Macklem Says Central Bank Speak Needs to Be Simple to Maintain Public Trust

August 27, 2020 Updated: August 28, 2020

OTTAWA—The head of the Bank of Canada made an international pitch to his fellow central bankers on Thursday to forge closer ties with average citizens to manage economic expectations through the pandemic, or risk losing public trust, and face an existential crisis.

Speaking remotely at an annual gathering usually hosted in Jackson Hole, Wyo., governor Tiff Macklem said maintaining trust is key for monetary policy officials during the economic downturn caused by COVID-19, as well as for rebuilding efforts once the pandemic passes.

He pointed to declining trust in public institutions and experts, as well as the rise of political populism in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis as trends central bankers cannot brush off.

Throw in online misinformation and conspiracy theories and Macklem argued it is now more important for central banks to be trusted, independent sources when they have rates near-zero and are using unconventional policy tools in co-ordination with government aid.

For the Bank of Canada, that has meant a foray into what’s known as quantitative easing, which is a way for central banks to push money into the economy to encourage lending and investment.

In his prepared remarks, Macklem said central bankers shouldn’t sound like “oracles delivering messages from an ivory tower” but be clear about what they are doing, and why.

“The imperative is to step boldly beyond market transparency and engage with the public to explain how our actions serve our economy-wide objectives,” Macklem said on the panel organized by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

“This means listening to more people, understanding their perceptions—accurate or not—factoring in broader public views into our policy decisions and communicating with people on their terms, not ours.”

The virtual remarks capped days of messages from the Bank of Canada about reaching a broader audience as it reviews the foundation of its policy decisions.

The foundation for some 25 years as been targeting an annual inflation rate of 2 percent, and adjusting its key interest rate to keep prices and the economy steady. The path of the bank’s policy rate influences the rates charged for loans and mortgages, for example.

Macklem’s American counterpart told the summit that the U.S. rate will stay low even if inflation passes the 2-percent threshold. The idea of striving for an average inflate rate over multiple years rather than annually is something the Bank of Canada is considering.

U.S. Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell made clear the policy change reflects that high inflation no longer appears to pose a serious threat to the economy, even when unemployment is low and the economy is growing strongly.

Consultations on the changes required the central bank to “actively engage and explain ourselves as clearly as possible” to the public and politicians, said Powell.

Inflation rates have collapsed as economic restrictions were been put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, and price increases overall are expected to stay low this year and next.

Macklem noted that Canadians’ perception is that prices are going up. They are spending less on things that cost less, like gasoline and travel, and more on things where prices are rising, like food.

“It is more essential than ever that household inflation expectations remain anchored on our target, so we can lower real interest rates,” Macklem said.

The bank has slashed its key rate to 0.25 percent, which is as low as it will go and where Macklem says it will stay until the economy rebounds. The pronouncement provided a forward-looking statement to markets and marked a shift from Macklem’s predecessor, Stephen Poloz.

“Communications, however, have considerable room for improvement in terms of matters like consistency, clarity, more openness, less aloofness, and more consideration of alternative views,” Scotiabank’s Derek Holt wrote in a note.

“Just a few weeks into the job, Macklem’s move is encouraging in this regard.”

In his talk Thursday, Macklem said central banks can’t keep talking to what a Bank of England official labelled “MEN”—markets, economists and news services.

He noted that the Bank of Canada’s online plain-language guide to the economy and social media posts are getting twice as many views than before the pandemic. Traditional content like speeches and policy reports has seen an increase in traffic of over 10 percent, Macklem said.

By Jordan Press