were slowing the recovery and plotting a return to conventional pre-crisis policies.

Over the past months, though, that optimism has given way to an admission that such a return is increasingly elusive. Interest rates are set to stay low far longer than thought only a year ago and jumbo balance sheets accumulated through crisis-era asset purchases are now cast as a possibly permanent tool.

At the annual Jackson Hole Fed conference in August the discussion had shifted from the mechanics and timing of "normalization," to how and whether to expand the central bank footprint yet again.   Continued...

Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen delivers the semi-annual testimony on the "Federal Reserve's Supervision and Regulation of the Financial System" before the House Financial Services Committee in Washington, U.S., September 28, 2016.      REUTERS/Joshua Roberts