When Jeremy Corbyn, was running his successful campaign for the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party, he floated the idea of “People’s QE”. “QE” stands for Quantitative Easing, the means by which central banks try to loosen monetary policy in an economy without reducing interest rates – handy when interest rates are near zero. It attracted quite a bit of attention from economists, much of it quite approving. That is because the idea touches on one of the most important aspects of modern economic policy: the suggestion that governments can sustain quite big deficits simply by “printing” money. In the end we find, not for the first time, that the current Conservative government acts much further to the political left than it talks, as did its Conservative-Liberal Democrat predecessor.
Back in the 1980s, when monetary policy first became the height of fashion, we had uncomplicated views about what it was about. Although most money was in bank accounts, economists painted a picture as though it was all in notes and coins, and the various actors behaved as if they were kids spending pocket money (and even then was probably too simplistic…). They talked of a “money supply”, which could be manipulated, and the size of which affected spending behaviour. We are older and wiser now, though many economists and journalists still talk about “printing money”, even though physical money has almost no role to play, and bank accounts are different in very important ways. Even trained economists who should know better sometimes trip themselves up in this way. For example there is much excited talk about how commercial banks create money rather than the central bank – which turns out to be a red herring on reflection [That link from Paul Krugman includes a broken link to a masterful essay from James Tobin in 1963, read it here]. It is better to look on monetary policy as a series of policy instruments under the control of the central bank, which have not entirely knowable effects on the economy at large.
The most important of these instruments is the short-term interest rate the central bank charges to commercial banks in their interactions with it. These ripple right through the economy. But when they are very low, as they are now in the UK, it is very hard to lower them further. Some European banks are using negative interest rates without the sky having fallen in, but these negative rates aren’t very high – fractions of a percentage point. So how to “loosen” policy – that is encourage a greater level of economic activity? Here the invention of QE comes in, pioneered, as so much of modern policy, by Japan in the 1990s and early 2000s. This is often talked of as if it means printing physical money and handing it out to the kids to spend on sweeties. What it actually means is that the central bank goes into the market and buys bonds, usually government bonds, like British gilts.
How does that help? Well the people who held the bonds now hold cash instead, which they should spend on something else – which might include new capital investment, after it has changed hands a few times. And it might reduce bond yields, which will reduce long term interest rates right across the economy, and increase asset prices. This creates a “wealth effect” that might encourage the mass affluent to spend a bit more money on stuff that people make. Or all that could happen is that there is a merry-go-round of money chasing various flavours of pre-existing asset to create an asset price bubble. It’s not very clear what has happened to the Bank of England’s QE over the years. The bank produces various statistical associations as evidence that it has helped stimulate the wider economy. Others are sceptical.
Which is where People’s QE comes in. What if, instead of buying government bonds in the market, the money went into extra government spending, such as infrastructure investment, or even current spending. Because the Bank controls the currency in the UK, it can fund the government’s deficit without the need to borrow money from investors. It borrows money from itself. This amounts to supporting looser fiscal policy (i.e. government tax and spend), which should provide a more predictable stimulus to the wider economy.
Mr Corbyn’s advisers developed the idea with the suggestion of administrative structures to channel the extra money into infrastructural investment. This puzzled some economists. There is no need for such engineering. All the government has to do is spend the money, increasing its deficit, issue bonds as normal, which the Bank of England then buys in the existing QE programme. If the Bank is buying bonds, the government is less beholden to the bond markets. In Japan, which has been practising QE on a massive scale, the government now issues little net debt to the bond markets, making large deficits sustainable.
But how does this work? Surely it is something for nothing? The answer to that is that it only works if there is slack in the economy, and the government steps in to create demand because businesses are investing less than the public is saving, creating an imbalance. If this is not the case, you can get inflation, which is what happened to Germany and Austria in the 1920s, Zimbabwe more recently, and is happening in Argentina now. Alternatively you get a asset price bubble. Which in the modern, globalised financial and trading system is in fact more likely for developed economies – though this seems to be a blind spot for many economists, who think that asset markets are too efficient for that.
But in the developed economies, including the US, the Eurozone and Japan, as well as the UK, there does seem to be scope to do this kind of stimulus. There is a lack of business investment, while, it appears, too much money ends up in the hands of rich people, who don’t spend it. Nobody knows how long-term this problem is, but it does look as if large government deficits are much easier to sustain than before. If the bond markets refuse to fund all of the deficit, then central banks can simply “print the money” as the popularisers would put it. Prominent British economist (Lord) Adair Turner (whom I am something of a fan of) suggested that this could be a long term policy in a recent book.
In Britain there is an accounting wrinkle which is having an important impact. The Bank buys government bonds, but it holds them rather than cancelling them, so that it can sell them should it want to tighten policy. So the government still pays interest on the gilts the Bank holds, and this used to count towards the publicly declared deficit. But the Coalition government changed the rules, so that it does not count the interest on the Bank’s holdings against the deficit. That reduces the fiscal deficit and allows the government to spend money on other things instead. Also the effects of QE on longer term gilt yields reduces the deficit projected by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), which plays such a pivotal role in longer term government spending plans. According to the FT’s Chris Giles £22.4bn of the £27bn that the Chancellor, George Osborne, “found” to allow him to loosen austerity measures in the Autumn Statement resulted from these accounting tricks. This boils down to People’s QE, and Mr Osborne used it to fund his U-turn on tax credit cuts, amongst other things.
The problem, as Mr Giles points out, is what happens when the Bank feels the need to tighten policy in, say, a year or two’s time? Then the whole thing goes into reverse. Politicians have seen gain in blurring the distinction between fiscal and monetary policy. That could return to haunt them, at both ends of the political spectrum.