"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." This comment of Mark Twain applies with great force to policy on money and banking. Some are sure that the troubled western economies suffer from a surfeit of money. Meanwhile, orthodox policy makers believe that the right way to revive economies is by forcing private spending back up. Almost everybody agrees that monetary financing of governments is lethal.
These beliefs are all false.
When arguing that monetary policy is already too loose, critics point to exceptionally low interest rates and the expansion of central bank balance sheets. Yet Milton Friedman himself, doyen of postwar monetary economists, argued that the quantity of money alone matters.
Measures of broad money have stagnated since the crisis began, despite ultra-low interest rates and rapid growth in the balance sheets of central banks. Data on "divisia money" (a well-known way of aggregating the components of broad money), computed by the Center for Financial Stability in New York, show that broad money (M4) was 17 per cent below its 1967-2008 trend in December 2012. The US has suffered from famine, not surfeit.
As Claudio Borio of the Bank for International Settlements puts it in a recent paper, "The financial cycle and macroeconomics: what have we learnt?", "deposits are not endowments that precede loan formation; it is loans that create deposits". Thus, when banks cease to lend, deposits stagnate. In the UK, the lending counterpart of M4 was 17 per cent lower at the end of 2012 than in March 2009. (See charts.)
Those convinced hyperinflation is around the corner believe that banks expand their lending in direct response to their holdings of reserves at the central bank. Under a gold standard, reserves are indeed limited. Banks need to look at them rather carefully.
Under fiat (that is, government-made) money, however, the supply of reserves is potentially infinite. True, central banks can pretend reserves are limited. In practice, however, central banks will advance reserves without limit to any solvent bank (and, as we have seen, to insolvent ones). With central banks able to supply reserves at will, the constraints on lending are solvency and profitability. Expanding banking reserves is an ineffective way to increase lending, not a dangerous one.
In normal circumstances, bank lending responds to changes in interest rates set by central banks. But, as Lord Turner, chairman of the UK's Financial Services Authority, argued in an important lecture given last week, "Debt, Money and Mephistopheles", this lever is broken.
The response of policy makers is to try even harder to make the private sector lend and spend. Central banks can indeed drive the prices of bonds, equities, foreign currency and other assets to the moon, thereby stimulating private spending. But, as Lord Turner also argues, the costs of this approach might turn out to be high. There is "a danger that in seeking to escape from the deleveraging trap created by past excesses we may build up future vulnerabilities". William White, former BIS chief economist, expressed a similar concern in a paper on "Ultra Easy Monetary Policy and the Law of Unintended Consequences", last year.
Alternatives exist. As Lord Turner notes, a group of economists at the University of Chicago responded to the Depression by arguing for severing the link between the supply of credit to the private sector and creation of money. Henry Simons was the main proponent. But Irving Fisher of Yale University supported the idea, as did Friedman in "A Monetary and Fiscal Framework for Economic Stability", published in 1948.
The essence of this plan was 100 per cent backing of deposits by public debt. This scheme, they argued, would eliminate the instability of private credit and debt, dramatically reduce overt public debt and largely eliminate the many defects of current forms of private debt. "The Chicago Plan Revisited", a recent working paper from the International Monetary Fund, concludes that the scheme would indeed bring these benefits.
Let us not go so far. But this plan still brings out two important points.
First, it is impossible to justify the conventional view that fiat money should operate almost exclusively via today's system of private borrowing and lending. Why should state-created currency be predominantly employed to back the money created by banks as a byproduct of often irresponsible lending? Why is it good to support the leveraging of private property, but not the supply of public infrastructure? I fail to see any moral force to the idea that fiat money should only promote private, not public, spending.
Second, in the present exceptional circumstances, when expanding private credit and spending is so hard, if not downright dangerous, the case for using the state's power to create credit and money in support of public spending is strong. The quantity of extra central bank money required would surely be smaller than under today's scattergun quantitative easing. Why not employ monetary financing to recapitalize commercial banks, build infrastructure or cut taxes? The case for letting fiscal deficits facilitate private deleveraging, without undue expansion in overt public debt, is surely also strong.
What makes this policy so powerful is the combination of fiscal spending with monetary expansion: Keynesians can enjoy the former; monetarists the latter. Provided the decision on the scale of financing rests in the hands of the central bank and it, in turn, looks at the impact of the policy on the economy, this need not even generate high inflation, let alone hyperinflation. This would require discussions between the ministry of finance and the independent central bank. So be it. That cannot be avoided in extreme predicaments.
Cancer sufferers have to undergo dangerous treatments. Yet the result can still be a cure. As Lord Turner notes, "Japan should have done some outright monetary financing over the last 20 years, and if it had done so would now have a higher nominal gross domestic product, some combination of a higher price level and a higher real output level, and a lower debt to gross domestic product ratio". The conventional policy turned out to be dangerous. Whether this is also true of troubled countries today can be debated. But the view that it is never right to respond to a financial crisis with monetary financing of a consciously expanded fiscal deficit – helicopter money, in brief – is wrong. It simply has to be in the tool kit.