In three interesting articles, linked below, the authors consider the state of economies since the financial crisis of 2007–8 and whether governments have the right tools to tackle future economic shocks.
There have been some successes over the past 10 years, in particular keeping inflation close to central bank targets despite considerable shocks (see the Vox article). Also unemployment has fallen in most countries and to very low levels in some, including the UK.
But economic growth has generally remained well below the levels prior to the financial crisis, with low productivity growth being the main culprit. Indeed, many people have seen no growth at all in their real incomes over the past 10 years, with low unemployment being bought at the cost of a growth in zero-hour contracts and work in the gig economy. And what economic growth we have seen has been largely the result of taking up slack through unprecedentedly loose monetary policy.
Fiscal policy, except in the period directly following the financial crisis, has generally been tight as governments have sought to reduce their deficits and slow down the growth in their debt.
But what will happen if economies once more slow? Or, worse still, what will happen if there is another global recession? Do countries have the policies to tackle the problem this time round?
Quantitative easing could be used again, but many economists believe that it will have more limited scope if confined to the purchase of assets in the secondary market. Also, there is little scope for reducing interest rates, which, despite some modest rises in the USA, remain at close to zero in most developed countries.
One possibility is a combination of monetary and fiscal policy, where new money is used to finance government expenditure on infrastructure, such as road and rail, broadband, green energy, hospitals and schools and colleges. This would avoid the need for governments to borrow on open markets as the spending would be financed by new government securities purchased directly by the central bank.
An objection to such ‘people’s quantitative easing‘, as it has been dubbed, is that it would effectively end the independence of central banks. This independence has been credited by many with giving central banks credibility in controlling inflation. Would inflationary expectations rise with people’s quantitative easing and, with it, actual inflation? A lot would depend on the extent to which this QE could still be conducted within a framework of targeting inflation and whether people’s expectations of inflation could be managed jointly by the government and central bank.
How should recessions be fought when interest rates are low? The Economist. Free exchange (21/10/17)
The economy is failing. We need to think radically about how to fix it The Guardian, Liam Byrne (25/10/17)
Elusive inflation and the Great Recession Vox, David Miles, Ugo Panizza, Ricardo Reis, Ángel Ubide (25/10/17)
Economics since the crisis Vox on YouTube. Charles Goodhart (11/10/17)
Is the system broken? Vox on YouTube, Anat Admati (12/10/17)
Signs of a crisis Vox on YouTube, Christian Thimann (19/10/17)
Policy stances since 2007 Vox on YouTube, Paul Krugman (29/10/17)
Did policymakers get it right? Vox on YouTube, Paul Krugman (4/10/17)
- Why, during the next recession, will the “zero lower bound” (ZLB) on interest rates almost certainly bite again?
- Why would the scope for QE, as conducted up to now, be more limited in the future if a recession were to occur?
- Why have central banks appeared to have been so successful in keeping inflation close to target despite negative and positive demand- and supply-side shocks?
- Why are the pressures on government expenditure likely to increase in the coming years?
- How would a temporary price-level target help to tackle a recession when the economy next bumps into the ZLB? What would limit its success?
- Is it appropriate for central banks to stick to an inflation target in times when there is an adverse supply-side shock resulting in cost-push inflation?
- Why might monetary policy conducted in a framework of inflation targeting tend to lessen the impact of a fiscal stimulus?
- What are the arguments for and against relaxing central bank independence and pursuing a co-ordinated fiscal and monetary policy?
- What are the arguments for and against using helicopter money to boost private expenditure during a future recession where interest rates are already near the ZLB?
- What are the arguments for and against using ‘people’s QE’?
Interest rates have been at record lows across the developed world since 2009. Interest rates were reduced to such levels in order to stimulate recovery from the financial crisis of 2007–8 and the resulting recession. The low interest rates were accompanied by extraordinary increases in money supply under various rounds of quantitative easing in the USA, UK, Japan and eventually the eurozone. But have such policies done harm?
This is the contention of Brian Sturgess in a new paper, published by the Centre for Policy Studies. He maintains that the policy has had a number of adverse effects:
||There will be nothing left in the monetary policy armoury when the next downturn occurs other than even more QE, which will compound the following problems.
||It has had little effect in stimulating aggregate demand and economic growth. Instead the extra money has been used to repair balance sheets and support unprofitable businesses.
||It has inflated asset prices, especially shares and property, which has encouraged funds to flow to the secondary market rather than to funding new investment.
||The inflation of asset prices has benefited the already wealthy.
||By keeping interest rates down to virtually zero on savings accounts, it has punished small savers.
||By rewarding the rich and penalising small savers, it has contributed to greater inequality.
||By keeping interest rates down to borrowers, it has encouraged households to take on excessive amounts of debt, which will be hard to service if interest rates rise.
||It has lowered the price of risk, thereby encouraging more risky types of investment and the general misallocation of capital.
Sturgess argues that it is time to end the policy of low interest rates. Currently, in all the major developed economies, central bank rates are below the rate of inflation, making the real central bank interest rates negative.
He welcomes the two small increases by the Federal Reserve, but this should be followed by further rises, not just by the Fed, but by other central banks too. As Sturgess states in the paper (p.12):
In place of ever more extreme descents into the unknown, central banks should quickly renormalise monetary policy. That would involve ending QE and allowing interest rates to rise steadily so that interest rates can carry out their proper functions. Failure to do so will leave the global financial system vulnerable to potential shocks such as the failure of the euro, or the fiscal stresses in the US resulting from the unfinanced spending plans announced by Donald Trump in his presidential campaign.
Although Sturgess argues that the initial programmes of low interest rates and QE were a useful response to the financial crisis, he argues that they should have only been used as a short-term measure. However, if they were, and if interest rates had gone up within a few months, many argue that the global economy would rapidly have sunk back into recession. This has certainly been the position of central banks. Sturgess disagrees.
Damaging low interest rates and QE must end now, think thank warns The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (23/1/17)
QE has driven pension deficits up, think-tank argues Money Marketing, Justin Cash (23/1/17)
Hold: The ECB keeps interest rates and QE purchases steady as Mario Draghi defends loose policy from hawkish critics City A.M., Jasper Jolly (19/1/17)
Preparing for the Post-QE World Bloomberg, Jean-Michel Paul (12/10/16)
Stop Depending on the Kindness of Strangers: Low interest rates and the Global Economy Centre for Policy Studies, Brian Sturgess (23/1/17)
- Find out what the various rounds of quantitative easing have been in the USA, the UK, Japan and the eurozone.
- What are the arguments in favour of quantitative easing as it has been practised?
- How might interest rates close to zero result in the misallocation of capital?
- Sturgess claims that the existence of ‘spillover’ effects has had damaging effects on many emerging economies. What are these spillover effects and what damage have they done to such economies?
- How do low interest rates affect interest rate spreads?
- Have pensioners gained or lost from QE? Explain how the answer may vary between different pensioners.
- What is meant by a ‘natural’ or ‘neutral’ rate of interest (see section 3.2 in the paper)? Why, according to Janet Yellen (currently Federal Reserve Chair, writing in 2005), is this somewhere between 3.5% and 5.5% (in nominal terms)?
- What are the arguments for and against using created money to finance programmes of government infrastructure investment?
- Would helicopter money be more effective than QE via asset purchases in achieving faster economic growth? (See the blog posts: A flawed model of monetary policy and New UK monetary policy measures – somewhat short of the kitchen sink.)
- When QE comes to an end in various countries, what are the arguments for absorbing rather than selling the assets purchased by central banks? (See the Bloomberg article.)
We’ve considered Keynesian economics and policy in several blogs. For example, a year ago in the post, What would Keynes say?, we looked at two articles arguing for Keynesian expansionary polices. More recently, in the blogs, End of the era of liquidity traps? and A risky dose of Keynesianism at the heart of Trumponomics, we looked at whether Donald Trump’s proposed policies are more Keynesian than his predecessor’s and at the opportunities and risks of such policies.
The article below, Larry Elliott updates the story by asking what Keynes would recommend today if he were alive. It also links to two other articles which add to the story.
Elliott asks his imaginary Keynes, for his analysis of the financial crisis of 2008 and of what has happened since. Keynes, he argues, would explain the crisis in terms of excessive borrowing, both private and public, and asset price bubbles. The bubbles then burst and people cut back on spending to claw down their debts.
Keynes, says Elliott, would approve of the initial response to the crisis: expansionary monetary policy (both lower interest rates and then quantitative easing) backed up by expansionary fiscal policy in 2009. But expansionary fiscal policies were short lived. Instead, austerity fiscal policies were adopted in an attempt to reduce public-sector deficits and, ultimately, public-sector debt. This slowed down the recovery and meant that much of the monetary expansion went into inflating the prices of assets, such as housing and shares, rather than in financing higher investment.
He also asks his imaginary Keynes what he’d recommend as the way forward today. Keynes outlines three alternatives to the current austerity policies, each involving expansionary fiscal policy:
||Trump’s policies of tax cuts combined with some increase in infrastructure spending. The problems with this are that there would be too little of the public infrastructure spending that the US economy needs and that the stimulus would be poorly focused.
||Government taking advantage of exceptionally low interest rates to borrow to invest in infrastructure. “Governments could do this without alarming the markets, Keynes says, if they followed his teachings and borrowed solely to invest.”
||Use money created through quantitative easing to finance public-sector investment in infrastructure and housing. “Building homes with QE makes sense; inflating house prices with QE does not.” (See the blogs, A flawed model of monetary policy and Global warning).
Increased government spending on infrastructure has been recommended by international organisations, such as the OECD and the IMF (see OECD goes public and The world economic outlook – as seen by the IMF). With the rise in populism and worries about low economic growth throughout much of the developed world, perhaps Keynesian fiscal policy will become more popular with governments.
Keynesian economics: is it time for the theory to rise from the dead?, The Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/12/16)
- What are the main factors determining a country’s long-term rate of economic growth?
- What are the benefits and limitations of using fiscal policy to raise global economic growth?
- What are the benefits and limitations of using new money created by the central bank to fund infrastructure spending?
- Draw an AD/AS diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on GDP and prices.
- Draw a Keynesian 45° line diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on actual and potential GDP.
- Why might an individual country benefit more from a co-ordinated expansionary fiscal policy of all countries rather than being the only country to pursue such a policy?
- Compare the relative effectiveness of increased government investment in infrastructure and tax cuts as alterative forms of expansionary fiscal policy.
- What determines the size of the multiplier effect of such policies?
- What supply-side policies could the government adopt to back up monetary and fiscal policy? Are the there lessons here from the Japanese government’s ‘three arrows’?
The linked article below from The Economist looks at whether the election of Donald Trump, the effects of the Brexit vote and policies being pursued elsewhere in the world mark a new macroeconomic era. We may be about to witness rising inflation and the end of the era of tight fiscal policy and loose monetary policy. We might see a return of a more Keynesian approach to macreconomic policy.
According to the article, since the financial crisis of 2008, we have been witnessing economies stuck in a liquidity trap. In such cases, there is little scope for further reductions in interest rates. And increases in money supply, in the form of quantitative easing, tend to be held in idle balances, rather than being spent on goods and services. The idle balances take the form of increased bank reserves to rebuild their capital base and increased purchases of assets such as shares and property.
Even if people did believe that monetary policy would work to boost aggregate demand and result in higher inflation, then they would also believe that any such boost would be temporary as central banks would then have to tighten monetary policy to keep inflation within the target they had been set. This would limit spending increases, keeping the economy in the liquidity trap.
With a liquidity trap, fiscal policy is likely to be much more effective than monetary policy in boosting aggregate demand. However, its scope to pull an economy out of recession and create sustained higher growth depends on the extent to which governments, and markets, can tolerate higher budget deficits and growing debt. With governments seeking to claw down deficits and ultimately debt, this severely limits the potential for using fiscal policy.
With the election of Donald Trump, we might be entering a new era of fiscal policy. He has promised large-scale infrastructure spending and tax cuts. Although he has also promised to reduce the deficit, he is implying that this will only occur when the economy is growing more rapidly and hence tax revenues are increasing.
Is Donald Trump a Keynesian? Or are such promises merely part of campaigning – promises that will be watered down when he takes office in January? We shall have to wait and see whether we are about to enter a new era of macroeconomic policy – an era that has been increasingly advocated by international bodies, such as the IMF and the OECD (see the blog post, OECD goes public).
Slumponomics: Trump and the political economy of liquidity traps The Economist (10/11/16)
- Explain what is meant by ‘the liquidity trap’.
- Why is monetary policy relatively ineffective in a liquidity trap? Use a diagram to support your argument.
- Why is fiscal policy (in the absence of public-sector deficit targets) relatively effective in a liquidity trap? Again, use a diagram to support your argument.
- Examine how the Japanese government attempted to escape the liquidity trap? (Search this site for ‘Abenomics’.)
- In what ways may the depreciation of the pound since the Brexit vote help the UK to escape the liquidity trap?
- Could a different form of quantitative easing, known as ‘helicopter money’, whereby government or private spending is financed directly by new money, allow countries to escape the liquidity trap? (Search this site for ‘helicopter money’.)
- Why may a political upheaval be necessary for a country to escape the liquidity trap?
The Bank of England has responded to forecasts of a dramatic slowdown in the UK economy in the wake of the Brexit vote. On 4th August, it announced a substantial easing of monetary policy, but still left room for further easing later.
Its new measures are based on the forecasts in its latest 3-monthly Inflation Report. Compared with the May forecasts, the Report predicts that, even with the new measures, aggregate demand growth will slow dramatically. As a result, over the next two years cumulative GDP growth will be 2.5% lower than it would have been with a Remain vote and unemployment will rise from 4.9% to around 5.5%.
What is more, the slower growth in aggregate demand will impact on aggregate supply. As the Governor said in his opening remarks at the Inflation Report press conference:
“The weakness in demand will itself weigh on supply as a period of low investment restrains growth in the capital stock and productivity.
There could also be more direct implications for supply from the decision to leave the European Union. The UK’s trading relationships are likely to change, but precisely how will be unclear for some time. If companies are uncertain about the future impact of this on their businesses, they could delay decisions about building supply capacity or entering new markets.”
Three main measures were announced.
||A cut in Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25%. This is the first time Bank Rate has been changed since March 2009. The Bank hopes that banks will pass this on to customers in terms of lower borrowing rates.
||A new ‘Term Funding Scheme (TFS)’. “Compared to the old Funding for Lending Scheme, the TFS is a pure monetary policy instrument that is likely to be more stimulative pound-for-pound.” The scheme makes £100bn of central bank reserves available as loans to banks and building societies. These will be at ultra-low interest rates to enable banks to pass on the new lower Bank Rate to customers in all forms of lending. What is more, banks will be charged a penalty if they do not lend this money.
||An expansion of the quantitative easing programme beyond the previous £375 billion of gilt (government bond) purchases. This will consist of an extra £60bn of gilt purchases and the purchase of up to £10bn of UK corporate bonds.
The Bank recognises that there is a limit to what monetary policy can do and that there is also a role to play for fiscal policy. The new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, is considering what fiscal measures can be taken, including spending on infrastructure projects. These are likely to have relative high multiplier effects and would also increase aggregate supply at the same time. But we will have to wait for the Autumn Statement to see what measures will be taken.
But despite the limits to monetary policy, there is more the Bank of England could do. It already recognises that there may have to be a further cut in Bank Rate, perhaps to 0.1% or even to 0% (the ECB has a 0% rate). There could also be additional quantitative easing or additional term funding to banks.
Some economists argue that the Bank should go further still and, in conjunction with the Treasury, provide new money directly to fund infrastructure spending or tax cuts, or even as cash handouts to households. This extra money provided to the government would not increase government borrowing.
We discussed the use of this version of ‘helicopter money’ in the blogs, A flawed model of monetary policy, Global warning and People’s quantitative easing. Some of the articles below also consider the potential for this type of monetary policy. In a letter to The Guardian 35 economists advocate:
A fiscal stimulus financed by central bank money creation [which] could be used to fund essential investment in infrastructure projects – boosting the incomes of businesses and households, and increasing the public sector’s productive assets in the process. Alternatively, the money could be used to fund either a tax cut or direct cash transfers to households, resulting in an immediate increase of household disposable incomes.
Webcasts and podcasts
Inflation Report Press Conference Bank of England, Mark Carney (4/8/16)
Bank spells out chance of further rate cut this year BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, Ben Broadbent, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England (5/8/16)
Broadbent Ready to Back Another BOE Rate Cut Amid Slowdown Bloomberg, Chris Wyllie (5/8/16)
What’s Top of Mind? ‘Helicopter Money’ Goldman Sachs Macroeconomic Insights, Allison Nathan (April 2016)
Bank of England measures
Interest rate cut: What did the Bank of England announce today and how will it affect you? Independent, Ben Chu (5/8/16)
This is the Bank of England’s all-action response to Brexit The Guardian, Larry Elliott (4/8/16)
Bank of England unveils four-pronged stimulus package in bid to avoid Brexit recession The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (4/8/16)
Record-breaking Bank of England Financial Times, Robin Wigglesworth (4/8/16)
The Bank of England has delivered – now for a fiscal response Financial Times (4/8/16)
Bank of England Cuts Interest Rate to Historic Low, Citing Economic Pressures New York Times, Chad Bray (4/8/16)
Sledgehammer? This is more like the small tool to fix a fence The Telegraph, Andrew Sentance (5/8/16)
All eyes are on Hammond as Bank runs low on options The Telegraph, Tom Stevenson (6/8/16)
Bank of England’s stimulus package has bought the chancellor some time The Guardian, Larry Elliott (7/8/16)
A post-Brexit economic policy reset for the UK is essential Guardian letters, 35 economists (3/8/16)
Cash handouts are best way to boost British growth, say economists The Guardian, Larry Elliott (4/8/16)
Helicopter money: if not now, when? Financial Times, Martin Sandbu (2/8/16)
The helicopters fly on for now, but one day they will crash The Telegraph, Tom Stevenson (23/7/16)
Is the concept of ‘helicopter money’ set for a resurgence? The Conversation, Phil Lewis (2/8/16)
Helicopter money talk takes flight as Bank of Japan runs out of runway Reuters, Stanley White (30/7/16)
Helicopters 101: your guide to monetary financing Deutsche Bank Research, George Saravelos, Daniel Brehon and Robin Winkler (15/4/16)
Helicopter money is back in the air The Guardian, Robert Skidelsky (22/9/16)
Bank of England publications
Inflation Report, August 2016 Bank of England (4/8/16)
Inflation Report Press Conference: Opening Remarks by the Governor Bank of England, Mark Carney (4/8/16)
Inflation Report Q&A Bank of England Press Conference (4/8/16)
Inflation Report, August 2016: Landing page Bank of England (4/8/16)
- Find out the details of the previous Funding for Lending (FLS) scheme. How does the new Term Funding Scheme (TFS) differ from it? Why does the Bank of England feel that TFS is likely to be more effective than FLS in expanding lending?
- What is the transmission mechanism between asset purchases and real aggregate demand?
- What factors determine the level of borrowing in the economy? How is cutting Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25% likely to affect borrowing?
- If the Bank of England’s latest forecast is for a significant reduction in economic growth from its previous forecast, why did the Bank not introduce stronger measures, such as larger asset purchases or a cut in Bank Rate to 0.1%?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of helicopter money in the current circumstances? If helicopter money were used, would it be better to use it for funding public-sector infrastructure projects or for cash handouts to households, either directly or in the form of tax cuts?
- How does the Bank of England’s measures of 4 August compare with those announced by the Japanese central bank on 29 July?
- What effects can changes in aggregate demand have on aggregate supply?
- What supply-side policies could the government adopt to back up monetary and fiscal policy? Are the there lessons here from the Japanese government’s ‘three arrows’?