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Central Banks: Timid central bankers have failed to convince sceptical audience

The job of central bankers more like that of technicians, carefully turning knobs as they fine-tune the economy, or magicians, manipulating the audience into the suspension of disbelief? Most of the time it is the former. Monetary maestros nudge interest rates up and down with meticulous precision.

Yet in extreme cases—such as when economies become trapped in a low-growth rut—central bankers must try to conjure up a change in the public’s economic outlook. Just as uncertain magicians often fail to pull off their tricks, so central banks are finding their audiences in an ever-more sceptical mood.

Economists have long acknowledged the role of mass psychology in business cycles. In 1936 John Maynard Keynes described the “animal spirits” that could drive swings in spending or investment.

The power of an abrupt change in market beliefs came sharply into focus in the early 1980s, when many economies were struggling to clamp down on stubbornly high inflation. Economists at the time worried that using interest rates to rein in inflation would be enormously costly.

Because the public had come to expect high inflation, they reckoned, growth-crushing rate rises would be needed to force down prices and create new consumer expectations. A common estimate at the time had it that reducing America’s inflation rate by just one percentage point would cause economic damage of nearly 10% of GDP.

In this fraught world, central bankers risk falling into what Mr Krugman has called a timidity trap. The longer that knob-turning fails to get an economy out of the zero-rate rut, the less credible markets are likely to find subsequent attempts at regime change. Recent efforts to push interest rates into negative territory seem to have unnerved markets rather than sparked confidence.

Perhaps more importantly, central bankers tend not to adopt major shifts in mandates and targets unless urged to do so by popularly elected governments. It is difficult to muster Rooseveltian resolve without a Roosevelt. Expect growing scepticism about the power of knob-turning until voters choose politicians confident enough to wave a magic wand.

Read more: Slight of hand | The Economist

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