Judging by the number of times phrases such as “equitable growth” and “the distributional footprint of monetary policy” appear in central bankers’ speeches nowadays, it is clear that monetary policymakers are feeling the heat as concerns about the rise of inequality continue to grow. But is monetary policy to blame for this problem, and is it really the right tool for redistributing income?

Recently, a steady stream of commentaries has pointed to central-bank policy as a major driver of inequality. The logic, simply put, is that hyper-low interest rates have been relentlessly pushing up the prices of stocks, houses, fine art, yachts and just about everything else. The well-off, and especially the ultra-rich, thus benefit disproportionately.

This argument may seem compelling at first glance. But on deeper reflection, it does not hold up.

Inflation in advanced economies has been extremely low over the past decade (although it accelerated to 5.4% in the United States in June). When monetary policy is the main force pushing down interest rates, inflation will eventually rise. But, in recent times, the main factors causing interest rates to trend downward include aging populations, low productivity growth, rising inequality and a lingering fear that we live in an era where crises are more frequent. The latter, in particular, puts a premium on “safe debt” that will pay even in a global recession.

True, the U.S. Federal Reserve (or any central bank) could impulsively start increasing policy rates. This would “help” address wealth inequality by wreaking havoc on the stock market. If the Fed persisted with this approach, however, there would almost certainly be a huge recession, causing high unemployment among low-income workers. And the middle class could see the value of their homes or pension funds fall sharply.

Furthermore, the dollar’s global dominance makes emerging markets and developing countries extremely vulnerable to rising dollar interest rates, especially with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging. While the top 1% in advanced economies would lose money as one country after another was pushed to the brink of default, hundreds of millions of people in poor and lower-middle-income economies would suffer much more.

Many rich-country progressives, it seems, have little time for worrying about the  of the world’s population that lives outside the advanced economies and China. In fact, the same criticism applies to the burgeoning academic literature on monetary policy and inequality. Much of it is based on U.S. data and gives no thought to anyone outside America.

Still, it is useful to try to understand how, under different assumptions and circumstances, monetary policy might affect the distribution of wealth and income. It is possible that, as artificial intelligence advances and monetary policy becomes much more sophisticated, economists will find better metrics than employment to judge the stabilization properties of monetary policy. That would be a good thing.

Even today, central banks’ regulatory role means that they can certainly help at the margins in addressing inequality. In many countries, including Japan, banks are essentially required to provide very low-cost or free basic accounts to most low-income citizens. Oddly, this is not the case in the U.S., although the problem could be elegantly solved if and when the Fed issues a central bank digital currency.

First « 1 2 » Next