Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"Helicopter money as a policy option"

We last saw Professor Woodford in Sunday's "Evans-Pritchard: 'BIS and IMF attacks on quantitative easing deeply misguided warn monetarists'". Here's a longer version of the forum held at the London Business School, from VoXEU:

With persistently weak economic conditions becoming the norm in Europe, economists are considering increasingly unconventional policy options. One tool that has yet to be taken out of storage is ‘helicopter money’, i.e. the overt monetary financing of government deficits. This column recounts a policy debate on helicopter money that was held at LBS in April 2013 among three of the world’s leading monetary economists. 
Introduction by Reichlin
Since the crisis central banks have implemented a variety of non-standard monetary policies aiming at stabilising nominal demand in the presence of major disruptions in financial markets. These policies had different intermediate objectives: market making, controlling long term interest rates or asset prices, support of credit via subsidies. They had a role in stabilising financial markets after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the banking crisis which followed. Their effects on the real economy, however, are uncertain.1

Notwithstanding this uncertainty the Bank of Japan has recently engaged in bold action, announcing that it will double the monetary base and its holding of government bonds in the next two years.
  • Some think that quantitative easing will fuel the next financial bubble and that exiting will create financial instability (see Stein 2013).
  • Others think that more should be done to sustain the real economy.
Adair Turner has recently put a different option on the table (Turner 2013): "helicopter money" or permanent money creation. This is an idea that was originally discussed by Milton Friedman (Friedman 1948) and more recently by Bernanke in relation to the zero lower bound problem in Japan (Bernanke 2003). As Bernanke has suggested it can be implemented via transfers to households and businesses via a tax cut coupled with incremental purchases of government debt, so that the tax cut is in effect financed by money creation.
Although the idea has been around a long time it is a taboo today. Non-standard monetary policies in response to the recent crisis have all led to an increase in the size of central banks’ balance sheets but in the recent experience no central bank, including the Bank of Japan, has purposefully increased the monetary base and committed to keep this additional money in circulation permanently. The idea, however, gets some support from academia.

In his 2012 Jackson Hole speech Michael Woodford suggested a version of flexible inflation targeting whereby the central bank commits future monetary policy to a permanently higher nominal target (such as the path of nominal GDP) and discussed various tools within that framework, including permanent increases in the monetary base via fiscal transfers (Woodford 2012).

In a situation of persistently weak economic conditions it makes sense to consider all options including tools that have stayed long in the closet.

The following is a summary of the questions posed by Reichlin and the answers by Turner and Woodford.

Question one : Adair, can you explain why, in your view, helicopter money is an option for monetary policy that is relevant to today?
'Helicopter money' – by which we mean overt money finance of increased fiscal deficits – may in some circumstances be the only certain way to stimulate nominal demand, and may carry with it less risk to future financial stability than the unconventional monetary policies currently being deployed.

The crucial first question is: do we want more nominal demand? The answer should be yes if (i) we are confident that some of the increase will take the form of increased real output or (ii) if some increase in the inflation rate is in itself desirable. These conditions seem likely to apply in some developed economies today, with nominal GDP growth rates very low, depressed by private sector deleveraging in the aftermath of the financial crisis. And if these conditions do not pertain, we should not be trying to stimulate nominal GDP by any means.

So let’s assume that increased nominal GDP growth is desirable. The problem is that other levers may be ineffective or have adverse side effects. Monetary policy, in both its conventional and unconventional forms, may be ‘pushing on a string’. Reducing policy interest rates to the zero bound fails to stimulate credit supply and demand in a ‘balance sheet recession’ in which the private sector is deleveraging. Cutting long-term interest rates by quantitative easing may be equally ineffective. And very low interest rates, sustained for many years, will encourage a search for yield, hence financial innovation and carry trades, which create risks to financial stability....MUCH MORE
And from Sunday's post:
"BIS General Manager: 'Loose Central Bank Policies Looking Increasingly Dangerous'"
"More on The BIS and The End of QE"