In economic policy nowadays, the unthinkable suddenly becomes the inevitable, without pausing for long in the realm of the improbable. (See this piece in The Economist.) Nowhere has this been more true than in central banking, where the recent huge expansion in the size of balance sheets would have seemed inconceivable as recently as 4 years ago.
Markets have not only accepted this use of the printing press with equanimity, they have become increasingly dependent upon it. Most economists are also very relaxed about it, frequently describing it either as inconsequential, or even as entirely irrelevant. But how can a policy intervention which has underwritten the liquidity of the entire western banking system be described as irrelevant?
I do not share the alarmist view that an explosion in central bank liabilities must inevitably lead to higher inflation. That basic monetarist link has already been shown to be invalid, at least over short periods, and at least when a liquidity trap is in operation. However, the recent use of central bank balance sheets has been so unusual and potentially so profound that the underlying economics deserves much more careful examination than it has been receiving lately. I intend to do this in a series of blogs in coming weeks. In this, the first in the series, I will ask how we reached the current predicament. Read more