The ECB's Curious Money Fixation: The Latest on Europe's Campaign to Cement Monetary Growth to Monetary Policy

By Munchau, Wolfgang | The International Economy, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The ECB's Curious Money Fixation: The Latest on Europe's Campaign to Cement Monetary Growth to Monetary Policy


Munchau, Wolfgang, The International Economy


Possibly the most important development in the European macroeconomic policy debate over the last year has been the return of a subject of polite conversion among economists. We are not talking about a return to 1970s-style monetarism, although a minority of participants in this debate do. This is a debate about whether central banks have gone too far in downplaying the significance of monetary aggregates in practical monetary policy making.

Larry Meyer, a former member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, famously said that "money plays no role in today's consensus macro model, and it plays virtually no role in the conduct of monetary policy, at least in the United States." Money, however, does play a much more central role at the European Central Bank, and it appears that its role has recently been getting stronger, contrary to what had been predicted when the ECB started up in 1999.

The issue came up during a research conference organized by the ECB in Frankfurt in November 2006. The ECB invited Professor Michael Woodford from Columbia University, who made a strong case for the superiority of the New Keynesian models, in which money has no separate role. It is not clear why the ECB held this conference in the first place. It is possible that this was merely an honest and open invitation to the academic community to challenge the ECB's own thinking. What is astonishing, however, is that the ECB did not put up anybody to refute Woodford's powerful critique on academic grounds--although a number of qualified academics would have happily complied. Instead it wheeled out past and present central bankers who presented well-known policy arguments in defense of the ECB's present strategy--such as the ECB's inherited credibility and the always-repeated mantra that inflation is ultimately a monetary phenomenon. Most observers walked away with the impression that the antimoney camp had won by a technical knock-out. Without becoming too conspiratorial, one wonders whether this outcome might have been intentional. The debate about the role of money, it appears, is also raging in the hallways of the ECB itself.

There may be a consensus within the ECB that money carries important information, but there are important nuances. For example, this is what Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the ECB, wrote in the Financial Times on November 8, 2006:

   Do not mistake me for a monetary Luddite: I have
   immense appreciation for the intellectual elegance
   and sophistication of modern monetary policy
   models that leave no room for money. In many
   respects, I fully agree with their implications
   regarding the benefits of price stability, the crucial
   importance of central bank credibility, the advantages
   of pursuing a clear and predictable policy,
   and the centrality of private inflation expectations.
   Yet, I cannot dispel my doubts that a model of
   monetary policy that includes no role for money is
   incomplete in some important respects.

I recall a conversation with Trichet in 1998, when he was governor of the Bank of France, during which he expressed skepticism about M3 as a reliable indicator for future French consumer price inflation. I would describe Trichet's current stance as content with a strategy that gives him a maximum degree of discretion, leaving him as the only person in a position to explain it. But he is not a monetarist.

Now compare Trichet's relatively moderate position with that of Jurgen Stark, who succeeded Otmar Issing as a member of the ECB's governing board in 2006. Prior to his appointment, Stark was regarded as a die-hard monetarist, very much in the tradition of Issing. If you thought Stark had moderated his views in any way since taking up his position, you could not be more wrong. Here is what he had to say on this subject, in an article in Frankfurter All gemeine Zeitung on December 14 (my translation from German):

At their heart, these [New Keynesian] models simplify the role of money and of the financial system to such an extent that it cannot be acceptable for decision makers in monetary policy.

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