Central bank

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Headquarters of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt am Main
Headquarters of the US central banks in Washington, DC ( Eccles Building ).

A central bank (including central bank , central bank , central Reserve Bank or National Bank ) is a national or supranational institution, the most and to varying degrees independent money - and monetary fulfilled tasks. It has thereby usually about the monopoly , coins and paper money ( legal tender , monetary base ) issue .

In the central bank statutes of many countries, the main objective of monetary policy is to maintain price level and monetary value stability . In addition (or subordinate to the ECB, for example ), further macroeconomic goals such as economic growth , economic or exchange rate stability are to be pursued.

A central bank holds the currency reserve of a currency area , it regulates the money supply M1, influences the creation of money by lending the commercial banks and refinances them and the state. Central banks issue banknotes and put them into circulation .

In order to fulfill its goals and tasks, the central bank has a number of instruments at its disposal (essentially the control of the key interest rate and the minimum reserve ), which the various central banks use to varying degrees.

The degree of dependence of the central banks on other state institutions depends on the economic and political ties of the respective country. Since there are national and supranational currency areas, central banks can be found at the national level ( Federal Reserve System , Swiss National Bank , Bank of England etc.) and supranational (e.g. European Central Bank or BIS ).


According to Ulrich Bindseil, the usual understanding of central banks needs to be checked: the term is considered difficult to define, the Swedish Reichsbank and the Bank of England were considered the first real central banks, early central banks had no mandate for society as a whole and no public function, the early banks lacked a central bank - Understanding that they developed slowly from the commercial banks and that the central banks' main characteristic of being Lender of Last Resort today developed late.

In contrast to this, Bindseil sees three characteristic properties of all central banks: issuing money, state monopoly, goals for society as a whole ( public policy ).


16th to 18th century

All over the European continent in the 16th and 17th centuries there were small banks that minted their own coins . The right to do so was leased to them by government agencies. Most of these banks were private banks and thus private central banks . About minting developed list banks that note , cash instructions and later banknotes issued . These were receipts for coins and deposited precious metals that these banks took into custody. The receipts were used as a means of payment . They gave their owners the right to demand the release of the appropriate amount of coins from a bank obliged to do so at any time.

In 1609 the Amsterdam currency exchange bank was founded. It was the first institute in a network of public giro banks in Central and Southern Europe. This network included the Hamburg bank , the Banco Giro in Venice and the Nuremberg Banco Publico . The giro banks provided a public infrastructure for cashless international payments. This should increase the efficiency of trading and ensure monetary stability. The giro banks thus already fulfilled essential functions of modern central banks.

The Swedish Reichsbank is considered to be the oldest central bank still in existence today. In 1656 the Stockholms Banco was approved as a private institution by the Swedish government; nevertheless it was subject to strong state control. The government placed most of its assets in the bank. At the same time, she demanded that the resulting profits be shared with the city of Stockholm and the state.

Almost three decades later (1694) the Bank of England was founded. Like the Swedish Riksbank, the Bank of England was set up as a public company and its primary function was to lend money to the government. In return, it received privileges such as limited liability and restrictions were placed on its competitors (e.g. they could not have more than six financiers). Further central banks later emerged in Europe, primarily with the task of financing national debts.

Even if the main task of the early central banks was to be seen in the financing of the national debt, they carried out further banking business as private authorities. Because of their privileges, they soon assumed a dominant position. Other banks replaced their coin reserves with central bank notes. As part of their role as the banks' bank, the central banks managed accounts for other commercial banks and processed transactions between banks ( clearing ). Due to the associated function as a repository (for other banks), the central banks had large gold and silver reserves, but also a well-developed network of banks. These factors led to the central banks becoming the lender of last resort in financial crisis situations. that is, they provided cash to their customers in times of financial need.

19th century

Banking continued to develop in the 19th century. A driving factor in further developing the regulations were financial crises . After financial crises, the need was often seen to be more restrictive in banking. In most cases, this meant that the central banks had the sole right to issue banknotes. In order to ensure the conversion of the banknotes issued by the banks into coins or gold, the requirement developed to secure the banknotes first with coins and later with precious metals (gold, silver) ( cover obligation ). With the introduction of Peel's bank file in 1844, it was for the first time legally stipulated in England that all banknotes from the Bank of England must be fully backed by gold. This so-called gold standard was introduced in Great Britain in 1873 and adopted in most European countries. The introduction of the gold standard meant that the central banks held large gold reserves to cover their money holdings. The main goal that the central banks were striving to achieve was to ensure price stability . Over time, the amount of paper money clearly exceeded the amount of coins and precious metals (see Money Creation ). In 1914, in connection with the First World War, the gold cover requirement was lifted in many countries.

20./21. century

After World War I, when unemployment and price instability played a major role, central banks began to place more emphasis on maintaining economic equilibrium. This was particularly evident during the economic crisis from 1929 to 1933. Due to the two world wars in the first half of the 20th century, the main task of the central banks during this period was to provide financial resources to cover war expenses. After the Second World War , the state's influence on the central banks increased. The objectives of the central banks have been expanded to include promoting employment and income growth. The central banks thus became a main instrument for supporting state goals, which is sometimes referred to as a loss of their autonomy . Some banks, such as the Reserve Bank of India , have been nationalized. Others, like the Federal Reserve System , are considered institutionally independent, but still have to report on business to the government.

In fact, until the late 1980s, no central bank had set a numerical inflation target to support price stability. In the 1990s, however, more and more central banks set themselves an explicit inflation target. Such a target inflation rate is prescribed by the respective government for some central banks (such as the Bank of England). At present there is no uniform way of using the central banks with regard to numerical figures for price level stability.

Today central banks focus on three main goals that have evolved throughout history: price stability, economic equilibrium, and financial stability. At the moment, achieving these goals in view of the financial crisis since 2007 is proving to be quite difficult.


The establishment of central banks was often associated with the centralization of the monetary system and the creation of a single currency . Until then, the individual central banks had often issued their own currencies. In 1998, for example, the European Central Bank was established and the euro was created as the new European currency, instead of the central banks of the individual countries and national currencies.

Central Bank Objectives

The goals of the central bank are usually prescribed by law. In the developed countries, the main goal is to preserve the stability of the monetary value and price level . Often, further macroeconomic goals of monetary policy , such as economic growth , economic or exchange rate stability, are described in the respective central bank statutes. In countries with a pegged currency , the central banks are obliged to keep the rate of the currency medium stable by buying and selling the same.

The following table is intended to exemplify the goals set by law for some of the major central banks.

European Central Bank Bank of England Federal Reserve System (USA) Bank of Japan
  • Price stability
  • Support general economic policies in the Community without affecting price stability
  • Price stability (quantified by the Treasury )
  • Support the government's economic policy, including growth and employment targets (subject to price stability)
  • stable prices
  • Maximum level of employment
  • moderate long-term interest rates
  • Price stability and thus the contribution to the healthy development of the overall economy
Primary goal
  • Ensuring price stability
  • Ensuring price stability
no prioritization
  • Ensuring price stability

Debate about the goals of the central bank

What goals a central bank should pursue has long been a point of contention in the economic debate. The central question was whether there can be an exchange relationship between employment and inflation, as shown in the Phillips curve . Keynesians held the view that monetary policy can also influence growth and employment in the long term, while monetarists assume that monetary policy cannot have such effects and should therefore limit itself to ensuring price stability. As a result of the experience with stagflation in the 1970s, the monetarist perspective has largely prevailed, even if Keynesian voices are never completely silent. However, it is undisputed that an expansionary monetary policy leads to higher output and greater employment in the short term.

Functions and duties of the central bank

The legal regulations governing central banking differ considerably from country to country. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify four basic central bank functions on the basis of the central bank balance sheet.

assets liabilities

Holding the currency reserve

The currency reserves (position (1) of the central bank balance sheet) include the holdings of gold and gold receivables, as well as convertible currencies (exchangeable currencies). Convertible currencies include receivables in foreign currencies in the form of cash, bank balances, securities and foreign credits minus foreign liabilities in foreign currencies (net foreign receivables).

Bank of banks

The central bank is at the top of a country's banking system and offers commercial banks the opportunity to obtain central bank money from their central bank in order to process normal payment transactions smoothly, while commercial banks provide refinancing. Position (2) of the central bank balance sheet shows the same supply of central bank money to commercial banks. The opposite item to the refinancing transactions on the assets side is item (6) on the liabilities side of the central bank balance sheet, which represents the liabilities to commercial banks. Behind it are deposits of commercial banks in current accounts of the central bank, which are primarily minimum reserve balances and deposits of commercial banks from deposit facilities, i.e. That is, commercial banks deposit their excess liquidity reserves with the central bank. The central bank is also supposed to act as the last refinancing agency ( lender of last resort ) to provide liquidity in economic crisis situations in order to ward off a loss of confidence in the credit system and the banking system. However, this task can lead to a decrease in the private responsibility of commercial banks. Therefore, the provision of means of payment to cover the necessary requirements is only made at high interest rates. However, the central bank is only supposed to act as the last refinancing agency if the commercial banks are hit by a banking crisis through no fault of their own.

Public Sector Bank

In addition to the commercial banks, the state can still borrow from the central bank. In many cases, the central bank assists the public sector in financing its functions by granting loans. This is reflected in position (3) of the central bank balance sheet. In the European Union, direct financing of public debt by the ESCB is prohibited ( Art. 123 TFEU ). This is to prevent excessive indebtedness and maintain monetary stability. Furthermore, the central bank is involved in the cash management of the public sector and in this sense acts as the state's house bank, i. In other words, the state holds its balances predominantly with the central bank. These deposits are listed under item (7) on the central bank balance sheet. In addition, the central bank buys securities as part of open market operations in order to control the money supply. These holdings of securities are listed under item (4) on the central bank balance sheet.

Note issuance

Position (5) of the central bank balance sheet is a special feature of the central bank and indicates its monopoly on notes . The central bank has sole authority to issue banknotes and to put them into circulation ( banknote privilege ). Hence the “central bank” got its name. The banknotes in circulation are on the liabilities side of the central bank balance sheet and make it clear that banknotes represent claims on the central bank system in the balance sheet sense. The task of maintaining the quality of cash is derived from the banknote monopoly. That means weeding out counterfeit money and replacing damaged coins and banknotes.

Because of its monopoly on issuing banknotes, the central bank can never become illiquid domestically (in terms of its own currency) because it can create the means of payment itself. The risk of insolvency only exists in the foreign currency , as the central bank does not have the power to produce the foreign currency.

For historical reasons, in many countries the right to coin coins does not lie with the central banks, but with the governments. For example in the Eurosystem . Here, the monetary policy independence of the ECB is preserved by the fact that the issue of coins has to be approved by the ECB.

Central bank profit

In supplying the banks with central bank money, the central bank normally makes a profit. This is due to the fact that the central bank money issued to refinance the commercial banks on the liabilities side of the central bank balance sheet regularly bears or does not bear interest (e.g. cash), while the claims on the assets side generally bear interest. The resulting profit minus the other costs is a form of seigniorage . Central bank profits usually go to the treasury , in some cases other groups are involved. In developed countries, it plays only a minor role in public finances. In those whose ability to raise taxes is limited, the share of seigniorage in the state's financing is higher. There are other definitions of seigniorage, such as monetary seigniorage. This increases with the rate at which cash in circulation is increased. Since this rate can be set by the central bank, this type of seigniorage can mobilize considerable financial resources in the event of war. To do this, however, high inflation must be accepted, which can undermine confidence in the respective currency. The different definitions of seigniorage are not identical.

Financial market supervision

The extent to which a central bank performs the task of financial market supervision depends on the respective monetary system. In principle, central banks are not absolutely necessary for the exercise of this function, so that independent institutions can also exercise financial market supervision. Due to the financial crisis since 2007, the financial market supervision will be more restrictive in the future and also change institutionally. The large central banks are reorganizing their tasks and responsibilities as part of this. In contrast to the first four functions mentioned, the possible function of financial market supervision is not derived from the central bank balance sheet.

Central banks in central administrative economies

In central administration economies , the mono- banking system usually took on the functions of a central bank. According to socialist programs, the money and credit system was largely monopolized. A mono-banking system consists of a central bank, which as a rule reports directly to the Ministry of Finance and the highest planning authorities, and a few commercial banks that are directly subordinate to it. The monobank system provided the state-owned companies with clearing money and the households with cash. The monopoly banking system also took on tasks that went beyond those of a central bank. It was responsible for distributing the credit funds provided for by the central plan to the companies, handling international payment transactions including foreign trade finance and foreign exchange transactions, and collecting the savings of the population and forwarding them to the Ministry of Finance.

Central Bank Instruments

In order to fulfill its tasks, the central bank has a number of instruments at its disposal, with the help of which it can influence economic development inside and outside the currency area. The articles on monetary policy and currency policy provide an overview of the various instruments . Monetary regulatory policy is divided into monetary policy and monetary policy instruments.

Monetary policy

The subject of monetary policy is the regulation of the relationship between the national economy's own currency and the currencies of other currency areas. The choice of currency policy depends on the exchange rate system in which the currency is tied. Periodic intervention is required in a fixed exchange rate system . Once a currency board has been installed, the central bank no longer has any freedom in its monetary policy.


Forex market intervention
In the case of foreign exchange market intervention , the central bank acts as a buyer or supplier of foreign exchange in order to achieve the rate it is aiming for. The ability to intervene in the foreign exchange market depends on the existence of sufficient currency reserves. In a currency system with fixed exchange rates as agreed , the central bank has an obligation to intervene. This means that as soon as the exchange rate on the currency exchange has reached a certain point of intervention, it has to intervene. This system is mandatory for fixed exchange rates, but not for free exchange rates.
Interest rate policy
The exchange rate can also be influenced by the interest rate policy. A higher interest rate makes the currency more attractive on the international capital markets and leads to an appreciation. Lower interest rates corresponding to devaluations.
Verbal market intervention
Since central banks are usually able to exert a fundamental influence on exchange rates, a public declaration is often sufficient to move rates in the desired direction. On the market, the likelihood of using other instruments is then estimated to be higher and priced accordingly.

Monetary policy

Monetary policy is understood to be a policy that supports general economic policy by controlling the supply of money and, indirectly, the demand for money and the demand for credit. The supply of money can be controlled by lending money against collateral. Various instruments are available for this, such as discount policy, repurchase agreements, Lombard policy or marginal lending. There are also other instruments, such as minimum reserve or open market policy, that influence the supply of money. The demand for money and credit is primarily controlled by interest rate policy.


Interest rate policy
The interest rate policy includes all the measures taken by the central bank to influence the general interest rate level. Interest is a cost for borrowers, and by changing interest rates calculated between the central bank and commercial banks, the central bank wants to influence the demand for investment loans from companies or consumer loans from households as well as the demand for loans from the state. If the central bank now increases z. If, for example, they increase their interest rates in order to reduce price increases during the economic boom, the commercial banks will also increase the interest they charge their customers. Higher interest rates result in a lower demand for loans, e.g. B. for investments, as the profit prospects of companies decrease. The consequence is a reduced demand for money and the price level stabilizes. Interest rate hikes have a similar effect on consumer demand in private households. Falling interest rates then have the opposite effect.
Discount policy
With the discount policy , the central bank exercises influence on the lending of the commercial banks. If bills of exchange accepted by the central bank meet certain conditions (creditworthiness criteria) (set by the central bank), the commercial banks can sell these bills of exchange to the central bank for refinancing . By means of this rediscounting of bills of exchange, the commercial banks obtain credits on their central bank account and thus a possibility of creating money and lending. The price for this refinancing option is based on the discount rate set by the central bank, depending on the monetary policy intent .
Lombard policy
With the Lombard policy, the central bank grants a Lombard loan against pledging of eligible collateral (bills of exchange, government bonds and other marketable securities) by the credit institutions and against payment of a loan interest (the Lombard rate ).
standing facilities
The standing facilities are used to establish overnight liquidity ( marginal lending facility ) or to withdraw it ( deposit facility ). They are offered in unlimited amounts and send signals regarding the general course of a central bank's monetary policy. Since they are always open to the banks, they set the limits of the money market rates for overnight money. The marginal lending facility also serves to ensure the liquidity of commercial banks.
Open market policy
The open market operations are monetary policy instruments of the central banks and enable them to pursue both an expansive and a restrictive monetary policy. In the tight monetary policy, the central bank withdraws the markets of central bank money by selling securities in the open market. The expansionary monetary policy is the opposite. Here, the central bank returns central bank money to the market by buying securities. The open market operations are among the refinancing instruments of the central banks. Open market operations are often carried out as securities repurchase agreements.
Reserve policy
The minimum reserve policy is, in contrast to z. B. Open market operations, not a refinancing instrument. Your job is just the opposite. Minimum reserve means that the commercial banks have to deposit a compulsory deposit in central bank money in the amount of the minimum reserve ratio, which determines the ratio between deposits and minimum reserves, with the central bank. The amount of the minimum reserve to be paid depends on the deposits . If someone - whether a private person or a company - puts money in the bank in order to invest this money in a savings-effective manner, the bank is obliged to deposit part of this money with the central bank.
Contrary to popular belief, the minimum reserve in the minimum reserve systems of developed economies, which typically have very low minimum reserve ratios (currently 1% in the euro zone), does not represent a limiting factor for money creation by commercial banks and thus for the money supply .
Limiting lending through the minimum reserve would only have a binding effect at very high minimum reserve rates - or at very high discounts on the collateral to be deposited with the central bank to receive central bank money - as is the case in some emerging and developing countries or as part of certain capital controls the case is.

State influence

The independence of a central bank is often impaired by the diverse economic and political interdependencies of an economic system. A central bank can be independent of instructions from the government (e.g. the Deutsche Bundesbank or the American Federal Reserve System), but it can also be bound by instructions from the state government (such as the Banque de France, the Banca d'Italia or the People's Bank of China). If a central bank is dependent on instructions from the government, then the state is actually responsible for monetary policy.
The independence of the central bank serves to prevent the government from pursuing an overly expansionary monetary policy. Governments tend to expand monetary policy because they can get better economic data in the short term and thus gain more approval. The government is usually not blamed for the negative consequences of an expansionary monetary policy. Some monetary effects of different institutional configurations of the central banks, especially with regard to inflation , are empirically understandable. If the central bank profit is to contribute significantly to the financing of the state, it is helpful to subordinate the central bank directly to the government.
With regard to the degree of (in) dependence of a central bank on the government, a wide range of structures can be observed internationally. The reasons for this are, on the one hand, the different definitions of independence, and on the other hand, the historical experience of the respective countries with their central banks. The supranational ECB takes on a special role: Its primary goal is price level stability. Since this task is prescribed by the Maastricht Treaty , the ECB is dependent on goals. With regard to the realization of this goal through the use of various monetary policy instruments, however, it is independent of instructions. i.e., it is instrument-independent.

Goal dependency

Goal dependence means the government can influence the goals of the central bank. If, for example, price stability is prescribed by law as the central bank's primary goal, there is a target dependency. If, on the other hand, the central bank can determine its tasks itself, the central bank acts independently of the target.

Instrument dependency

Instrument dependence means the extent to which the government influences the central bank in achieving its goals. If the central bank is dependent on instructions when choosing its monetary policy instruments, i.e. the government decides which instruments are used to achieve monetary stability, this is instrument dependency. If the central bank can freely choose its monetary policy instruments, it acts independently of the instruments.

Criticism of the central bank concept

Critics believe that the current mixed-money banking system, in which commercial banks and a central bank are involved, lead to worse results in terms of monetary stability and the inflation rate than a model of market-based money creation . According to the market economy model of the multi-banking system without a central bank, on the other hand, there is a system-based control of money creation. The current restrictions by

  • Cash reserves of the commercial bank, which must reckon with a disbursement of the granted loans and must make this disbursement in the form of legal tender, since other currencies are displaced from the market according to Gresham's law , and
  • Minimum reserve , i.e. the amount of central bank money that the central bank prescribes for commercial banks depending on their lending.

led to monetary-induced financial crises, as the central bank intervened in competition through planned-economy money supply management.

In 1994, economist Kevin Dowd took the view that the financial system would be more stable without government intervention than it is in its current form. Contrary to popular belief, it is inherently stable and does not need a lender of last resort or a state deposit insurance system. One source of instability in the current system is that central banks are not receiving enough signals to establish a functioning policy, and thus the policy that is actually implemented has harmful effects. As an example, he cites the Federal Reserve System , which failed to fulfill its role as the lender of last resort in the 1930s.

In his 1949 work Human Action , Ludwig von Mises took the view that the cyclical ups and downs of the economy, and with them the emergence of depressions, are the result of the lowering of the interest rate due to the expansion of credit by the banks. This is known as overinvestment theory . The additional loans that are thus available are trying to artificially stimulate the economy. Von Mises sees the risk of lending to industries and businesses that were unprofitable before the interest rate cut. He believes that the economy that has been stimulated in this way must collapse sooner or later. The credit expansion policy of banks is thus a misdirection of corporate activity. Von Mises comes to the conclusion that periodically recurring economic crises can only be prevented if one refrained from stimulating the economy through banking policy. Rather, the rate of interest should be regulated by the market mechanism.

Friedrich August von Hayek , like Mises a representative of the Austrian School , saw the reason for the instability of the economy in 1976 in the fact that an expansive monetary policy leads to investments in projects that are unprofitable in themselves and that sooner or later have to be adjusted. In a later creative period he identified the reason for the expansionary monetary policy that the availability of money is not determined by the market process, but rather regulated by the central banks. Hayek calls for the tasks of the central banks to be put into private hands and decentralized. Such a system is known as free banking . The interest rate, like any other price, would then be determined by the demand for and supply of money in the market. Even among the laissez-faire advocates, only a minority is in favor of realizing free banking.

See also

Individual evidence

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