Tag Archives: Quantitative Easing

Where does the Money come from in a Monopoly game?

It has been some time since I last played Monopoly. The Board Game.  As I remember we have several players and a banker who assumes a similar role to government in our economy. He hands out money at the start of the game. Whenever we pass GO, or draw a lucky card from the community chest we get a bit more. He charges us tax,  super-tax, and might put us in jail from time to time.

We don’t like it when that happens, but where does the money come from in a Monopoly game? The more right wing players might argue it comes from other players when they land on the their Mayfair or Park Lane properties which have houses and hotels on them! They like to think that wealth creates money rather than the reverse. But those of us who take a wider view know it all comes from the banker originally.

The government/banker is always in debt. He has to be. His debts are the players’ monetary assets. Penny for penny. Would the game work at all if he insisted on always balancing his budget?

PS Apologies if this is a statement of the bleeding obvious! But, many of our highly educated (over-educated?)  politicians still seem to be in need of such.

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“We need deficits because people want to buy gilts” – Richard Murphy

Richard Murphy published an interesting  article “On budget surpluses and the economic illiteracy of the Fiscal Charter”  yesterday in which he made several important points such as “we need deficits because people want to buy gilts” and “if the government runs a surplus someone else has to run a deficit”.

Absolutely right and well said, Richard! I hope everyone who’s even the slightest bit worried about our deficit and so-called “national debt” reads this very important piece of what will be ‘news’ to them. Maybe John McDonnell has finally seen the light? There’s nothing wrong with a a change of mind when new evidence and new arguments compel that. Intelligent people change their views all the time as more information becomes avaialble.

The question to be resolved, and I must admit I’m not totally clear on the answer, is if we should sell gilts. Is the fact that people want to buy them a good enough reason to sell them? Why can’t we just allow people to put their money on deposit. Offer the a fixed interest rate, say 2%, and tell them “That’s it. Take it or leave it”.

Some would say 2% was way too high. We should pay 0%. So what will happen then? If we discourage people saving, deliberately creating enough inflation to make 0% , or even 2% very unattractive, we’ll theoretically have no deficits at all.

Because Government Deficit = Savings of the Non-Government

Is that what people really want? Is George Osborne aware that what he needs to do to achieve his surplus is create more inflation and stop selling gilts?

Is Government Spending Already by PQE?

We can think that all spending by government is already by the creation of new money, which is the general understanding of PQE (otherwise known as  Overt Monetary Financing of Government), using the concept that money is an IOU of a sovereign currency issuing government.

So, just as you or I have no use for our own IOUs, we tear them up when we get them back, neither has government. All money collected  in the form of taxation or in bond sales is simply shredded. Destroyed -either physically or digitally. When govt spends, it does so by issuing new IOUs. ie Issuing new money.

So what is the point of taxation? It’s to prevent high inflation as has already been mentioned in previous posts.

And the point of selling gilts (bonds)? It is to set longer term interest rates. Generally speaking: The more that are sold by auction, the lower their price, and the higher their yield. The higher their yield the higher are longer term interest rates.

If Government wants lower interest rates in the longer term it should sell fewer gilts, yet still create as many new IOUs, as many new ££, as it needs for spending purposes. Its spending decisions have to be such that they won’t produce too much inflation, of course,  which would require the raising of taxes. The balance between spending and taxation remains the subject of political debate as always.

A better idea might be to stop selling gilts completely and allow savers, ie the hitherto bond purchasers, to put their money on account with the BoE ( which is best considered as part of Treasury) and set the interest rate payable just as a high street bank would set the interest to us on our longer term savings. Short term interest rates are already set this way so the concept, and practice, just needs to be extended to include all savings. The interest rate would probably be higher for a longer deposit period, again as we might expect from our own bank.

And what about the exchange rate?

If the government offers lower interest rates the £ might be expected to fall, and higher rates will probably cause it to rise. If we stay with the idea of selling gilts, and stick with the concept that PQE  is somehow different,  we can say there will be less need for the government to ‘borrow’  and therefore less need to pay out interest.

This will have the same effect on the exchange rate as directly reducing interest rates.  It is just looking at the process from a different perspective.

PQE, as is conventionally understood, could be part of the government’s exchange rate strategy. That is if it wants one, and that could be the subject of another discussion! If it wants a lower pound, it does more PQE. A higher £ means less PQE. It depends on what sort of trade deficit we want to run. If we are happy to run a high deficit, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t, we can keep the pound high, but if we want to reduce it we will need a lower £.

Goodbye to £5 and £10 notes?

The  Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane’s speech. caused some raised  eyebrows recently. It sounds like he knows we’re in for some tough economic times ahead. Things are so desperate that it  might require the abolition of cash in the economy!  People will be forced to hold money in banks and see its value dwindle.

As Andy Haldane has put it “A more radical proposal still would be to remove the ZLB (zero lower bound) constraint entirely by abolishing paper currency.”

We could perhaps begrudgingly say Andy Haldane has shown political and economic courage in saying this. If we are being charitable we could credit Mr Haldane for highlighting the intellectual bankruptcy of most mainstream modern economic thinking. If we wished to be less charitable we’d have to say the idea of abolishing cash is about as stupid as it gets!

I hope it is the former and that cash won’t be abolished. But this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this silly argument argument from monetarist economists and in particular from Kenneth Rogoff. See  here  and  here. That they feel the need to make it shows they still haven’t really grasped that interest rates can’t have the controlling  effect they think they have on the wider economy.

When intelligent men like Rogoff and Haldane have silly ideas, political ideology is usually to blame. The main argument for banning cash, other than to hinder criminals and tax-dodgers, which is no stronger an argument now than it has ever been, is to facilitate sharply negative interest rates. But if we want to stimulate the economy, as we do right now, there’s an obvious and much easier alternative: ie loosen fiscal policy. Increase government spending and reduce levels of taxation.

The only reason to suggest something as outlandish as banning printed currency is that you believe this alternative to be impossible. Or, rather impossible according to one’s own political ideology.

Monetarism all sounds fine – superficially. When times are good interest rates are increased to slow the economy down. When times are bad they are lowered to stimulate lending and get it moving again. There’s no need for government to be involved at all. They can concentrate on balancing the books like any good business should.

Except that every stimulus leads to the build up of private debt in the economy. This build up slows down economic activity, and so we later have to have another reduction in interest rates. Then another and yet another after that . If we get it all wrong then there can even be a giant crash in the economy when those who’ve taken on too much private debt go bust and cause their creditors to go bust too.

So, eventually we arrive at the situation, as we have now, where interest rates in much of the western world  are close to zero and they need to go negative according to the theory to stimulate the economy again. Economists with more intelligence are saying “Whoa! There must be something wrong with the theory”. Others with less insight are saying “But this is just the special case of the zero lower bound” and those with no insight at all, or are stupefied by their own political ideology, are ploughing on regardless and calling for the abolition of cash!

Leaving aside the argument that many of us quite like the convenience of using cash, it’s much quicker than messing about with credit cards at the petrol station for example, it is a genuinely bad idea to go down the road of negative interest rates which will lead to an ever increasing build up of private debt in the economy.

Mainstream (ie Neo -Classical and Monetarist in outlook) economists didn’t spot the onset of the GFC because they didn’t  know where to look for the warning signals. The role of private debt in leading to booms and busts was denied. Expanding the “money supply” was the only standard remedy for stimulating economic activity and the risk of creating asset bubbles was largely ignored with disastrous consequences.

I may come back to the question of private debt in the economy later but for now I’ll just reference Prof Steve Keen’s excellent blog on the perils of debt deflation.

What is People’s Quantitative Easing?

PQE,  sometimes known as Overt Monetary Financing, is the process of creating new money, issued by the central bank in exchange for government bonds. This is then directly spent into the economy to stimulate economic activity. Whereas conventional Quantitative Easing is primarily to provide liquidity to banks and other financial institutions – Some might say it is to give them money which can create asset price bubbles, and other price distortions! – PQE is much simpler and free of many complications.  PQE  can be part of powerful fiscal policy to remedy the  problems of recession and depression.

Mention PQE, however, a term coined I believe by Richard Murphy, and it won’t be long before Zimbabwe and the Weimar Republic will be used as examples of why it’s not a good idea! That’s OTT, but nevertheless the objection of possible inflation needs to be addressed.

PQE could possibly cause inflation. All government spending, as with all spending, deficit or otherwise, carries an inflationary potential .

Deficit spending is necessary to keep the economy functioning when users of the currency wish to save some of it. Those who doubt that might just like to consider the very simple economy of a baby sitting circle. If everyone in the circle readily spent a token and received a night’s baby sitting in equal measure to their willingness to do a night’s baby sitting to receive a token, there’d be no problem at all. But, say, for whatever reason, some of the sitters decided to accumulate tokens. Fairly quickly there would be a shortage and the system would cease to function. There would be a demand, from those without tokens, that the baby sitting council should issue extra ones. Those with a stockpile of tokens would object, saying the “printing” of new tokens would devalue their existing tokens.

If the hoarders lent the tokens back to the council they could be pacified with some reward. Just as lenders of pounds to the government are pacified with a reward of extra pounds. But if the hoarders of the tokens saved them in a piggy bank and refused to lend them back, all the council could do would be to create new tokens and inject them into the system. This would be the equivalent of PQE.

Is one method more or less inflationary than the other? There’s not much in it. Arguably PQE would be less inflationary because there are no extra rewards needed. If the issuing of new tokens, by either method, was just enough to restart the system, not too much and not too little, then neither method would be inflationary.

So who are the hoarders in the real economy? The central banks of the big exporters are the biggest. The big exporters don’t want to spend all they earn by selling goods and services into the British economy. So they buy Government bonds and so effectively lend back their surplus tokens, or ££. The wealthy are the other main ‘culprits’. They tend to accumulate more ££ than they need.

But what if not everyone recycled their extra tokens back through the banking system? Suppose they kept hoards of cash in safes or bank deposit boxes? The government can’t borrow those back. All it can do is create some new tokens. PQE in other words.

The government can’t know just how fast money is moving or if lots of it is being stored this way. What it can expect is the combination of low interest rates and low inflation will make it more attractive for many users of currency who may be engaging in illegal, or borderline, transactions and so wish to hide their finances, will  to store their cash this way.  However, Government can easily monitor inflation. If it is engaging in PQE and inflation starts to be a problem it needs to back off. Alternatively if it’s not a problem it can do a bit more. The government needs to be careful, but shouldn’t be so scared of the idea that it doesn’t even try it out.

Why not give control of the fiscal deficit to the Bank of England?

In a democratic society, I would argue that decisions regarding interest rates, both long and short term, should be made by the elected government. They used to be. However, for nearly 20 years, short term rates in the UK have been set by the BoE. The level of short term interest rates is important and it can be adjusted to stimulate a slowing economy or slow an overstimulated economy. But there are other adjustments that can be made too.

Just as a pilot has all the control levers at his disposal when he’s flying a plane (if he, or she, does hand over to the co-pilot it would be all the controls not just one) then all the controls need to be either in the hands of government or the hands of the central bank.

But just who has the controls when it comes to controversial policy decisions like QE? Does an  independent Bank of England decide, all on its own, to buy up £375 billion of government securities from the private financial sector? I don’t think so!

QE is no big deal. That’s not a common view, I’ll agree, but from a scientific perspective, there seems to be no reason why the issue of government , or the BoE if you prefer, IOUs in the form of cash should be any more or less inflationary to the economic system than the issue of IOUs in the form of gilts (treasury bonds). If it is necessary to buy back gilts from the private sector to control longer term interest rates then that’s what needs to happen.

So why not give control of the fiscal deficit to the BoE too? The BoE could calculate the best combination of fiscal and monetary policy, including whatever level of QE is needed, and tell the government what it needs to do. Arguably the government could decide to raise income tax a bit here or reduce VAT a bit there , etc, but it would not have complete control of fiscal policy as it now does.

This is not my favoured option BTW. But, if the pilot is going to hand over the (macroeconomic) controls to his or her co-pilot it should be all the controls and not just one.