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What is Monetary Policy?

What is Monetary Policy?

Monetary policy, not to be confused with fiscal policy, is the use of monetary authority to control the supply and availability of money.

Monetary policy is one of the tools that a national government uses to influence its economy. Using its monetary authority to control the supply and availability of money, a government attempts to influence the overall level of economic activity in line with its political and economic objectives. Usually this goal is “macroeconomic stability” – low unemployment, low inflation, economic growth and a balance of external payments. Monetary policy is usually administered by a government appointed “Central Bank,”such as the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve Bank (the “Fed”) in the United States.

The specific monetary policy objective of the bank of Canada is “to preserve the value of money by keeping inflation low, stable and predictable.” The Bank of Canada targets a rate of inflation of 1% to 3% with a mid-point target of 2%. The policy mandate of the Fed in the U.S. is somewhat different, and entails a more balanced approach. Specifically, the U.S. Congress established the following monetary policy objectives in the Federal Reserve Act: maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.

Central banks have not always existed. In early economies, governments would supply currency by minting precious metals with their stamp. No matter what the creditworthiness of the government, the worth of the currency depended on the value of its underlying precious metal. A coin was worth its gold or silver content, as it could always be melted down to this. A country’s worth and economic clout was largely dependent on its holdings of gold and silver in the national treasury. Monarchs, despots and even democrats tried to skirt this inviolate law by filing down their coinage or mixing in other substances to make more coins out of the same amount of gold or silver. They were inevitably found out by the traders, money lenders and others who depended on the worth of that currency. This is the reason that movies show pirates and thieves biting Spanish dubloons to ascertain the value of their booty and loot.

The advent of paper money during the industrial revolution meant that it wasn’t too difficult for a country to alter its amount of money in circulation. Instead of gold, all that was needed to produce more banknotes was paper, ink and a printing press. Because of the skepticism of all concerned, paper money was backed by a “promise to pay” upon demand. A holder of a “pound sterling” note of the United Kingdom could actually demand his pound of silver! When gold became the de facto backing of the world’s currency a “gold standard” was developed where nations kept sufficient gold to back their “promises to pay” in their national treasuries. The problem with this standard was that a nation’s economic health depended on its holdings of gold. When the treasury was bare, the currency was worthless.

In the 1800s, even commercial banks in Canada and the United States issued their own banknotes, backed by their promises to pay in gold. Since they could lend more than they had to hold in reserves to meet their depositers demands, they actually could create money. This inevitably led to “runs” on banks when they could not meet their depositers demands and were bankrupt. The same happened to smaller countries. Even the United States Treasury had to be rescued by JP Morgan several times during this period. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, countries legislated their exclusive monopoly to issue currency and banknotes. This was in response to “financial panics” and bank insolvencies. This meant that all currency was issued and controlled by national governments, although they still maintained gold reserves to support their currencies. Commercial banks still could create money by lending more than their depositors had placed with the bank, but they no longer had the right to issue banknotes.

Modern Monetary Policy

Modern central banking dates back to the aftermath of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Governments, led by the economic thinking of John Maynard Keynes, realized that collapsing money supply and credit availability greatly contributed to the savagery of this depression. This realization that money supply affected economic activity led to active government attempts to influence money supply through “monetary policy”. At this time, nations created central banks to establish “monetary authority”. This meant that rather than accepting whatever happened to money supply, they would actively try to influence the amount of money available. This would influence credit creation and the overall level of economic activity.

A government attempts to influence the overall level of economic activity in line with its political and economic objectives.

Modern monetary policy does not involve gold to a great extent. In 1968, the United States rescinded its promise to pay in gold and effectively removed itself from the “gold standard”. Since then, developed economies have adopted a floating exchange rate system, which effectively allows individual countries to pursue their economic objectives through independent monetary policy.

Central banks implement monetary policy primarily by fixing short-term interest rates and controlling the amount of money and credit available in an economy. For example, if inflation in a country is running high, the central bank may choose to increase interest rates to reduce the amount of credit available in the economy, ultimately acting to slow inflation. Conversely, when unemployment is high and inflation low, the central bank would typically lower rates to stimulate economic activity. This might sound easy, but it is a complex task in an information age where huge amounts of money travels in electronic signals in microseconds around the world.

Operations of a Modern Central Bank

The Central Bank attempts to achieve economic stability by varying the quantity of money in circulation, the cost and availability of credit and the composition of a country’s national debt. The Central Bank has three instruments available to it in order to implement monetary policy:

  • Open market operations
  • Reserve requirements
  • The ‘Discount Window’

Open market operations are just that — the buying or selling of Government bonds by the Central Bank in the open market. If the Central Bank were to buy bonds, the effect would be to expand the money supply and hence lower interest rates. The opposite is true if bonds are sold. This is the most widely used instrument in the day-to-day control of the money supply due to its ease of use, and the relatively smooth interaction it has with the economy as a whole.

Reserve requirements are a percentage of commercial banks’, and other depository institutions’, demand deposit liabilities (i.e. chequing accounts) that must be kept on deposit at the Central Bank as a requirement of Banking Regulations. Though seldom used, this percentage may be changed by the Central Bank at any time, thereby affecting the money supply and credit conditions. If the reserve requirement percentage is increased, this would reduce the money supply by requiring a larger percentage of the banks, and depository institutions, demand deposits to be held by the Central Bank, thus taking them out of supply. An increase in reserve requirements would increase interest rates, as less currency would be available to borrowers. This type of action is only performed occasionally as it affects money supply in a major way. Altering reserve requirements is not merely a short-term corrective measure, but a long-term shift in the money supply.

Lastly, the Discount Window is where the commercial banks, and other depository institutions, are able to borrow reserves from the Central Bank at a discount rate. This rate is usually set below short term market rates (T-bills). This enables the institutions to vary credit conditions (i.e., the amount of money they have to loan out), thereby affecting the money supply. It is of note that the Discount Window is the only instrument the Central Banks do not have total control over.

By affecting the money supply, it is theorized, that monetary policy can establish ranges for inflation, unemployment, interest rates and economic growth. A stable financial environment is created in which savings and investment can occur, allowing for the growth of the economy as a whole.

Enter the Era of Quantitative Easing

As the complexity of national economies increased in the past several decades, central banks also increased the size and scope of policy tools at their disposal. Following the credit crisis of 2008-2010, the United States embarked on a new path, to be followed by many other countries, of employing a monetary policy tool know as quantitative easing to help stimulate the economy.

The Fed first tried reducing interest rates to near zero, but that traditional approach wasn’t boosting employment levels. It then turned to quantitative easing techniques to try to return the economy to full employment.

Quantitative easing involves the purchase of government securities, like U.S. Treasury Bills, of different maturities, while at the same time increasing the monetary base. This is intended to stimulate the economy and help restore it to full employment.

Quantitative easing is a much more aggressive form of traditional ‘open market operations’, whereby a central bank attempts to manipulate the entire yield curve, rather than just short term interest rates. By ‘bidding up’ the value of government securities, the Fed was attempting to stimulate the economy by putting more money into the hands of investors.

The Effectiveness of Monetary Policy

Economists debate the relevant measures of money supply. “Narrow” money supply or M1 is currency in circulation and the currency in easily accessed chequing and savings accounts. “Broader” money supply measures such as M2 and M3 include term deposits and even money market mutual funds. Economists debate the finer points of the implementation and effectiveness of monetary policy, but one thing is obvious. At the extremes, monetary policy is a potent force. In countries such as the Russian Republic, Poland or Brazil where the printing presses run full tilt to pay for government operations, money supply is expanding rapidly and the currency becomes rapidly worthless compared to goods and services it can buy. Very high levels of inflation or “hyperinflation” is the result. With 30-40% monthly inflation rates, citizens buy hard goods as soon as they receive payment in the currency and those on fixed income have their investments rendered worthless.

The effectiveness of quantitative easing has yet to proven in a definitive way, and the exit from quantitative easing in particular is untested, which creates a great deal of uncertainty. In essence, quantitative easing is a form of printing money, which has had disastrous results in the past – the Weimar Republic (now Germany) in the early 1920’s, and more recently in Zimbabwe, where in 2008 it took a trillion dollar bill to buy a loaf of bread. But the argument for quantitative easing in developed markets is that it will be used as a monetary policy tool to help stimulate the economy without driving inflation up to materially higher levels.

At the other extreme, restrictive monetary policy has shown its effectiveness with considerable force. Germany, because of its experience with hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic, never forgot the damage it can do to an economy and has maintained a very stable monetary regime since, resulting in low and stable levels of inflation. When Chairman Paul Volcker of the U.S. Federal Reserve applied the monetary brakes during the high inflation 1980s, the result was an economic downturn and a large drop in inflation. The Bank of Canada, headed by John Crow, targeted 0-3% inflation in the early 1990s and curtailed economic activity to such an extent that Canada actually experienced negative inflation rates in several months for the first time since the 1930s.

Without much debate, the effectiveness of monetary policy, its timing and its eventual impacts on the economy are not obvious. That central banks attempt to influence the economy through monetary policy tools is a given. In any event, insights into monetary policy are very important to the investor. The availability of money and credit are key considerations in the pricing of an investment.