Money, Government Bonds, and Quantitative Easing

Quantitative Easing is considered, by many, to be a euphemism for printing money. Is there just possibly a germ of truth in that statement? Why is it done?What exactly does it mean?

In normal times, central banks try to increase the amount of lending and activity in the economy  by cutting interest rates which encourages people to spend, not save. However, when interest rates are close to zero and can go no lower, another  option for a central bank is to lend money into the economy, by which they usually mean the commercial banks, directly. That is  supposed to be the motivation for quantitative easing (QE).

The way the central bank does this is by buying assets – usually government bonds – using money it has simply created “out of thin air” .The institutions selling those bonds , either commercial banks or other financial institutions, will then have extra money in their accounts, so boosting the money supply. That is the mainstream theory

It was used first by  in Japan to help it out of a period of deflation following an asset bubble collapse in the 1990s.

Let us just go through the steps of what happens when a government issues, say, $1 billion of new bonds and then re-purchases them. That in a nutshell is QE – although usually just the last step is considered. A government issues (prints!) the bonds. They are sold for $1 billion at auction. The government can then claim, somewhat dubiously as we will see, their $1 billion is real and hasn’t been printed. The financial institutions have their bonds. The government decides to buy them back. There would be no point in using the original $1 billion so
Government prints another $1 billion. The government gets back the bonds. As they are an IOU all they can do is tear them up. The financial institutions then have back their $1 billion, plus no doubt a little extra to keep them
sweet, so there’s no net change as far as they are concerned. The bonds no longer exist and all that is apparent is the government, somewhat to their embarrassment, have funded their deficit by printing money after all!

But is all what it seems?

Let’s start from the beginning with our understanding of what money is. Nearly all modern money is fiat based. It is not backed by anything tangible like Gold or silver. It isn’t pegged to any foreign currency and can be worth more or less against other currencies one day than the next. It has a value because of the power of governments to impose taxation and insist on payment in that currency.

All money is printed. Or, it is an electronic version of that. So the term ‘printed’ can mean either one or the other. Look in your wallet and you’ll possible have a $100 dollars or so of printed government money. They are just IOUs. You’ll maybe have a thousand dollars or so in your bank account. They are just electronic government IOUs. Basically they are the same thing.

So what is a bond? Anyone can issue a bond which is just an IOU with interest included. If the issuer sells a bond, there will be a promise to pay a certain amount at some future date. Depending on the credit worthiness of the issuer and the prevailing, and anticipated future,level of interest rates at the time, the bond will have some value which is less than the face value of the bond.For instance, I could issue a ten year bond for $200 and maybe expect to sell it for $100. That would give my creditors approximately a 7% return on their investment. That bond would be trade able during its lifetime and at some intermediate point will have a value of $150.

Governments too issue bonds. The more credit worthy the government, the less risk of their defaulting on their commitment and so the higher price they can expect to receive on issue. These are usually decided by a process of auction. When governments are in full control of their own sovereign currencies there is zero risk of involuntary default. There isn’t zero risk of inflation though, and so the issue price will probably still be less than the face value of the bond. Although there have been instances of that not being the case. It is possible to have negative interest rates. In that case investors are effectively paying a fee for someone else to look after their money.

Government bonds are still known as ‘Gilt-edged securities’ in the UK. At one time they were printed pieces of paper with golden edges. On some bonds, coupons were attached which could be handed in for the payment of interest.
The term coupon is still used for payment of interest on a bond.

The conventional wisdom is that it would be highly irresponsible for Governments to finance their budget deficits by printing money. It is not considered acceptable for Governments to spend new money into existence. There is a different argument when it comes to lending money into existence. That’s different of course! We may come back to how commercial banks by arrangement with reserve banks can create money ‘out of thin air’ in a later posting.

That argument does, of course, depend on whether bonds are not just another form of money. If we look at one piece of paper which is a bond, we have to ask if it is really different from another piece which is in the form of a banknote. One will have an interest rate associated with it but what if that interest rate is very low as would be the case presently? What if that interest rate were so close to zero that it hardly mattered? In that case it can be seen there is no functional difference between a bond and a banknote.If one is printed money then they are both printed money. The level of interest is just a detail.

Quantitative easing, the buying of bonds, and other securities by Government, is just an exchange of one form of money for another. Its all done in bank accounts in reality. There are probably no pieces of paper involved. A customer of a central bank has money in bonds when it is in one type of bank account. The process of QE means shifting out the money to another account which is currency based. The process will tend to reduce the level of interest rates but if they are near zero to start with, probably not by much. The overall effect on the economy will be small. Especially when the financial institutions choose to sit on their assets, rather than lend them out,  as they previously decided to do. Contrary to initial fears QE has not led to runaway inflation in countries where it is being used.

Yes, printing money has occurred: it happened when the bonds were first issued, which is considered quite normal, not when they are being re-bought.

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One response to “Money, Government Bonds, and Quantitative Easing

  1. Good Post. Very well explained. Thanks! 🙂

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