Soaring debt levels caused by the Covid-19 crisis could lead to governments putting pressure on central banks to tolerate higher inflation by holding down interest rates, the Bank for International Settlements has warned.
The BIS, an international body representing central banks that promotes monetary and financial stability, said there was a risk of a “fundamental change” in attitudes to inflation and a return to the approach to running the economy taken after the second world war.
In its annual economic report, the BIS said it was important central banks be able to operate free from political direction. It said different attitudes to inflation could emerge if a lengthy pandemic were “to leave a much larger imprint on the economy and the political sphere.
“In this world, public sector debt would be much higher and the public sector’s grip on the economy much greater, while globalisation would be forced into a major retreat.”
As a result, the report added, workers would be able to secure higher wages, firms would be able to raise prices and governments could be tempted to allow rising inflation to reduce the real value of their debts.
“At that point, it would be critical that central banks should be able to operate independently to pursue their mandate in order to resist any possible pressures not to increase interest rates.”
The BIS’s general manager, Agustín Carstens, described the pandemic as the “defining event of a generation”. He said the swift response of central banks had prevented a financial collapse from adding to the burdens of companies and households.
The BIS said that in the next phase of the crisis the focus would move from liquidity – making sure firms had enough cash to operate – to solvency, where the long-term viability of many companies would be tested. Monetary policy, the job of central banks, was critical in addressing illiquidity but badly suited to dealing with insolvency, because central banks could lend but not spend.
“Central banks are fully aware of the challenges ahead as the outlook for the world economy is still highly uncertain,” Carstens said. “Some of these challenges extend beyond their mandate. Monetary policy alone cannot be the engine of growth.”