Anatole Kaletsky

Suddenly, quantitative easing for the people seems possible

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 9, 2012 18:24 UTC

Last week I discussed in this column the idea that the vast amounts of money created by central banks and distributed for free to banks and bond funds – equivalent to $6,000 per man, woman and child in America and £6,500 in Britain – should instead be given directly to citizens, who could spend or save it as they pleased. I return to this theme so soon because radical ideas about monetary policy suddenly seem to be gaining traction. Some of the world’s most powerful central bankers – Mario Draghi of the European Central Bank last Thursday, Eric Rosengren of the Boston Fed on Monday and Mervyn King of the Bank of England this Wednesday – are starting to admit that the present approach to creating money, known as quantitative easing, is failing to generate economic growth. Previously taboo ideas can suddenly be mentioned.

Rosengren, for example, suggested that the Fed should expand the money supply without any limit as long it sees unnecessary unemployment. Draghi has similarly promised to spend whatever it takes to prevent a euro breakup, although politically his ability to do this remains in doubt. Most interesting was a speech by Adair Turner, chairman of Britain’s Financial Services Authority and leading contender to be the next governor of the Bank of England. This speech strongly challenged the pervasive complacency of central bankers and called for new ideas that might combine central-bank money creation with government decision making on how to bypass banks and inject this money into the non-financial economy of consumption, investment and jobs.

The radical alternative discussed here last week – QE for the People (or QEP, for short) – would bypass banks completely by distributing newly created money straight to the public. It is not yet on anyone’s agenda, but neither is it any longer dismissed as a joke.

Given the clear political attractions of giving money to citizens, rather than bankers, it may start to gain attention, at which point there will surely be powerful objections to this idea. Apart from the obvious observation that bankers and financiers are very powerful interest groups, there are four genuine arguments against QEP as a way to stimulate economic recovery.

The first is that it wouldn’t work. Since banks and bond investors simply hoarded most of the $2 trillion delivered to them via QE, maybe citizens would do the same. Instead of spending their QEP bonuses to buy consumer goods and houses and create jobs, citizens scarred by the financial crisis might simply save their bonuses or use them to pay down debts. This could indeed happen. But if it did, economic prospects would still be transformed, since the debt burdens crushing many households would be lightened. If the $2 trillion in QE had instead been used to repay consumer debts, U.S. household debt would be reduced from 83 percent to 70 percent of GDP, roughly where it was in the 1990s. The excess leverage created by the housing and credit bubble would be eliminated at a stroke.

How about quantitative easing for the people?

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 1, 2012 19:34 UTC

Through an almost astrological coincidence of timing, the European Central Bank, the Bank of England and the U.S. Federal Reserve Board all held their policy meetings this week immediately after Wednesday’s publication of the weakest manufacturing numbers for Europe and America since the summer of 2009. With the euro-zone and Britain clearly back in deep recession and the U.S. apparently on the brink, the central bankers all decided to do nothing, at least for the moment. They all restated their unbreakable resolution to do “whatever it takes” – to prevent a breakup of the euro, in the case of the ECB, or, for the Fed and the BoE, to achieve the more limited goal of economic recovery. But what exactly is there left for the central bankers to do?

They have essentially two options. They could do even more of what the Fed and the BoE have been doing since late 2008 – creating new money and spending it on government bonds, in the policy known as “Quantitative Easing.” Or they could admit the policies of the past three years were not working, at least not well enough. And try something different.

There is, admittedly, a third option – to do nothing, on the grounds that public bodies should stop interfering with the private economy and instead leave financial markets to restore economic prosperity and full employment of their own accord. This third idea is based on the economic theory that if governments and central bankers leave well enough alone, “efficient” and “rational” financial markets will keep a capitalist economy growing and automatically return it to a prosperous equilibrium after occasional hiccups. This theory, though still taught in graduate schools and embedded in economic models, is implausible, to put it mildly, especially after the experience of the past decade. In any case, experience shows that the option of government doing nothing in deep economic slumps simply doesn’t exist in modern democracies.