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date: 24 June 2018

Summary and Keywords

The first CBs were private institutions that were given a monopoly over the issuance of currency by government in return for help in financing the budget and adherence to the rules of the gold standard. Under this standard the price of gold in terms of currency was fixed and the CB could issue or retire domestic currency only in line with gold inflows or outflows. Due to the scarcity of gold this system assured price stability as long as it functioned. Wars and depressions led to the replacement of the gold standard by the more flexible gold exchange standard. Along with restrictions on international capital flows this standard became a major pillar of the post–WWII Bretton Woods system. Under this system the U.S. dollar (USD) was pegged to gold, and other countries’ exchange rates were pegged to the USD. In many developing economies CBs functioned as governmental development banks.

Following the world inflation of the 1970s and the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971, eradication of inflation gradually became the explicit number one priority of CBs. The hyperinflationary experiences of the first half of the 20th century, which were mainly caused by over-utilization of the printing press to finance budgetary expenditures, convinced policymakers in developed economies, following Germany’s lead, that the conduct of monetary policy should be delegated to instrument independent CBs, that governments should be prohibited from borrowing from them, and that the main goal of the CB should be price stability. During the late 1980s and the 1990s numerous CBs obtained instrument independence and started to operate on inflation targeting systems. Under this system the CB is expected to use interest rate policy to deliver a low inflation rate in the long run and to stabilize fluctuations in economic activity in the short and medium terms. In parallel the fixed exchange rates of the Bretton Woods system were replaced by flexible rates or dirty floats. The conjunction of more flexible rates and IT effectively moved the control over exchange rates from governments to CBs.

The global financial crisis reminded policymakers that, of all public institutions, the CB has a comparative advantage in swiftly preventing the crisis from becoming a generalized panic that would seriously cripple the financial system. The crisis precipitated the financial stability motive into the forefront of CBs’ policy concerns and revived the explicit recognition of the lender of last resort function of the CB in the face of shocks to the financial system. Although the financial stability objective appeared in CBs’ charters, along with the price stability objective, also prior to the crisis, the crisis highlighted the critical importance of the supervisory and regulatory functions of CBs and other regulators. An important lesson from the crisis was that micro-prudential supervision and regulation should be supplemented with macro-prudential regulation and that the CB is the choice institution to perform this function. The crisis led CBs of major developed economies to reduce their policy rates to zero (and even to negative values in some cases) and to engage in large-scale asset purchases that bloat their balance sheets to this day. It also induced CBs of small open economies to supplement their interest rate policies with occasional foreign exchange interventions.

Keywords: gold standard, monetary independence, inflation targeting, macro-prudential, zero lower bound, quantitative easing

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