Scott Sumner has been making the argument lately that a central bank with credibility can limit the growth of its balance sheet more effectively than a central bank that is not credible. The context for Scott’s claim is the chronic complaint by QE opponents that the Fed, by doing QE, has dangerously increased the size of its balance sheet, thereby creating an unacceptable risk of future inflation. Scott contends that if the Fed had been more credibly committed to its inflation target of 2%, the Fed would not have needed to create so many dollars in a futile effort to meet its inflation target. In other words, more credibility would mean a smaller balance sheet. That was a clever jujitsu move on Scott’s part, but does his argument really have a basis in economic logic?
The key point here is that the size of a bank’s balance sheet depends on the public’s demand to hold the liabilities of the bank. So for Scott to be right, credibility has to reduce the amount of base money issued by the central bank that the public wants to hold. So, if by credibility we mean the confidence with which the public expects the Fed to meet its announced inflation target, then, when the Fed is undershooting its inflation target so that enhanced credibility would be associated with a rise in expected inflation, enhancing credibility would indeed imply a reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet. However, if the Fed were overshooting its inflation target, enhancing credibility would imply an increase in the Fed’s balance sheet.
The credibility issue has become especially acute after the Swiss National Bank abandoned its peg to the euro last Thursday. To support the peg the Swiss National Bank was committed to buy euros without limit at a price of 1.2 swiss francs per euro, causing the balance sheet of the SNB to expand greatly. The main liability component of a central bank’s balance sheet is the monetary base; the Swiss monetary base has grown from 80bn francs when the peg was adopted in September 2011 to about 400bn francs at present. However, the Swiss monetary base has been in the neighborhood of 400bn francs for over a year, so even assuming that a new wave of demand for swiss francs, based on expectations of a falling euro and capital flight from Russia, had — or was about to — come crashing down on Switzerland, there is no reason to think that the peg had suddenly became unsustainable. Moreover, insofar as the bank was motivated by fears of euro depreciation, the bank could have seamlessly switched from a euro to a dollar peg, which might still be a face-saving way for the bank to reverse course.
So here’s the question: given that there was an international increase in the demand for Swiss francs, if the SNB wanted to limit the increase in the size of its balance sheet, associated with an increase in the international demand for francs, did dropping the euro peg imply a smaller balance sheet than the balance sheet it would have had with the peg maintained? Well, the answer is: it depends. By fooling the markets, and allowing the franc to appreciate by 20% over night, the bank avoided the increased demand for francs that would have occurred had the markets expected the peg to be dropped. So the SNB was able to achieve an unexpected increase in the value of the Swiss franc without encouraging an increase in the demand for francs based on expectations of future appreciation, and to that extent, the SNB was able to reduce the size of its balance sheet.
But another question immediately arises. Now that the franc has appreciated by about 20% after the euro peg was dropped, what will happen to the demand for Swiss francs? The speculative demand for francs based on expected future appreciation has probably been reduced by the sudden appreciation of the franc. However, Switzerland is now facing internal deflation, even if there is no further franc appreciation in foreign exchange markets, as the domestic Swiss price level adjusts to the new higher value of the franc. Oncoming Swiss deflation will increase the expected return to Swiss residents from holding francs while simultaneously reducing the expected return on physical capital in Switzerland, so a substantial shift out of real Swiss assets into cash is likely. Such a shift started immediately last week in the first two days after the peg was dropped, the Swiss stock market falling by about 10 percent, though Swiss equities did make up some of their losses in Monday’s trading. Given an increased Swiss demand to hold francs, the SNB will either have to increase the amount of base money, thereby increasing the size of its balance sheet, or it will have to allow the increased demand for francs to add to deflationary pressure, thereby causing further franc appreciation in the forex markets, attracting further inflows of foreign cash to acquire francs. If the SNB was uncomfortable with the euro peg, the SNB is likely to find out very soon that life without the euro peg or a substitute dollar peg is going to be even more unpleasant.
If your lot in life is to supply the internationally desirable currency of a small open economy – in other words if you are the Swiss National Bank – it is the height of folly to believe that you can place some arbitrary limit on the size of your balance sheet. The size of your balance sheet will ultimately be determined one way or another by the international demand to hold your currency. If you are unwilling to let your balance sheet expand in nominal terms by supplying the amount of cash foreigners demand as they try to exchange their currency for yours, you will only force up the value of your currency, which will make holding your currency even more attractive, at least until the currency appreciation and deflation that you have inflicted on your own economy cause your economy to go down in flames.
As an extended historical postscript, let me just mention the piece that Markus Brunnermeier and Harold James wrote for Project Syndicate, in which they astutely diagnose the political pressures that may have forced the SNB to abandon the euro peg.
The SNB was not forced to act by a speculative run. No financial crisis forced its hand, and, in theory, the SNB’s directorate could have held the exchange rate and bought foreign assets indefinitely. But domestic criticism of the SNB’s large buildup of exchange-rate reserves (euro assets) was mounting.
In particular, Swiss conservatives disliked the risk to which the SNB was exposed. Fearing that eurozone government bonds were unsafe, they agitated to require the SNB to acquire gold reserves instead, even forcing a referendum on the matter. Though the initiative to require a fixed share of gold reserves failed, the prospect of large-scale quantitative easing by the European Central Bank, together with the euro’s recent slide against the dollar, intensified the political pressure to abandon the peg.
Whereas economists have modeled financial attacks well, there has been little study of just when political pressure becomes unbearable and a central bank gives in. The SNB, for example, had proclaimed loyalty to the peg just days before ending it. As a result, markets will now hesitate to believe central banks’ statements about future policy, and forward guidance (a major post-crisis instrument) will be much more difficult.
There is historical precedent for the victory of political pressure, and for the recent Swiss action. In the late 1960s, the Bundesbank had to buy dollar assets in order to stop the Deutsche mark from rising, and to preserve the integrity of its fixed exchange rate. The discussion in Germany focused on the risks to the Bundesbank’s balance sheet, as well as on the inflationary pressures that came from the currency peg. Some German conservatives at the time would have liked to buy gold, but the Bundesbank had promised the Fed that it would not put the dollar under downward pressure by selling its reserves for gold.
In 1969, Germany unilaterally revalued the Deutsche mark. But that was not enough to stop inflows of foreign currency, and the Bundesbank was obliged to continue to intervene. It continued to reduce its interest rate, but the inflows persisted. In May 1971, the German government – against the wishes of the Bundesbank – abandoned the dollar peg altogether and floated the currency.
This seems basically right to me, but I would point out a key difference between the 1971 episode and last week’s debacle. In 1971, the US was mired in the Vietnam War and an unstable domestic situation; to many observers, the US seemed to be in danger of a political crisis. US inflation was running at 4% a year, and its economy, just emerging from a recession, seemed in danger of stagnating. Germany, accumulating huge reserves of dollars, correctly viewed its own inflation rate of 4% as being imported from America. Totally dependent on the US for defense against the Soviet threat, Germany was in no position to demand that the US redeem its dollar obligations in gold. Given the deep German aversion to inflation, it was indeed politically impossible for the German government not to use its only available means of reducing inflation: allowing the deutschmark to appreciate against the dollar. It is much harder to identify any economic disadvantage that Switzerland has been suffering since it adopted the euro peg in 2011 that is in any way comparable to the pain of the 4% inflation that Germany had to tolerate in 1971 as a result of its dollar peg.