Let It Rule: Imperatives for Central Bank of Iran

Let It Rule: Imperatives for Central Bank of Iran

“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” A central bank’s power is somewhat like God’s, at least in monetary terms, as a former governor of the Central Bank of Iran once said. This is true for the world's most influential central banks such the Fed, ECB, BOJ and BOE or the SNB. The Swiss National Bank's recent move to abandon a self-imposed peg of the Swiss franc against the euro, introduced in 2011, sent the Franc soaring against the Euro by almost 40 percent, is a testament to the power they exert.

But, the CBI is far from wielding the power and independence that its foreign counterparts enjoy.

The bank is under strict financial sanctions, which have diminished its foreign reserves. Thus it has lost face in the foreign exchange market. Gone are the days when remarks by its governor calmed traders. In recent years, even its actions have little effect. In 2012, the bank had to resort to closing down all currency trade in a bid to halt the collapse of the rial, when vows to stabilize exchange rates and financial intervention failed. At that point the bank had overplayed its hand so much so that traders saw the bank reactionary and imprudent. Little has changed in this regard.

Defenders of the bank might counter that the siege on the CBI for allegedly circumventing sanctions against Iran's nuclear energy program is the source of its ineptitude. And yes, having $100 billion trapped overseas does hurt a lot. But that's not all.

Just look at the list of issues the bank is contending with and you'll see that even with a $100 billion, the leopard doesn't change its spots!

It is struggling to bring 7,000 rogue financial institutions, including one Ayandeh bank, under its supervision. The CBI has tried and failed to decrease interest rates for the past year. But, the same institutions have not complied, leading to drainage of deposits from banks towards their coffers.  

Furthermore, past monetary decisions by the central bank and the former government have led to tens of billions of dollars of toxic debt on the balance sheets of state-owned commercial lenders, in turn driving them towards property speculation. The central bank is seeking to undo this knot in a civilized way, without undue panic and bankruptcies. Results will materialize slowly, if at all.

When we consider the inability to craft effective policy, at the heart of the matter are the limitations on the central bank's legal powers and its authority to make key decisions.

In most developed countries, monetary policy is the domain of a central bank’s governors. Not so in Iran. The money and credit council, a body within the central bank but controlled by the government, sets monetary policy, not the governor and his deputies. This essentially makes the bank an arm of the Ministry of Finance.

The bank also plays the role of the treasury for the government. It receives oil revenues, and then prints rials and distributes the funds to various government branches. Sometimes the foreign receipt part doesn't take place, thus curbing the bank's control over inflation.

And even when the policies are made, the bank is too feeble to implement them. It doesn't have the capability to exert pressure on banks or the currency market, let alone combat those who defy its commands.

So how can investors and business leaders ask for inflation to be restrained, monetary policy to be set and the currency's value to be stabilized, if they are to rely on such a central bank?

Luckily, the solution is simple enough, at least on paper. A separation of powers is necessary. Monetary policy should be detached from fiscal policy, and the bank should be isolated from politics.

To do so, the bank should be given full autonomy on monetary matters, a structure similar to that enjoyed by its counterparts in developed nations. A system of governance, where by all three branches of government have a degree of influence in the bank's governance would better guarantee the bank's autonomy. But this would require a change in the constitution, a lengthy and difficult process.

Furthermore, the central bank's legal clout and ability to exert power on its turf needs augmentation. Its influence has to cut through the lobbying of vested interests. Its responses to crime must become rapid. For this it needs more legal powers and a wider array of financial tools to help it set and oversee monetary policy. Again lawmakers must empower the bank for the benefit of investor, business leaders, and the economy at large. 

Many officials in the current administration have expressed their desire to give CBI greater autonomy and new legislation is under work to give the bank some new powers. But a half-hearted will not be effective. What is needed is a fully independent central bank, as enshrined in law and in the deference of the financial sector at large. After all a strong and independent central bank will help iron-out the full range of economic policies. We ought to let the governor rule his domain.


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