Is there a ‘magic money tree’? Is it desirable for central banks to create money to finance government deficits?
The standard thinking of conservative governments around the world is that creating money to finance deficits will be inflationary. Rather, governments should attempt to reduce deficits. This will reduce the problem of government expenditure crowding out private expenditure and reduce the burden placed on future generations of having to finance higher government debt.
If deficits rise because of government response to an emergency, such as supporting people and businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic, then, as soon as the problem begins to wane, governments should attempt to reduce the higher deficits by raising taxes or cutting government expenditure. This was the approach of many governments, including the Coalition and Conservative governments in the UK from 2010, as econommies began to recover from the 2007/8 financial crisis.
‘Modern Monetary Theory‘ challenges these arguments. Advocates of the theory support the use of higher deficits financed by monetary expansion if the money is spent on things that increase potential output as well as actual output. Examples include spending on R&D, education, infrastructure, health and housing.
Modern monetary theorists still accept that excess demand will lead to inflation. Governments should therefore avoid excessive deficits and central banks should avoid creating excessive amounts of money. But, they argue that inflation caused by excess demand has not been a problem for many years in most countries. Instead, we have a problem of too little investment and too little spending generally. There is plenty of scope, they maintain, for expanding demand. This, if carefully directed, can lead to productivity growth and an expansion of aggregate supply to match the rise in aggregate demand.
Government deficits, they argue, are not intrinsically bad. Government debt is someone else’s assets, whether in the form of government bonds, savings certificates, Treasury bills or other instruments. Provided the debt can be serviced at low interest rates, there is no problem for the government and the spending it generates can be managed to allow economies to function at near full capacity.
The following videos and articles look at modern monetary theory and assess its relevance. Not surprisingly, they differ in their support of the theory!
- Modern monetary theory: the rise of economists who say huge government debt is not a problem
The Conversation, John Whittaker (7/7/20)
- Modern Monetary Theory: How MMT is challenging the economic establishment
ABC News, Gareth Hutchens (20/7/20)
- What is Modern Monetary Theory and is it THE answer?
Sydney Morning Herald, Jessica Irvine (2/7/20)
- MMT: what is modern monetary theory and will it work?
MoneyWeek, Stuart Watkins (14/7/20)
- MMT: the magic money tree bears fruit
MoneyWeek, Stuart Watkins (17/7/20)
- Modern Monetary Theory is no Magic Money Tree
Adam Smith Institute, Matt Kilcoyne (20/5/20)
- “Modern Monetary Theory” Goes Mainstream
Forbes, Nathan Lewis (10/7/20)
- How Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have become Magic Money Tree huggers
The Scotsman, Bill Jamieson (16/7/20)
- Ignore the impacts of debt-fuelled stimulus at your peril
Livewire, David Rosenbloom (14/7/20)
- Modern Monetary Theory, explained
Vox.com, Dylan Matthews (16/4/19)
- Compare traditional Keynesian economics and modern monetary theory.
- Using the equation of exchange, MV = PY, what would a modern monetary theorist say about the effect of an expansion of M on the other variables?
- What is the role of fiscal policy in modern monetary theory?
- What evidence might suggest that money supply has been unduly restricted?
- When, according to modern monetary theory, is a rising government deficit (a) not a problem; (b) a problem?
- Is there any truth in the saying, ‘There’s no such thing as a magic money tree’?
- Provide a critique of modern monetary theory.
In a recent post, Global Warning, we looked at concerns about the global economy. One of these was about the ineffectiveness of monetary policy to stimulate aggregate demand and to restore growth rates. Despite the use of unconventional monetary policies, such as quantitative easing and negative interest rates, and despite the fact that these policies have become the new convention, they have failed to do enough to bring sustained recovery.
The two articles below argue that the failure has been due to a flawed model of monetary policy: one that takes too little account of the behaviour of banks and the drivers of consumption and of physical investment. Negative interest rates on banks’ holdings of reserves in central banks are hardly likely to push down lending rates to businesses sufficiently to stimulate investment in new plant and machinery if firms already have overcapacity. And consumers are unlikely to borrow more for consumption if their wages are barely rising and they already have debts that they fear will be difficulty to pay off.
As Joseph Stiglitz points out:
As real interest rates have fallen, business investment has stagnated. According to the OECD, the percentage of GDP invested in a category that is mostly plant and equipment has fallen in both Europe and the US in recent years. (In the US, it fell from 8.4% in 2000 to 6.8% in 2014; in the EU, it fell from 7.5% to 5.7% over the same period.) Other data provide a similar picture.
And the unwillingness of many firms and individuals to borrow is matched by banks’ caution about lending in an uncertain economic environment. Many are more concerned about building their capital and liquidity ratios to protect themselves. In these circumstances, negative interest rates have little effect on stimulating bank lending and, by hurting their balance sheets through lower earnings on the money markets, may even encourage them to lend less
What central banks should be doing, argue both Stiglitz and Elliott, is finding ways of directly stimulating consumption and investment. Perhaps this will involve central banks “focusing on the flow of credit, which means restoring and maintaining local banks’ ability and willingness to lend to SMEs.” Perhaps it will mean using helicopter money, as we examined in the previous blog. As Larry Elliott points out:
The fact that economists at Deutsche Bank published a helpful cut-out-and-keep guide to helicopter money last week is a straw in the wind.
As the Deutsche research makes clear, the most basic variant of helicopter money involves a central bank creating money so that it can be handed to the finance ministry to spend on tax cuts or higher public spending. There are two differences with QE. The cash goes directly to firms and individuals rather than being channelled through banks, and there is no intention of the central bank ever getting it back.
So if the model of monetary policy is indeed flawed, prepare for more unconventional measures
What’s Wrong With Negative Rates?, Project Syndicate, Joseph Stiglitz (13/4/16)
The bad smell hovering over the global economy The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/4/16)
- What arguments does Stiglitz use to support his claim that the model of monetary policy currently being used is flawed?
- In what ways has monetary policy hurt older people and what has been the effect on their spending and on aggregate demand in general?
- Why has monetary policy encouraged investors to shift their portfolios toward riskier assets?
- Examine the argument that ultra-low interest rates may result in a rise in unemployment in the long term by affecting the relative prices of capital and labour.
- What forms might helicopter money take?
- Would the use of helicopter money necessarily result in an increase in aggregate demand? What would determine the size of any such increase?
Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected leader of the Labour Party, is proposing a number of radical economic policies. One that has attracted considerable attention is for a new form of QE, which has been dubbed ‘people’s quantitative easing’.
This would involve newly created money by the Bank of England being directly used to fund spending on large-scale housing, energy, transport and digital projects. Rather than the new money being used to purchase assets, as has been the case up to now, with the effect filtering only indirectly into aggregate demand and even more indirectly into aggregate supply, under the proposed scheme, both aggregate demand and aggregate supply would be directly boosted.
Although ‘conventional’ QE has worked to some extent, the effects have been uneven. Asset holders and those with large debts, such as mortgages, have made large gains from higher asset prices and lower interest rates. By contrast, savers in bank and building society accounts have seen the income from their savings decline dramatically. What is more, the indirect nature of the effects has meant time lags and uncertainty over the magnitude of the effects.
But despite the obvious attractiveness of the proposals, they have attracted considerable criticism. Some of these are from a political perspective, with commentators from the right arguing against an expansion of the state. Other criticisms focus on the operation and magnitude of the proposals
One is that it would change the relationship between the Bank of England and the government. If the Bank of England created money to fund government projects, that would reduce or even eliminate the independence of the Bank. Independence has generally been seen as desirable to prevent manipulation of the central bank by the government for short-term political gain. Those in favour of people’s QE argue that the money would be directed into a National Investment Bank, which would then make the investment allocation decisions. The central bank would still be independent in deciding the amount of QE.
This leads to the second criticism and that is about whether further QE is necessary at the current time. Critics argue that while QE of whatever type was justified when the economy was in recession and struggling to recover, now would be the wrong time for further stimulus. Indeed, it could be highly inflationary. The economy is currently expanding. If banks respond by increasing credit, the velocity of circulation of narrow money could rise and broad money supply grow, providing enough money to underpin a growing economy.
Many advocates of people’s QE accept this second point and see it as a contingency plan in case the economy fails to recover and further monetary stimulus is deemed necessary. If further QE is not felt necessary by the Bank of England, then the National Investment Bank could fund investment through conventional borrowing.
The following articles examine people’s QE and look at its merits and dangers. Given the proposal’s political context, several of the articles approach the issue from a very specific political perspective. Try to separate the economic analysis in the articles from their political bias.
Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal
The Economy in 2020 Jeremy Corbyn (22/7/15)
People’s quantitative easing — no magic Financial Times, Chris Giles (13/8/15)
How Green Infrastructure Quantitative Easing would work Tax Research UK, Richard Murphy (12/3/15)
What is QE for the people? Money Week, Simon Wilson (22/8/15)
QE or not QE? A slippery slope to breaking the Bank EconomicsUK.com, David Smith (23/8/15)
We don’t need “People’s QE”, basic economic literacy is enough Red Box, Jonathan Portes (13/8/15)
Is Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of ‘quantitative easing for people’ feasible? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (14/8/15)
Corbynomics: Quantitative Easing for People (PQE) Huffington Post, Adnan Al-Daini (7/9/15)
Corbyn’s “People’s QE” could actually be a decent idea FT Alphaville, Matthew C. Klein (6/8/15)
Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘People’s QE’ would force Britain into three-year battle with the EU The Telegraph, Peter Spence (15/8/15)
Would Corbyn’s ‘QE for people’ float or sink Britain? BBC News, Robert Peston (12/8/15)
Strategic Quantitative Easing – public money for public benefit New Economics Foundation blog, Josh Ryan-Collins (12/8/15)
People’s QE and Corbyn’s QE Mainly Macro blog, Simon Wren-Lewis
You can print money, so long as it’s not for the people The Guardian, Zoe Williams (4/10/15)
- What is meant by ‘helicopter money’? How does it differ from quantitative easing as practised up to now?
- Is people’s QE the same as helicopter money?
- Can people’s QE take place alongside an independent Bank of England?
- What is meant by the velocity of circulation of money? What happened to the velocity of circulation following the financial crisis?
- How does conventional QE feed through into aggregate demand?
- Under what circumstances would people’s QE be inflationary?
The eurozone is certainly in trouble and, despite the efforts of world leaders to create confidence, it appears that most announcements are having the opposite effect. The risk of deflation has now emerged to be very true; the powerhouse of Europe ‘needs to do more’ and the euro has fallen following Mario Draghi’s recent comments. So, just how bad are things in the eurozone?
Mario Draghi suggested that as a means of stimulating the eurozone economies, a process of quantitative easing may soon need to begin. However, rather than reassuring investors that action was being taken to improve the economic performance in the region, it appears to have had the opposite effect. Following his comments, the euro fell to its lowest level since the middle of 2010.
Quantitative easing has seen much use in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the aim in the eurozone would be to put a stop to the continuing price decreases. The eurozone has now entered deflation and, while the aim of this economic area has always been low prices, deflation is not good news. The downward pressure on prices has been largely driven by oil prices falling and prices in other areas remaining relatively stable.
Quantitative easing would inject money into the eurozone, thus creating growth (or at least that’s the idea) and pushing up prices. One of Mario Draghi’s comments was:
‘We are making technical preparations to alter the size, pace and composition of our measures in early 2015.’
So, while it’s not certain that the QE policy will be used, it seems pretty likely, especially as this policy has been floating around for almost a year.
A key question is, will it work? The quantity theory of money does suggest that an increase in the money supply will lead to inflationary pressures, unless its velocity of circulation falls. But will it actually stimulate aggregate demand and economic growth? If there is more money in the banking system and hence more money available for lending then it may well stimulate investment and consumption. However, if consumers and firms are not confident about the effectiveness of the policy or about the future of the economy, then will the fact that more money is available for lending actually encourage them to borrow? In this case will there merely be a fall in the velocity of circulation?
The comments by Mario Draghi have also caused the euro to fall to its lowest level since 2010. The graph included in the CNBC article provides an interesting view of the path of the euro. Marc Chandler, from Brown Brothers Harriman said:
‘I’d say there’s a good chance it [the euro] gets there [parity with the dollar] before the election next November (2016) … We know the Fed’s going to be raising rates sooner or later, and the ECB is going to be easing sooner or later. I just see a steady grind lower.’
The outlook of the euro therefore doesn’t look too good by all accounts. It is now a waiting game to see if the policy of quantitative easing is implemented and whether or not it has the desired effect. The following articles consider this topic.
Eurozone economy slows further BBC News (6/1/15)
Eurozone falls into deflation for first time since October 2009 Financial Times, Claire Jones (7/1/15)
Eurozone officially falls into deflation, piling pressure on ECB The Telegraph, Marion Dakers (7/1/15)
Eurozone consumer prices fall for first time in five years Nasdaq, Brian Blackstone and Paul Hannon (7/1/15)
Draghi comments send euro to lowest level since 2010 BBC News (2/1/15)
Oil slump drags Eurozone into deflation The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (7/1/15)
Eurozone prices fall more than expected in December Reuters (7/1/15)
Eurozone lurches into deflation after oil price crashes Independent, Russell Lynch (7/1/15)
German inflation hits five-year low as Eurozone prepares for QE The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (5/1/15)
Euro slide could take it to parity with dollar CNBC, Patti Domm (7/1/15)
- Why is deflation a cause for concern when normally the main problem is inflation that is too high?
- What is the quantity theory of money and how does it suggest an increase in the money supply will affect prices?
- If quantitative easing is implemented, is it likely to have the desired effect? Explain why or why not.
- Why has the euro been affected by Mario Draghi’s comments? Use a diagram to help your explanation.
- How will quantitative easing help to stimulate economic growth across the Eurozone? Are there any other policies that would be effective?
- Oil prices have had a big influence on the deflationary pressures in the Eurozone. If oil prices increased again, would this be sufficient to create inflation?
With economic growth in the UK stalling and growing alarm about the state of the world economy, the Bank of England has announced a second round of quantitative easing (QE2). This will involve the Bank buying an extra £75 billion of government bonds (gilts) in the market over the following four months. This is over and above the nearly £200 billion of assets, mainly gilts, purchased in the first round of quantitative easing in 2009/10. The purchase will release extra (narrow) money into the economy. Hopefully, this will then allow more credit to be created and the money multiplier to come into play, thereby increasing broad money by a multiple of the £75 billion.
In his letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer seeking permission for QE2, the Governor stated:
In the United Kingdom, the path of output has been affected by a number of temporary factors, but the available indicators suggest that the underlying rate of growth has also moderated. The squeeze on households’ real incomes and the fiscal consolidation are likely to continue to weigh on domestic spending, while the strains in bank funding markets may also inhibit the availability of credit to consumers and businesses. While the stimulatory monetary stance and the present level of sterling should help to support demand, the weaker outlook for, and the increased downside risks to, output growth mean that the margin of slack in the economy is likely to be greater and more persistent than previously expected.
… The deterioration in the outlook has made it more likely that inflation will undershoot the 2% target in the medium term. In the light of that shift in the balance of risks, and in order to keep inflation on track to meet the target over the medium term, the Committee judged that it was necessary to inject further monetary stimulus into the economy.
But will increasing the money supply lead to increased aggregate demand, or will the money simply sit in banks, thereby increasing their liquidity ratio, but not resulting in any significant increase in spending? In other words, in the equation MV = PY, will the rise in M simply result in a fall in V with little effect on PY? And even if it does lead to a rise in PY, will it be real national income (Y) that rises, or will the rise in MV simply be absorbed in higher prices (P)?
According to a recent article published in the Bank of England’s Quarterly Bulletin, The United Kingdom’s quantitative easing policy: design, operation and impact, the £200 billion of asset purchases under QE1 led to a rise in real GDP of about 2%. If QE2 has the same proportionate effect, real GDP could be expected to rise by about 0.75%. But some commentators argue that things are different this time and that the effect could be much smaller. The following articles examine what is likely to happen. They also look at one of the side-effects of the policy – the reduction in the value of pensions as the policy drives down long-term gilt yields and long-term interest rates generally.
Bank of England launches second round of QE Interactive Investor, Sarah Modlock (6/10/11)
Britain in grip of worst ever financial crisis, Bank of England governor fears Guardian, Larry Elliott and Katie Allen (6/10/11)
Interview with a Governor BBC News, Stephanie Flanders interviews Mervyn King (6/10/11)
The meaning of QE2 BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (6/10/11)
Bank of England’s MPC united over quantitative easing BBC News (19/10/11)
Bank of England’s QE2 may reach £500bn, economists warn The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (6/10/11)
‘Shock and awe’ may be QE’s biggest asset The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (6/10/11)
Quantitative easing by the Bank of England: printing more money won’t work this time The Telegraph, Andrew Lilico (6/10/11)
BOE launches QE2 with 75 billion pound boost Reuters, various commentators (6/10/11)
Shock and awe from Bank of England Financial Times, Chris Giles (6/10/11)
More QE: Full reaction Guardian, various commentators (6/10/11)
Quantitative easing warning over pension schemes Guardian, Jill Insley (6/10/11)
Pension schemes warn of QE2 Titanic disaster Mindful money (6/10/11)
Calm down Mervyn – this so-called global recession is really not that bad Independent, Hamish McRae (9/10/11)
Bank of England publications
Asset Purchase Facility: Gilt Purchases Bank of England Market Notice (6/10/11)
Governor’s ITN interview (6/10/11)
Bank of England Maintains Bank Rate at 0.5% and Increases Size of Asset Purchase Programme by £75 billion to £275 billion Bank of England News Release (6/10/11)
Quantitative Easing – How it Works
Governor’s letter to the Chancellor (6/10/11)
Chancellor’s reply to the Governor (6/10/11)
Minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee meeting, 5 and 6 October 2011 (19/10/11)
Quarterly Bulletin (2011, Q3)
- Explain how quantitative easing works.
- What is likely to determine its effectiveness in stimulating the economy?
- Why does the Bank of England prefer to inject new money into the economy by purchasing gilts rather than by some other means that might directly help small business?
- Explain how QE2 is likely to affect pensions.
- What will determine whether QE2 will be inflationary?
- Why is the perception of the likely effectiveness of QE2 one of the key determinants of its actual effectiveness?