Draghi, in rare move, sounds concern over Fed’s independence

‘Central banks ought to be left free to choose what is the best way to comply with’ their mandates, the ECB president says

FRANKFURT • European Central Bank (ECB) president Mario Draghi (picture) took the rare step of weighing in on the hot debate over whether US President Donald Trump is undermining the independence of the US Federal Reserve (Fed).

Speaking to reporters at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) meetings in Washington, Draghi said on Saturday he is “certainly worried about central bank independence” and especially “in the most important jurisdiction in the world”.

Draghi’s intervention is notable, given central bankers are usually loath to comment on politics or events in economies other than their own.

He was later seen in conversation in the IMF headquarters with Fed chairman Jerome Powell, who Trump has frequently accused of not doing enough to stoke the US economy.

How free central banks are from political meddling has been a key theme on the sidelines of the IMF talks, which took place as Trump looks to nominate two political loyalists to the Fed’s Board of Governors — former pizza executive Herman Cain and Stephen Moore, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Politicians from Turkey to India have also been accused of seeking to sway their monetary policymakers in the hope they will act to spur demand. The risk is that investors begin to doubt the dedication of such authorities to fighting inflation, pushing up market interest rates and potentially sapping the growth that governments want to see.

“If the central bank is not independent, then people may well think that monetary policy decisions follow political advice, rather than objective assessments of the economic outlook,” Draghi said.

“Central banks ought to be left free to choose what is the best way to comply with” their mandates.

Also on Saturday, when asked at a press briefing about the Fed candidates and other pressures on central banks, IMF MD Christine Lagarde said for such institutions, “independence has served them well over the course of time and, hopefully, will continue to do so”.

South African Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago and Swiss National Bank president Thomas Jordan both made the point that central banks are already held accountable by virtue of the goals they are set by legislatures.

“The clearer the mandate of a central bank, the easier it is to hold a central bank accountable,” Kganyago said.

Jordan said “central bank independence is extremely important” and that he’s “convinced that central banks should stick to a relatively narrow mandate. Both go together”.

Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz argued that too much is expected of central banks after they successfully defeated the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent global recession.

“Somehow, we got to a point where people think central banks can do just about anything, which is not actually true,” Poloz said in Washington. “It’s a very imprecise business.”

Meanwhile, asked about Cain on Saturday, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters that he looked “forward to the Senate” reviewing the candidate.

He said Trump knew Cain “quite well” and that Moore had “made significant contributions” to the president’s tax plan. — Bloomberg