“Central banks’ legitimacy matters most when the stakes are highest. Everyday monetary-policy decisions are, to put it mildly, unlikely to excite the passions of the masses”
Technology is now reaching the point where a common digital currency, enabled by near-universal mobile phone adoption, certainly makes this possible. And however farfetched a global currency may sound, recall that before World War I, ditching the gold standard seemed equally implausible.
The current system is both risky and inefficient. Different monies are not only a nuisance for tourists who arrive home with pockets full of unspendable foreign coins. Global firms waste time and resources on largely futile efforts to hedge currency risk (benefiting only the banks that act as middlemen).
The benefits of ridding the world of national currencies would be enormous. In one fell swoop, the risk of currency wars, and the harm they can inflict on the world economy, would be eliminated. Pricing would be more transparent, and consumers could spot anomalies (from their phones) and shop for the best deals. And, by eliminating foreign-exchange transactions and hedging costs, a single currency would reinvigorate stalled world trade and improve the efficiency of global capital allocation.
In short, the current state of affairs is the by-product of the superseded era of the nation-state. Globalisation has shrunk the dimensions of the world economy, and the time for a world central bank has arrived.
Dream on. A single world currency is in fact neither likely nor desirable.
Central banks, while ideally independent from political influence, are nonetheless accountable to the body politic. They owe their legitimacy to the political process that created them, rooted in the will of the citizenry they were established to serve (and from which they derive their authority).
The history of central banking, though comparatively brief, suggests that democratically derived legitimacy is possible only at the level of the nation-state. At the supranational level, legitimacy remains highly questionable, as the experience of the eurozone amply demonstrates. Only if the European Union’s sovereignty eclipses, by democratic choice, that of the nation-states that comprise it will the European Central Bank have the legitimacy it requires to remain the eurozone’s sole monetary authority.
But the same political legitimacy cannot be imagined for any transatlantic or trans-Pacific monetary authority, much less a global one. Treaties between countries can harmonise rules governing commerce and other areas. But they cannot transfer sovereignty over an institution as powerful as a central bank or a symbol as compelling as paper money.
Central banks’ legitimacy matters most when the stakes are highest. Everyday monetary-policy decisions are, to put it mildly, unlikely to excite the passions of the masses. The same cannot be said of the less frequent need (one hopes) for the monetary authority to act as lender of last resort to commercial banks and even to the government. As we have witnessed in recent years, such interventions can be the difference between financial chaos and collapse and mere retrenchment and recession. And only central banks, with their ability to create freely their own liabilities, can play this role.
Yet the tough decisions that central banks must make in such circumstances – preventing destabilising runs versus encouraging moral hazard – are simultaneously technocratic