Some readers have written to me asking to explain what quantitative easing is. Some of them had heard an ABC 7.30 Report segment the other night which interviewed the Bank of England Governor who outlined the BOE’s plan to “print billions of pounds” as its latest strategy to stimulate lending and hence economic activity in the very dismally performing UK economy. Once again we need to de-brief and learn what quantitative easing actually is. We need to understand that it is not a very good strategy for a sovereign government to follow in times of depressed demand and rising unemployment. We also need to get this “printing money” mantra out of our heads.
What is quantitative easing?
With very tight credit markets at present (that is, banks have upped their lending standards and made it harder for firms and households to access credit), central banks have started talking about using what is called quantitative easing to free up credit flowing especially as short-term interest rates fall towards zero. In fact, near zero interest rates are required if the central bank is to engage in quantitative easing!
Quantitative easing merely involves the central bank buying bonds (or other bank assets) in exchange for deposits made by the central bank in the commercial banking system – that is, crediting their reserve accounts. The aim is to create excess reserves which will then be loaned to chase a positive rate of return. So the central bank exchanges non- or low interest-bearing assets (which we might simply think of as reserve balances in the commercial banks) for higher yielding and longer term assets (securities).
So quantitative easing is really just an accounting adjustment in the various accounts to reflect the asset exchange. The commercial banks get a new deposit (central bank funds) and they reduce their holdings of the asset they sell.
Proponents of quantitative easing claim it adds liquidity to a system where lending by commercial banks is seemingly frozen because of a lack of reserves in the banking system overall. It is commonly claimed that it involves “printing money” to ease a “cash-starved” system. That is an unfortunate and misleading representation.
Invoking the “evil-sounding” printing money terminology to describe this practice is thus very misleading – and probably deliberately so. All transactions between the Government sector (Treasury and Central Bank) and the non-government sector involve the creation and destruction of net financial assets denominated in the currency of issue. Typically, when the Government buys something from the Non-government sector they just credit a bank account somewhere – that is, numbers denoting the size of the transaction appear electronically in the banking system.
It is inappropriate to call this process – “printing money”. Commentators who use this nomenclature do so because they know it sounds bad! The orthodox economics approach uses the “printing money” term as equivalent to “inflationary expansion”. If they understood how the modern monetary system actually worked they would never be so crass.
Crucially, quantitative easing requires the short-term interest rate to be at zero or close to it. Otherwise, the central bank would not be able to maintain control of a positive interest rate target because the excess reserves would invoke a competitive process in the interbank market which would effectively drive the interest rate down.
The Bank of England has now cut short-term interest rates to virtually zero (the lowest since the BOE was formed in 1694) in the misguided belief that monetary policy could solve the demand failure they are facing. While still eschewing fiscal policy (spending and taxation) they now have nowhere to go with monetary policy unless they begin to engage in quantitative easing. As a consequence, over the next three months they intend to spend £150bn buying assets from the private sector called gilts (which are just government bonds) and also high quality corporate debt.
The aim is to increase liquidity in the credit markets and encourage banks to increase lending to companies as explained above.
Does quantitative easing work? The mainstream belief is that quantitative easing will stimulate the economy sufficiently to put a brake on the downward spiral of lost production and the increasing unemployment.
It is based on the erroneous belief that the banks need reserves before they can lend and that quantititative easing provides those reserves. That is a major misrepresentation of the way the banking system actually operates. But the mainstream position asserts (wrongly) that banks only lend if they have prior reserves. The illusion is that a bank is an institution that accepts deposits to build up reserves and then on-lends them at a margin to make money. The conceptualisation suggests that if it doesn’t have adequate reserves then it cannot lend. So the presupposition is that by adding to bank reserves, quantitative easing will help lending.
But this is a completely incorrect depiction of how banks operate. Bank lending is not “reserve constrained”. Banks lend to any credit worthy customer they can find and then worry about their reserve positions afterwards. If they are short of reserves (their reserve accounts have to be in positive balance each day and in some countries central banks require certain ratios to be maintained) then they borrow from each other in the interbank market or, ultimately, they will borrow from the central bank through the so-called discount window. They are reluctant to use the latter facility because it carries a penalty (higher interest cost).
The point is that building bank reserves will not increase the bank’s capacity to lend. Loans create deposits which generate reserves.
The reason that the commercial banks are currently not lending much is because they are not convinced there are credit worthy customers on their doorstep. In the current climate the assessment of what is credit worthy has become very strict compared to the lax days as the top of the boom approached.
The major formal constraints on bank lending (other than a stream of credit worthy customers) are expressed in the capital adequacy requirements set by the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) which is the central bank to the central bankers. They relate to asset quality and required capital that the banks must hold. These requirements manifest in the lending rates that the banks charge customers. Bank lending is never constrained by lack of reserves.
While some point to the quantitative easing experience in Japan between 2001 and 2006, the reality is that it was highly expansionary fiscal policy not the monetary policy gymnastics which kept that economy from deflating and allowed it to return to stronger growth in recent years (until the crisis hit).
We should be absolutely clear on what the BOE is doing. It is buying one type of financial asset (private holdings of bonds, company paper) and exchanging it for another (reserve balances at the BOE). The net financial assets in the private sector are in fact unchanged although the portfolio composition of those assets is altered (maturity substitution) which changes yields and returns.
In terms of changing portfolio compositions, quantitative easing increases central bank demand for “long maturity” assets held in the private sector which reduces interest rates at the longer end of the yield curve. These are traditionally thought of as the investment rates. This might increase aggregate demand given the cost of investment funds is likely to drop. But on the other hand, the lower rates reduce the interest-income of savers who will reduce consumption (demand) accordingly.
How these opposing effects balance out is unclear. The central banks certainly don’t know! Overall, this uncertainty points to the problems involved in using monetary policy to stimulate (or contract) the economy. It is a blunt policy instrument with ambiguous impacts.
The major problem facing the economy at present is that there is not a willingness to spend by the private sector and the resulting spending gap, has to, initially, be filled by the government using its fiscal policy capacity. I prefer direct public sector job creation to be the principle fiscal vehicle. But fiscal policy it has to be. Then when the negative sentiment is turned around, private borrowing will recommence and investment spending will grow again. Then the economy moves forward some more and the budget deficit falls.
So I don’t think quantitative easing is a sensible anti-recession strategy. The fact that governments are using it now just reflects the neo-liberal bias towards monetary policy over fiscal policy. What will motivate consumers to borrow if they are scared of losing their jobs? Why would a company borrow if they expect their sales to be depressed? The problem is a failure of demand which has to be addressed via demand measures – that is, fiscal policy. Overall, you can only take a horse to water ….!
There are also those that claim that quantitative easing will expose the economy to uncontrollable inflation. This is just harking back to the old and flawed Monetarist doctrine based on the so-called Quantity Theory of Money. This theory has no application in a modern monetary economy and proponents of it have to explain why economies with huge excess capacity to produce (idle capital and high proportions of unused labour) cannot expand production when the orders for goods and services increase. Should quantititative easing actually stimulate spending then the depressed economies will likely respond by increasing output not prices.