DAVID IGNATIUS: At central banks, the bill comes due

By David Ignatius

Because of the breakdown of political decision–making in the U.S. and Europe during the Great Recession, the burden of response has fallen largely on two big central banks: the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank. And down the road, they are going to pay for it.
The balance sheets of these institutions have ballooned as they’ve pumped out cash – adding so many new obligations that some economists worry the central banks may be sowing the seeds of the next financial crisis. And there’s a policy mismatch: Using the finely tuned monetary system in a blunt–force effort to bolster the global economy has been a bit like using a gold watch to pound a nail.
The ECB in particular has added assets over the past year, expanding its portfolio by more than 1.1 trillion euros since July 2011. This explosion of assets makes the ECB’s balance sheet (totaling about 3.1 trillion euros, or $3.8 trillion) considerably larger than the Fed’s (about $2.8 trillion).
Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chairman, finds the eurozone’s problems deeply worrying. “The trend is unrelenting,” says Greenspan, noting that the ECB has been adding more than $100 billion a month to its ledger over the past year after a prolonged period of stability.
What the ECB is essentially doing is lending to eurozone banks (to fund sovereign bondholdings) and paying with checks written on the ECB. That puts euros into the system and eases the short–term crisis. But at some point, when the economy begins to pick up, the ECB (and the Fed, too) will have to tighten monetary policy, which could mean a very sharp rise in interest rates and/or inflation.
Compared to the feckless politicians in Europe and America, the central bankers have been heroes: Ben Bernanke at the Fed and Mario Draghi at the ECB have found creative ways to prop up sagging commercial banks, provide liquidity for markets and keep interest rates low through their very large purchases of debt, a process known as “quantitative easing.”
But skeptics argue that central bankers can’t be “lone rangers.”
Here’s how the Bank for International Settlements, the normally cautious clearinghouse for central banks, stated it in an unusually frank annual report issued last month: “Simply put: central banks are being cornered into prolonging monetary stimulus as governments drag their feet …” The report warned of “wasteful support of effectively insolvent borrowers and banks.”
The credibility issue is important because the Fed and ECB have been the most reliable policy anchors since the global financial crisis began in October 2008.
But even Bernanke, in congressional testimony last week, appeared wary of adding to the Fed’s portfolio with another round of quantitative easing. And House Republicans cautioned that, as Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas put it, “there are limits to what monetary policy can achieve.”
The global system needs growth, but through reforms that open markets and encourage new investment and jobs, rather than from a monetary system on steroids. And enough talk about “austerity,” with its implicit moral tone of repentance. What’s needed is solvency.
Financial traders sometimes caution each other that during a downturn in the market, “don’t try to be a hero.” Central bankers have waived that rule over the past four years in trying to rescue the system when other policymakers failed to act. But heroism can become a liability, as the ballooning balance sheets show.
David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.