Central banking's new club class

The banks are doling out aid, but only to a select few, writes Katharina Pistor.

The banks are doling out aid, but only to a select few, writes Katharina Pistor.

In the wake of the 2007-08 financial crisis, the world's central banks played a critical role in rescuing the global financial system. They stepped in when private markets froze, acting as lenders and dealers of last resort, and provided additional liquidity to grease the wheels of finance.

These central banks offered their services primarily to domestic actors, but they also extended their largesse to foreign private entities. Indeed, even foreign states benefited after central banks entered into swap agreements, giving one another unlimited access to their respective currencies. This has created a worrying precedent.

Originally created as a temporary fix in 2007, the swap lines established at that time connecting the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the Swiss National Bank have been extended each time a new crisis has unsettled the markets. More recently, six central banks announced that they had made their swap lines permanent.

But did these central banks have the legal authority to do so? And, even if they did, should they have used it?

The original swap lines might fairly be classified as emergency measures. But what may be permissible and justifiable in a financial emergency may not be appropriate as standard practice during normal times.

Central bankers might argue that we have entered a state of permanent market crisis analogous to the never-ending "war on terror".

But even this frightening analogy does not answer the question of whether central banks should assume positions of power in international relations.

Of course, a central bank's mandate is price stability in the national economy that it serves, and price stability is influenced by exchange rates. So a case can be made that central banks should have the power to intervene in foreign-exchange markets, and that this power should - at least in times of crisis - include commitments to foreign central banks to provide unlimited liquidity in the domestic currency.

What is less clear, though, is whether the same justification can be used by central banks to create permanent swap lines with just a few other central banks of their choosing. This is akin to an announcement on a cruise ship approaching an iceberg that the crew will rescue first-class passengers but not necessarily others.

Not every country's central bank - not even every "friendly" country's central bank - has been invited to join the swap-lines club. Membership is restricted to the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the ECB, the Bank of Japan, the Swiss National Bank, and the Bank of Canada.

But the choice of monetary partners is a matter of judgment. For example, why Canada and not Mexico? Aren't both members of North American Free Trade Agreement? Why Switzerland and not Brazil, one of the largest emerging markets?

The joint announcement by the C-6 cements the great divide between first-class and coach economies. We are being asked to trust that these select central banks will do the right thing.

Trust is important. But when it comes to political decision-making, democratic control and accountability are essential.

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