Group Therapy

Pop quiz:  which U.S. policymaker said last week: “We can’t solve everyone else’s problems anymore” in response to foreign criticism of U.S. handling of what issue?

a—Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, responding to criticism by foreign central bankers of the Fed’s tapering of its asset purchases;

b—Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, following denunciations of the refusal of the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that would enable IMF quota reform;

c—an anonymous White House aide, defending the Obama  administration’s  response to the turmoil in the Ukraine.

The correct response is c. But Ms. Yellen and Mr. Lew, who are attending the conference of G20 finance ministers and central bank heads in Sydney, might be forgiven if they held similar (but unspoken) sentiments.

The Federal Reserve has been criticized for not coordinating its policies with its peer institutions, particularly in those emerging markets that have had capital outflows and declines in equity market prices. But the critics have not spelled out precisely what they believe the Federal Reserve should do (or not do), given its assessment of the state of the U.S. economy. Domestic central banks respond to domestic conditions. In some cases, those conditions are linked to the global economy, and a central banker who ignored those linkages would only be postponing the implementation of stronger measures. But is that the case here?

The IMF came the closest to offering a specific criticism:

Advanced economies should avoid premature withdrawal of monetary accommodation as fiscal balances continue consolidating. Given still large output gaps, very low inflation, and ongoing fiscal consolidation, monetary policy should remain accommodative in advanced economies. There is scope for better cooperation on unwinding UMP, including through wider central bank discussions of exit plans.

Does anyone think that the Federal Reserve no longer intends to “remain accommodative”?Are more discussions the only missing element of the Federal Reserve’s plans? That would be surprising, since central bankers have many opportunities to speak to each other, and usually do.

The IMF did not let the emerging market countries off the hook:

In emerging market economies, credible macroeconomic policies and frameworks, alongside exchange rate flexibility, are critical to weather turbulence. Further monetary policy tightening in the context of strengthened policy frameworks is necessary where inflation is still relatively high or where policy credibility has come into question. Priority should also be given to shoring up fiscal policy credibility where it is lacking; subsequently buffers should be built to provide space for counter-cyclical policy action. Exchange rate flexibility should continue to facilitate external adjustment, particularly where currencies are overvalued, while FX intervention— where reserves are adequate—can be used to smooth excessive volatility or prevent financial disruption.

Critics are on firmer grounds when they criticize the U.S. for not passing the necessary legislation to change the IMF’s quota allocations. But perhaps they should not take their annoyance out on Mr. Lew. The U.S. Congress did not approve the needed measures for a number of reasons, none of them particularly compelling. Mr. Lew would be delighted to see the situation change, but that is unlikely to happen.

What, then, can be done at the G20 meeting? If allowing everyone to voice her or his frustrations with the U.S. serves some useful purpose, then all the air miles on the flights to Sydney will have been earned. Perhaps IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde can serve as mediator/therapist. But before everyone piles on, it may be worth reflecting that the Federal Reserve is not the only central bank with policy initiatives that may ripple across national borders.