The tasks and limitations of monetary policy

Speech delivered by Christian Noyer Vice-President of the European Central Bank, at the Volkswirtschaftliche Tagung of the Oesterreichische Nationalbank, on 10 June 1999 in Vienna

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to be here in Vienna today and I should like to start by thanking the conference organisers for giving me the opportunity to elaborate on the tasks and limitations of monetary policy.

This topic is extremely important. Looking back over the history of economic thought, it is clear that the perception of what monetary policy can do and what it cannot or should not do has changed. This has clearly shaped the role of monetary policy in economic policy. In the 1960s economic theories suggested a long-run trade-off between inflation and output. These theories provided the intellectual basis for policy-makers to pursue monetary policies biased towards higher inflation. The high inflation experience of the 1970s together with new theoretical findings, especially on the role of expectations, led policy-makers to move towards lowering and stabilising inflation.

Theoretical considerations as well as empirical evidence over several decades suggest that high rates of inflation are clearly unhelpful - indeed detrimental - to growth and employment in the long term. A large number of economic arguments point to the benefits of price stability for economic growth and employment prospects. Stable prices eliminate economic costs such as those arising from unnecessary uncertainty about the outcome of investment decisions, the distortionary effects on the tax system, rising risk premia in long-term interest rates and the reduced allocative effectiveness of the price and market systems. To quote Alan Greenspan, chairman of the United States Federal Reserve, "Price stability is achieved when the public no longer takes account of actual or prospective inflation in its decision-making." Monetary policy must take into account the fact that the horizon for decisions by economic agents is rather long-term in nature. By guaranteeing price stability, monetary policy supports the efficient functioning of the price mechanism, which is conducive to the allocation of scarce resources. Price stability is a means of promoting sustainable economic growth and employment creation and of improving productivity levels and living standards.

Against this background, the predominant view has emerged that the best and most lasting contribution that monetary policy can make to long-term economic welfare in the broader sense is that of safeguarding price stability. Central banks throughout the world have been moving towards adopting long-term price stability as their primary goal.

In order to achieve this goal most successfully, independence from political interference and a clear legal mandate for price stability are of the utmost importance. A lack of central bank independence and an ambiguous mandate can easily force central banks to focus on the short term and, thus, fail to adopt the forward-looking, medium-term orientation that is crucial for a successful monetary strategy.

All these issues were taken into consideration by policy-makers when drafting the Treaty establishing the European Community and designing the blueprint for the European Central Bank. Both central bank independence and an unequivocal commitment to price stability are therefore tenets of the monetary policy framework enshrined in the Treaty. There can be no doubt that the European Central Bank (ECB) is determined and well-equipped to tackle its main task, namely, that of maintaining price stability in the euro area over the medium term. It will thereby make a significant contribution to the achievement of other Community objectives such as high employment and sustainable non-inflationary growth. In this connection, the pursuit of sound macroeconomic policies by the EU Member States would considerably facilitate the task of the ECB. The room for manoeuvre in monetary policy and the degree of success in terms of maintaining price stability are crucially dependent on the support of sound fiscal policies and responsible wage settlements in the euro area.

The Treaty establishing the European Community states that the primary objective of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB) is to maintain price stability. Without prejudice to this objective, the ESCB shall support the general economic policies in the European Community. It shall operate in a manner that is consistent with the establishment of free and competitive markets. The Treaty states explicitly how the ESCB shall set its priorities. Price stability is the first goal of the monetary policy of the Eurosystem, and a contribution to the achievement of the other objectives of the European Community can only be made if this primary objective is not compromised. However, there is ultimately no incompatibility between maintaining price stability and pursuing these other objectives. By maintaining price stability, the ECB will also contribute to the achievement of other Community objectives.

Of course, the ECB is concerned about the intolerably high level of unemployment in Europe, but we should realise that the role of monetary policy in reducing unemployment in Europe can only be very limited. Many empirical studies show that the high unemployment rate is mostly the consequence of structural rigidities within the European labour and product markets. The European unemployment rate has, indeed, been high and stable over the business cycles in the past decade. Only structural reforms, preferably of a comprehensive nature, can therefore tackle the underlying impediments to employment growth.

The monetary policy of the Eurosystem is geared towards the euro area as a whole and, thus, cannot take into account purely national and regional developments. The cyclical positions of participating countries have not yet completely converged, although, with the single currency in place, some national differences may disappear over time. This requires national policies and labour and goods markets to be increasingly flexible in order to be able to respond effectively to economic shocks. Well-functioning labour and product markets are therefore needed to allow adjustments to wages and prices to be made if local economic conditions change.

Budgetary policies play a major role in conditioning monetary policy. National fiscal authorities have to demonstrate their commitment to the maintenance of price stability in the euro area over the medium term. In this context, the Stability and Growth Pact is a crucial element. Its aim is to encourage the pursuit of disciplined and sustainable fiscal policies by the participating EU Member States and the prospective members. Sound public finances, with lower public debt and tax burdens, contribute to a lowering of long-term interest rates, reduce uncertainty and increase private capital formation. They not only facilitate the task of monetary policy with regard to the maintenance of price stability, but also strengthen the conditions for sustainable growth conducive to employment creation. Conversely, unsound fiscal policies tend to increase inflation expectations and force monetary policy to keep short-term rates higher than would otherwise be necessary.

The single monetary policy has to be conducted independently of the short-term political considerations of national governments. In this context, the ECB cannot commit itself to move its interest rates in a certain way in response to specific actions or plans of other policy-makers. Monetary policy has to take into account the overall economic situation to assess the risks to price stability. Direct ex ante co-ordination with fiscal authorities might endanger meeting the primary objective and would set the wrong incentives for the conduct of sound macroeconomic policies. This does not, of course, exclude a constructive dialogue between the Eurosystem and government authorities which clearly respects the independence of the ECB.

When dealing with one of the major world currencies and with the currency of one of the two main world economies, it is inconceivable that price stability might be maintained by setting an exchange rate target as an intermediate objective. However, external developments including the exchange rate are taken into account in accordance with our strategy, as they may have an impact on domestic economic developments and thereby on price stability. Referring to recent exchange rate developments in this context, it is appropriate for me to quote the President of the ECB, Dr. W. F. Duisenberg, who recently said that "the euro is a currency firmly based on internal price stability, and therefore has a clear potential for a stronger external value".

The absence of exchange rate targets for the euro vis-à-vis other major currencies should not be misunderstood. For smaller, very open economies, fixed exchange rates may be a very reasonable choice. The Austrian example is one of the most prominent in this respect. By pegging the Austrian schilling to the Deutsche mark for over twenty years, it proved possible to import credibility and price stability. The increasingly close pegging of the Austrian currency to the currency of its main trading partner was, among other features of the Austrian policy mix, the driving force behind the economic convergence process in the run-up to Stage Three of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). The credibility of the Austrian exchange rate target was also underpinned by an income policy aiming at relatively high real wage flexibility and a fiscal policy geared towards consolidation. All in all, the Austrian model, which set out to guarantee stability in nominal and real terms, has turned out to be very successful.

The example given by past Austrian experience is, I believe, very valuable. It shows that the achievement of sustainable convergence with the euro area can be assisted by means of an exchange rate target. The new Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Union, ERM II, may play a similar role for those current and prospective EU Member States which have not yet joined Stage Three of EMU.

The achievement of price stability is also of high importance for the stability of the financial system. The financial system of the euro area showed a high degree of stability during last year's period of financial turbulence as well as during the rather dramatic structural shift connected to the changeover to the euro. At the ECB, we play our part in the evolution of the euro area financial system by providing it with stable monetary conditions. By creating an environment of price stability, we allow private sector agents to focus their attention on the questions that are most relevant to their activities and to take advantage of benefits of this stable environment, such as the lengthening of their planning horizons. There is a lot of empirical evidence that safeguarding price stability is the optimal contribution that a central bank can make to the maintenance of financial stability and that those two goals are actually complementary.

I should like to conclude by saying that the main contribution of the single monetary policy to the welfare of the people in the euro area will be the maintenance of price stability in the medium term. The ECB is determined to tackle this task and is well-equipped to do so. Our conviction is that the economic performance of the euro area will benefit significantly from price stability. This will ultimately facilitate the achievement of those objectives, which underlie the general economic policies of the European Community and the individual governments at the national level. However, the economic problems in the euro area cannot be tackled by monetary policy alone. We have to be realistic about the goals which can be achieved by monetary policy. Neglecting the limitations of monetary policy and promising too much could, in the long term, be detrimental to the establishment of a stability culture in Europe, and could also lead to delays in implementing the economic reforms that are crucial to achieving high growth and employment.

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