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World's central bankers feel the heat as populists seek to dictate policy direction

Nations like the US and Turkey have exerted pressure on their central banks to loosen policy, alarming technocrats

Earlier this year, Italy's ruling parties floated the idea of getting the European Central Bank to forgive some of the country's huge debt pile or offer a guarantee on it - a suggestion that was rebuffed by ECB president Mario Draghi.

Nusa Dua, Bali

CENTRAL bankers from the United States to Europe are coming under pressure from their governments to loosen their purse strings again as a decade of accelerating economic growth and booming markets fuelled by cheap cash comes to an end.

For 10 years since the global financial crash of 2008, the Federal Reserve and other central banks across the world have engineered a global upswing through ultra-low interest rates and massive money-printing programmes.

As inflation recovers, rate-setters are now tightening their policy, leaving indebted governments, entrepreneurs and households feeling the pinch from higher borrowing costs and, in fragile emerging economies, sliding currencies.

What started as an issue for countries with sizeable US dollar debt such as Argentina and Turkey is now reaching the world's richest and supposedly most advanced economies in the United States and the eurozone.

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US President Donald Trump launched a scathing attack on the Federal Reserve last week for being "too aggressive" in raising rates and labelled the institution "crazy", "loco", "ridiculous" and "too cute".

Earlier this year, Italy's ruling parties floated the idea of getting the European Central Bank (ECB) to forgive some of the country's huge debt pile or offer a guarantee on it; the central banks of Turkey and South Africa have also been blamed by their governments for being too tight with their policy.

The clash threatens to tarnish the golden rule of developed financial systems for the past three decades: keep the money-printing presses away from elected politicians if you want to keep inflation in check. This risk, part of a global wave of populism and aversion towards technocrats, worried policymakers at the International Monetary Fund's annual meetings last week.

"They're asking to change rates, (debt) cancellation, they're asking them to do other things, buy bonds," ECB president Mario Draghi told a press conference at the IMF meeting on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. "This is one of the risks in the geopolitical sphere."

Barry Eichengreen, a professor at Berkeley, said governments had more to lose than gain by discrediting their central banks. "Seriously infringing on the independence of the central bank would elicit a negative market reaction," he said.

So far, monetary guardians have stood their ground. Eurozone central bank sources at the IMF meeting told Reuters Italy won't receive any help from the ECB unless it secures a bailout from the European Union, which comes with stringent conditions in terms of budget tightening and economic reforms.

The Fed's chair, Jerome Powell, did not react to Mr Trump's comments but he bagged a resounding endorsement from IMF managing director Christine Lagarde. Another central banker attending the Bali meeting said he was not giving Mr Trump's comments too much weight. "I'd take him seriously if he removed Powell but I don't think he'd do that," the official said.

And Lesetja Kganyago, governor of the South African Reserve Bank, said at the Bali summit rate-setters needed to be "given the space to act independently without political interference".

Even in countries where central bank independence is weaker or absent, monetary guardians are putting up a fight. Turkey's central bank last month raised its benchmark rate by a hefty 625 basis points to boost the lira despite harsh criticism from President Tayyip Erdogan.

But Richard Portes, a professor at the London Business School, said the issue wasn't likely to go away until central bankers became more accountable and transparent.

"Monetary policy has political consequence even though central banks are run by technocrats," he said. REUTERS

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