As institutions from the EU to Opec face becoming irrelevant, could central banks be the next to encounter crisis?

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Could institutions like the Bank of England be headed for crisis? (Source: Getty)

From the EU to Opec, institutions that have dominated the world since the Second World War are slowly becoming irrelevant. Oil producing countries would once gather in Vienna and with shameless self-interest, manage production levels under the altruistic cloak of preventing prices from tumbling or spiking. No longer.

Riven by internal differences and rendered impotent by the surprisingly resilient shale industry, Opec has lost control. Saudi Arabia may have reached agreement earlier this week with (non-Opec) Russia to hold output at January levels, but Iran has indicated it has no intention of following suit.

The EU is assailed by existential crises too – with cracks appearing in the principle of free movement due to fundamental disagreements over refugees, the sovereign debt crisis unresolved, and authoritarian governments in Poland and Hungary openly flouting EU concern over the rule of law.

European elites may still be motivated by a communautaire spirit, and will no doubt turn to increasingly desperate measures to keep their beloved institutions intact, but the people are losing faith. The latest Eurobarometer poll found that only 37 per cent of people in member states have a positive view of the EU, down from 50 per cent in 2006, and while 32 per cent tend to trust EU institutions, 55 per cent tend not to.

Is this a complete disaster? Not necessarily. Opec once had the power to bring the global economy to its knees, most notably in the 1973 oil crisis when the cartel imposed an embargo that sent shock waves around the world. Free market innovation has neutered it, and it is now touch and go whether Saudi Arabia and its allies can crush shale producers before they go bankrupt themselves.

Similarly, if the EU is unreformable and not fulfilling its job of facilitating cooperation among member states, why should we worry if it damns itself to irrelevance? Prince William was quite correct to say this week that international cooperation is essential for security. And with conflict in Ukraine and Syria on the door-step, European nations will have an interest in continuing to do so – though perhaps through more flexible organisations like Nato.

There is one set of institutions we should be concerned about, however: central banks. Like the EU and Opec in their day, they may think themselves to be “masters of the universe”. But the distortionary effects of ultra-easy monetary policy and particularly of their latest innovation, negative interest rates, are raising alarm. If things turn bad, come the next crisis, the credibility of central banks may be destroyed for a generation.

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