A few months ago David Cameron, the Prime Minister, defending the government's austerity policy said that "Money doesn't grow on trees!", a well used expression when discussing household budgets. The Financial Times economics columnist Martin Wolf responded that money did indeed grow on trees, and the money tree went was the Bank of England. Can Mr Wolf be right?
Mr Wolf was referring to the Bank of England's policy of buying government bonds, known as Quantitative Easing or QE. One arm of the government, the Treasury issues bonds to pay for government spending; another, the Bank of England, buys them by simply adding to its reserves - creating money. Actually, the Bank doesn't buy the exact same bonds, it buys others that had been issued earlier - but it amounts to nearly the same thing. The extra money ends up in the accounts of major investors such as insurance companies or pension funds, at home and abroad. Government spending has been financed by the creation of money. Hence money seems to grow on trees.
This type of financing is associated in the public imagination with disaster - such as the hyperinflation in Germany and Austria after the First World War, or more recently in Zimbabwe. In conventional economic theory an increase in money supply, if not matched by expansion of the economy, leads to inflation. But there is no increase in inflation in either Britian or the USA, which are both practising QE, and in Japan, where increasing inflation is actually a policy objective of QE, the increase in inflation is anaemic. So what is going on?
There are three problems with the conventional economic theory of money. First is that only trivial amounts of money are represented by notes and coins, whose circulation is controlled by the government. Instead we use bank accounts provided by commercial banks. Economists have tried to understand this type of money in equivalent terms to notes and coins. People bank money and the banks then lend it; the banks do not create money, though the central bank may. But further reflection reveals that this is not the way it works, as the Bank of England has recently admitted. It is the other way round: banks create money by lending it to people. With this more realistic idea of what money is, we can see that far from the money supply expanding with QE, it is shrinking as banks reduce their balance sheets after the boom years when they created money freely. You could then argue that QE is simply offsetting the shrinkage of credit from the banks, balancing the whole thing out. All will be well until the banks turn the corner and start creating money again.
But there is a the second problem. The overall supply of money, as far as it can be measured, does not strongly correlate with either the size of the economy or inflation, as monetary theory predicts. That's because money doesn't flow round the system at a constant speed. If you print banknotes, and people simply stuff the new notes under the their mattresses, the real economy doesn't change. The electronic equivalent is people holding bank deposits which they don't spend. That's been happening a lot. Standard monetary theory, such as that put forward by people like Milton Freidman, is based on the idea that money circulates at a reasonably constant speed. But in fact people don't behave that way.
But even if they did, there's the third problem. Excess monetary expenditure does not necessarily lead to inflation; in fact in a modern developed economy it rarely seems to. Instead of people raising consumption which pushes up consumer prices and then pay, people spend it on assets or imported goods. Asset prices don't seem to behave in a rational way, being subject to a price bubbles. In the modern globalised economy it is easy to import goods to satisfy any increase in consumer demand. And in any case the link between consumer prices and levels of pay has been broken. The wage-price spiral, at the heart of the way economists view the world, does not seem to happen in developed, globally integrated economies. Incidentally this is the problem that the recent aggressive monetary expansion in Japan ("Abenomics") has bumped into; prices are edging up but companies remain reluctant to let wages follow suit, so that inflation simply makes people poorer. The concept of central banks targeting inflation as their main objective, the big idea of the 1990s, has simply led to complacency.
So the theory of monetary economics is in ruins. That does not stop usually quite economically sane publications. like The Economist, discussing whether central banks should adjust their inflation targets from 2% to 3%, or use nominal GDP as their reference point instead of inflation. This is rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic (apologies for the over-used metaphor). Fortunately central bank professionals are highly pragmatic and they don't seem to be letting the vacuum in economic theory lead them into being too dangerous, with the possible exception of Japan.
And the upshot is that in many developed economies, including the British one, governments can get away with the monetary financing of government spending, without much in the way of immediate adverse consequences. Money really does grow on trees! How on earth to understand this - and any not so benign consequences?
Well you have to recognise that money is simply a means to an end: a social construct to enable economic activity and regulate societal relationships. It often helps when thinking about an economy to take the money away and see what is going on in what economists call the real economy.
Let's look at the real economic flows, which are at the heart of Mr Wolf's analysis. The government is consuming more resources than it is receiving from taxation. This deficit must be supported from outside (you can't print money in the real economy), and in general terms this is from two places: the private sector and outside the economy. The private sector, as a whole, is consuming less resources than it is producing and this surplus, in various direct and indirect ways is helping to support the government deficit. This is partly because people are working off their debts, but also because private businesses are hanging on to profits. Also the economy (in Britain and the USA in particular) as a whole is in deficit with the outside world: importing more than it exports. The government can safely run, or even increase, its deficit because it is balanced by surpluses by the private sector and the outside world.
But this is not sustainable in the long term, because persistent deficits lead to excessive debts, and the monetary economy breaks back into the real one. If the government has cleverly got out of financing its deficit with debt, it is simply passing on the affordability problem to somebody else. The assets being accumulated by the private sector and foreigners are not worth as much as they think. The government has avoided the risk of a solvency crisis by increasing the risk of a currency crisis or an asset price collapse. This may be localised, or it may be part of a gathering global financial crisis.
But if by running a deficit the government is staving off a wider economic disaster, or even bringing the country back to the path of economic growth, it is opting for a lesser evil. Mr Wolf argues for continued government deficits, financed by QE if necessary, on just these grounds. Austerity will simply precipitate the economic crisis rather than buying time to fend it off. He has a strong belief in a "trend rate" of economic growth of about 2% per annum which can be readily unlocked and get us out of jail.
That's where I disagree. That trend rate may sound a small number, but it is in fact a very large one for an economy that is fully developed (China can grow faster because it is catching up). A special set of circumstances combined in the period 1945 to about 1990 or 2000 to make it seem normal - but we are in a slow growth world now.
So keeping government deficits going using QE to bypass the bond markets caries risks. The main priority for governments is to reduce their countries' vulnerability to future crises and improve their resilience. That means rebalancing. Between public expenditure and tax; between rich and poor; between imports and exports; between financial engineering and productive investment; between young and old; between environmental degradation and restoration.
Government deficits may or may not play a role in this rebalancing process. For what it is worth I think the British government has it more or less right in terms of its overall austerity policies. QE may or may not be helping. But any money plucked from trees will, to mix metaphors, go off if it isn't spent wisely.