Following a speech by one of the front runners to replace Mervyn King as Governor of the Bank of England, there has been renewed talk about helicopter money. Helicopter money involves the central bank printing money, but that in effect is what Quantitative Easing (QE) does, so what is different about helicopter money? There seem to be two rather different things that people might have in mind.
The first difference is where the money goes. QE, in the UK and to some extent in the US, involves the central bank printing money to buy government debt. Helicopter money is like the central bank sending a cheque to everyone in the economy. The second difference is whether the creation of new money is permanent or temporary. QE, if you ask central bankers, is temporary: when the economy picks up and there is the first sign of inflation, QE will be put into reverse (except, just maybe, in the US). Helicopter money is thought to be permanent: the central bank is sending out cheques, not loans.
Let’s take the permanent/temporary issue first. As I have argued before, calls for money creation to be permanent are in effect calls to increase inflation above target at some time for some period. The reason why most people believe QE is temporary is because (with the possible recent exception of the US Fed) central banks are sticking firmly to their inflation targets. There may be very good reasons why central banks should instead allow inflation to exceed those targets as the economy recovers. But if this is the issue, why not just call for higher inflation? Surely it makes sense to be explicit about what is trying to be achieved, particularly as the benefit involved in higher inflation for the real economy comes from increasing inflation expectations. We gave up money targets long ago, and quite rightly so. For the central bank to destroy some proportion of the government debt they now own and just hope this gave them the amount of extra inflation they desire would be like going back to money targets.(1)
The first issue, of where the money being printed is going, is more interesting. It reflects an understandable view that it would be better to print money and give it to consumers who would spend it (helicopter money), rather than using it to buy government debt (QE) which may reduce long term interest rates which may help stimulate the economy. The second route has been tried and has not been that successful, so why not try the first route?
It is useful to think about the circumstances in which the two routes are exactly equivalent. To focus on this, let us assume helicopter money is temporary: the central bank sends out cheques, but the government says it will get the money back in a few years time by raising a poll tax. (This is like the proposal from Miles Kimball.) If consumers are Ricardian, they will save all the amount of the cheque, because only by doing so can they pay the future poll tax without cutting their consumption. How will they save the money? Let us suppose they buy government debt. Then this is exactly the same as QE, except that consumers hold government debt temporarily instead of the central bank. This seems to be what David Miles had in mind in the speech that Stephanie Flanders refers to here, when he says: “If helicopter drops of money are reversed when their impact shows up very largely in prices and not in activity, the economic difference with conventional QE largely evaporates.”
Yet we can now see why in reality the two may not be equivalent, because consumers may not be Ricardian. In particular, some may have been asking their local bank for a loan to buy a car, and the bank had refused because it has become very risk averse since the crisis. For these credit constrained folk, the central bank’s cheque is just like the loan they couldn’t get. So they use the cheque to buy the car, and reduce their future consumption to pay the poll tax later. Instead of buying government debt, they have bought something real, which will increase aggregate demand for sure.
If this is the reason people call for helicopter money, then I have a lot of sympathy but only one problem: what difference is this from an expansionary fiscal policy combined with further QE? Instead of the central bank sending people cheques, the government can send the cheques using money borrowed by selling debt, and the central bank can buy the debt by printing money (i.e. QE). In this sense, helicopter money is just another name for a fiscal stimulus combined with QE. We have the QE, so why not call for fiscal stimulus rather than helicopter money?