Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Two related confusions about helicopter money

Confusions about helicopter money is something of a generic title (although Martin Sandbu is thankfully not confused). Because a discussion of helicopter money (HM) cannot normally be found in the textbooks (which have only just caught up with central bank independence), the scope for misunderstanding is huge. Here I want to talk about two related confusions. The first is about whether HM would lead to an increase or decrease in nominal interest rates, as discussed in a recent interchange between Tony Yates and Paul Krugman. The second is whether HM is in competition with the use of fiscal policy to get us out of recessions.  


On HM money and nominal interest rates, there is of course the standard and very basic point that in a market you cannot control both quantity and price, still less move them in opposing directions. So if we want to think about a market for money, you cannot raise the supply of money and raise its price - the nominal interest rate - at the same time.


But this observation ignores what else is going on when you have HM. HM is a large fiscal expansion. Please none of this ‘but if Ricardian Equivalence (RE) holds’: we are talking real world policy here not doing thought experiments, and we have all the evidence we need that RE does not hold (for reasons that are not difficult to understand). Let's also not fall into the trap of doing IS-LM. We are in a world of inflation targeting, and anything that raises demand (as a fiscal expansion will) will tend to raise inflation, and so the monetary authorities will tend to raise nominal interest rates. Any temptation to say ‘yes but in the short run’ becomes dubious because of expectations effects. 

So it is really quite simple. Either the nominal interest rate lower bound constraint continues to bite, which means helicopter money will leave nominal interest rates unchanged (but the economy better off), or there is no constraint (or that constraint is removed), in which case rates will rise (sooner) with HM.


The second confusion is that helicopter money in some way precludes undertaking countercyclical fiscal policy. It does not. Right now, for example, governments could and should announce large increases in public sector investment (where I am using investment in the economist’s sense to include investment in human capital, rather than in a national accounts sense). This would negate any immediate need for HM. Monetary policy adapts to fiscal policy.


When people ask me which we should have, helicopters or fiscal expansion, I'm tempted to say I would love to have the choice! If I did have that choice, right now I would take additional public investment over a helicopter drop, because the micro case for investment is in many cases (and countries) very strong, interest rates are low and investment improves the supply as well as the demand side. In any future severe recession where the interest rate lower bound was likely to be hit [1] I would also advise bringing forward public investment. However I do not see this as a competition (countercyclical fiscal action vs HM) for two reasons.

First, one lesson of the Great Recession is that we cannot rely on governments to do the right thing with fiscal actions, so HM is an insurance policy in that sense. If governments do spend more or tax less as we approach the ZLB, that insurance policy may not be needed. [2] Second, even if governments do the right thing, either lack of good projects [3] or information delays may mean they do not do enough, and so the very quick action that central banks could take with HM could be a useful complement. To put it another way, helicopter money is best seen as an alternative to QE rather than as an alternative to fiscal action.


[1] Because of implementation lags, a fiscal response to an impending deep recession should not wait until nominal interest rates actually hit their lower bound. If that fiscal response involves investment, used in an economists rather than national accounts sense, then there is no great loss if the deep recession does not happen, because it is wise to invest when real interest rates and wages are relatively low.

[2] In the proposals put forward in Portes and Wren-Lewis (2015), the central bank would directly tell the government the probability of the lower bound being hit.

[3] I think the argument that the amount of public investment cannot be adjusted to match macro conditions is often overstated. We are not talking HS2 here (the proposal to build a high speed train line between London and Birmingham and beyond), but improving flood defences, repairing roads and schools etc.

46 comments:

  1. Throwing currency out of a Helicopter is a fiscal operation that can only be done by the currency issuer, the Treasury, because its assets and liabilities of account, don't have to balance. (The difference between the two, over time, we call the national debt.) Treasury Helicopters would just be adding a bit more to the deficit / debt. It is a poor way to add fiscal stimulus; much better to build productive assets that the private sector won’t or can’t do on its own.

    The BoE can't make Helicopter drops of money, because it operates with a Balance Sheet. To create a "deposit" in the back gardens of the populace, from the Helicopter, someone would have to throw a signed loan agreement, back into the Helicopter,as collateral. The BoE would then have an "asset" (the loan / bond whatever) to balance its "liability" (bucket loads of paper money thrown out of the whirlybird). The BoE loan agreement would then be repaid by Treasury taxation, which is how gets its money back, over an extended period of time, particularly if the private sector holds on to it as “savings” and increases the, so called, "national debt", Pound for Pound.

    Read how the "Funding for Lending Scheme" works. Pages of smoke and mirrors, to make what is Treasury fiscal stimulus, disguised for purely political reasons, as a BoE monetary stimulus operation. You could make a "Helicopter Drop", look like a BoE operation, using the same FLS smoke and mirrors. Have a look at Appendix A in http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/quarterlybulletin/qb120401.pdf . The DMO creates Treasury Bills and keeps them in the desk drawer. The BoE borrows them with a uncollateralised stock lending agreement with the DMO; lends those Bills it has never had its hands on and, keeps them "off balance sheet" because they are designated again, as stock lending transactions by the BoE.

    All perfectly legal if you ISSUE the currency, and own the Treasury, and the BoE, and make the rules.

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    1. I think you are providing your own smoke and mirrors here. The key point about HM is that the independent central bank decides when it will happen. Worrying about balance sheets gets you nowhere.

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    2. I can assure you the central bank would not make such a decision without the Treasury authorising it. Base interest rate is the only decision it makes (nearly) on its own, even then it has to tell the Treasury first.

      NK macro-economists' ignorance of balance sheets, is what got us in this GFC mess to start with. The sooner we stop funding NK macroeconomics teaching from public funds, the sooner fiat currency accounting, and MMT can take over. Then we can start using fiscal policy properly, sector by sector; to maintain full employment with price stability.

      Monetary policy operated by, so called, but are not independent central banks, is incapable of solving an aggregate demand deficiency. It is just an arms length Quango set up to take the blame for politicians, when a fiscal policy goes wrong.

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    3. The proposal is that the Treasury authorises the CB to undertake HM at some point, and the CB chooses that point. It has got nothing to do with balance sheets.

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    4. So how does the central bank finance the operation? The central bank can't increase the "fiscal assets" (the government's "units of account") in the economy, it can only swap them for other government fiscal assets; such as reserves (the term for government spending)for Gilts as in QE.

      QE is a good example. In order for the central bank to swap private sector bonds (debt) for cash, the Treasury had to finance the swap with new "fiscal assets" that only the Treasury can create. Governor King didn't trust politicians, and feared a hole in his "balance sheet" so was not getting into that game. The APF didn't buy loads of private debt; much to the Chancellors displeasure. Other than that, the BoE just took instructions, there was, and still isn't, any "independent" central bank action, globalisation of capital flows has stopped all that. The Treasury and its central bank are one and the same nowadays and that is why they are now consolidated in the Whole of Government Accounts. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/445748/PU1786_WGA_summary_report.pdf

      You will see from the WGA accounts that UK plc is continually insolvent by normal corporate accounting terms. It even has negative working capital of £443 billion.

      Not to worry, when you issue your own currency, there is no bill presented in that currency, the Treasury can't pay.

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    5. If the BoE does not balance the new liabilities created by HM with additional assets (i.e. QE) then there must be a corresponding adjustment on the liabilities side, i.e. a reduction in the bank’s own capital. As this is today only £14.6 million, HM would make it negative, which would require approval from the Bank’s shareholder, i.e. the Treasury. The Treasury could indeed authorise the Bank to issue HM to a given level, accepting that this could turn its stake in the Bank negative to that amount (minus the negligible starting point). Negative equity would be equivalent to unacknowledged debt and no doubt there would be an argument with statisticians over keeping it off the Treasury’s balance sheet.

      I can see how it would work and that once approval had been given and distribution rules set, then the Bank rather than the Treasury could determine how much to issue within the Treasury limit, so it has some advantage in flexibility. But it’s not obvious to me that getting agreement to negative BoE equity would be any easier politically than issuing more Treasury debt, whether to finance investment or distribute directly as HM.

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    6. The BoE has a loan agreement with the Treasury, it's the "Ways and Means advances to HM Treasury". That can be used to balance the books, but it would require Parliamentary approval to re-activate (it is currently frozen). You won't see this account in BoE's weekly report; because it is used for state interventions in financial markets it is considered market sensitive.

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    7. Lyn, the Treasury has a self imposed voluntary restraint, namely, it does not run an overdraft with the BoE. Hence the DMO daily cash management operation and the daily interbank settlement system.

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    8. OK, try looking at it this way. We got fiscal austerity rather than stimulus because of government debt phobia. The obvious way out of that is for governments to undertake money financed stimulus i.e. stimulus without more government debt. But independent central banks rule that out. You cannot have a money financed fiscal stimulus when one body controls fiscal policy and the other controls money creation.

      One solution is to get rid of independent central banks. Instead HM gives the central bank a fiscal instrument. Thinking about balance sheets is irrelevant!

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    9. "You cannot have a money financed fiscal stimulus when one body controls fiscal policy and the other controls money creation."

      You are still not telling the *entire* truth and I am angry at the use of the word 'financed.' Government spending is *always* 'money financed' as noted in detail in my previous comment

      Government spending works by creating money and taxes destroy money. That's how it works as MMTers have explained time and time again. Gilt issuance is a sideshow and unrelated operationally to spending. Sure, it may change interest rates but it does not 'fund' spending. No government cheque bounces.

      "Instead HM gives the central bank a fiscal instrument."

      But why not have that be 'debt financed.' Of course the answer is to fool people like Hans Bevers - "HM is best seen as altern. to QE rather than as altern. to fiscal action" says @sjwrenlewis. I think he's right "

      If there is no interest on reserves why not apply this to all as 'free money.' If it does why not just apply that to all government?

      "One solution is to get rid of independent central banks."

      That is the best solution. The solution is to end 'fully funded' and offer national savings - because Gilt Issues Considered Harmful
      The 'fully funded' BS to fool the rubes is the main issue.

      There is no need to "change" things as such. Government spending *already* works by creating money and taxation *already* destroys money. Just end the sideshow and offer people National Savings:

      "A simple pension savings plan at National Savings, along the lines of the Guaranteed Income Bonds and Indexed Linked Savings Certificates, would solve the problem permanently, would be limited to individuals, and would allow them to manage their risk profile as they approach retirement (they would sell out of risky assets and transfer the money to National Savings).

      Since it would be only available to individuals and there is no need to pay middlemen, it is clearly far more efficient than the current Gilt issuing system."

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    10. "The proposal is that the Treasury authorises the CB to undertake HM at some point, and the CB chooses that point. It has got nothing to do with balance sheets."

      Totally unnecessary. The Treasury can do the spending directly via the DWP based upon DWPs assessment of the state of effective demand. DWP already has the capacity to pay people directly via the universal credit and PAYE integration architecture. The CB can continue being limited to bond reversals as required - i.e. the existing QE. That way the monetary authority remains solely concerned with the interest rate curve and the banking infrastructure.

      That is a far more efficient way of operating - since it uses existing payment infrastructure - and is more directly governed by parliament. Plus, importantly apparently, separation is maintained.

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    11. Simon, you are quite right that we “cannot have a money financed fiscal stimulus when one body controls fiscal policy and the other controls money creation”. This is a central reason for me to abandon the concept of central bank independence. Instead you propose helicopter money as an alternative that “gives the central bank a fiscal instrument”. As such, what you are proposing goes beyond the simple idea of distributing money to people as a means of stimulating the economy. It has become a power grab.

      That Parliament decides on fiscal measures has been well established in British law since the middle ages. It is a central principle of our ‘unwritten constitution’. Just over a hundred years ago, Lloyd George succeeded in excluding the Lords, so that only our elected representatives can determine how to tax and spend. Now you want to hand over some of that hard won power to a group of unelected officials. That is not acceptable.

      This is not about the economics of money creation. It’s all about the politics. I share your frustration about austerity and debt phobia but we have to confront that directly and win the political arguments. Attempts to circumvent that by transferring fiscal powers to the Bank will end in disaster. It would be yet another step in the hollowing out of democratic institutions that has encouraged the rise of dangerous populist currents. When people no longer believe that voting can change anything they turn to alternatives.

      Please re-think this.

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  2. I think it's about time that you start discussing which public investment projects need to be undertaken. In the past you have mentioned flood defence but what else? The argument that fiscal expansion or Helicopter drop in a liquidity trap is what is needed to kick start the economy and allow it to return to normal interest rates is all well and good, but until you can convince the public that there is a massive infrastructure deficit there will continue to be much skepticism. The public will need to know that the infrastructure spending will generate a significant rate of return otherwise the perception will be that it is money wasted on special interests. Furthermore, if there are a lot of infrastructure projects out there with a high NPV why are they not being done? Presumably there are diminishing returns to infrastructure spending?

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    1. "Furthermore, if there are a lot of infrastructure projects out there with a high NPV why are they not being done?" Because the Treasury are stopping them being done! As to what, the list is endless: repairing roads, broadband, social housing ...

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    2. If the list is endless then why is there not a document with the list? Do all of these things have the same multiplier? What should be prioritized? Where should the projects be done - in key marginals to help the Tory's win? It would help strengthen your argument (which by the way I completely agree with) significantly if you can say precisely and transparently where the money should be spent. Otherwise you just get accused of being profligate.

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    3. Work has started on identifying such projects but more needs to be done. Housing is certainly on the list as is flood protection. Urban metro systems combining multiple forms of public transport seem to offer good payback for local economies. There are many opportunities for green technologies and investments. There is a shortfall of school buildings in many areas. Research and development needs more support. And so on. Plus of course the existing capital stock needs maintenance and improvement.

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  3. For the reasons you give, I also prefer to see HM as a supplement rather than an alternative to fiscal action. But for HM to become a realistic rather than a theoretical proposal, the political and practical issues around distributing the money have to be tackled.

    On the politics, only government can decide who should benefit from HM. The distributional impact of QE has been controversial enough and no sane central banker would want to take on the responsibility of deciding who should get the money and who should not. All residents or just citizens would be only one of several tricky questions to resolve. The practical issues are more technical but not that much easier, particularly for people on the margins of the tax and benefit systems.

    I have been thinking recently about the merits of the universal basic income. That’s for another discussion but a side benefit would be that the issues on distribution that block HM would also need to be resolved for basic income. Once that was in place, HM could be easily distributed by just topping up regular payments.

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    1. Your points are all valid, and the link between HM and basic income is one I had not thought of. But first, we need to get economists to largely agree that it is a useful insurance policy.

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  4. Nerdy point: even if Ricardian Equivalence were true, it would not apply to helicopter money, understood as a permanent (relative to counterfactual) increase in non-interest paying base money, because there are no future increased tax implications. It's not like helicopter bonds, to which Ricardian Equivalence *might* apply.

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    1. I agree that if HM raised the long run stock of money RE would not apply because money is irredeemable. But I would not define HM as permanent - how can you, when you cannot commit future policy?

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    2. Well, if the new money is not going to be redeemed (bought back by the central bank) that means it must be permanent (relative to counterfactual of not doing it). In expectation, anyway.

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    3. But it might be bought back by the central bank at some point. Its still HM.

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    4. "I agree that if HM raised the long run stock of money RE would not apply because money is irredeemable."

      What if RE never applies even in currency users and bonds are 'money'?

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  5. For people new to this discussion could you define helicopter money. On the one hand you say it is "a large fiscal expansion". Trying to clarfiy this, in an earlier piece you say it is "Helicopter money involves the central bank printing money", which if -that is what is essentially is- is surely monetary policy. You also that "Helicopter money is like the central bank sending a cheque to everyone in the economy" which can't be fiscal policy because it has nothing to do with government budget and fund raising. The FT article you link to is gated. Can you link us to something which clears this up? Thanks.

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    1. It is money distributed to the population (defined in some way), at the behest of the central bank and paid for by the central bank creating that money.

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    2. Thanks. As I understand it this is very definitely monetary policy. It is a form of direct liquidity provision by the central bank. Direct provision of liquidity is not unusual, many cases of this being done in many places (that do not rely on such mechanisms as open market operations), the only thing unusual about it is that HM would not take the form of loans from the central bank to banks, but would be provided as grants directly from the central bank to consumers. I think this goes too far. It is not the job of a central bank, especially not an independent one, to allocate credit in such a way. It's job is to ensure adequate liquidity is provided for the flow of funds and to ensure that currency growth is kept stable. Decisions on the allocation of credit (which is what this is, as you are giving it to households) is for elected governments to be implemented by their executive treasuries. Why does the government not give the population cheques, paid for by printing central bank money? We have arguably overstepped the line with QE (by making allocative decisions on asset purchases); this is a further walk down the path to a central bank losing its clear cut role.

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    3. Since central bank independence, the job of the central bank has been to manage demand. It cannot do this effectively when interest rates are near zero. So maybe it needs better tools?

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  6. Odd post here Simon.

    You seem to be thinking that government spending isn't helicopter money. It is. But it is targeted by those elected.

    Additional you can't invest in human capital of you are balancing the current budget. If you want to invest in human capital you have to have an unbalanced current budget. I see no reason to balance any budget, except perhaps for political reasons.

    The interest rate and yield curve do not bind the government, when what is happening is that government as the currency monopolist is setting its own rate as the policy rate and managing the yield curve off of that. These are the benchmark rates for the economy.

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    1. ?? How is a bond financed increase in government spending helicopter money?

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    2. I see things much clearer than you Simon. Currency and government securities are money because the government that issues says so and makes them interchangeable at par. Governments that are sovereign in their currency can always redeem issues coming due and ensure that the market always clears for bond issues.

      The big mistakes economists make comes from failing to understand sovereign currency as a monopoly of the issuer and what this implies.

      On top of that, they don't understand how the financial system operates and don't take accounting into account so they don't know when they are not stock-flow consistent.

      "How is a bond financed increase in government spending helicopter money?"

      OK. I will go through it again.

      Because bonds don't finance anything. They are just an asset swap. Previous *spending finances bonds* - the money was issued in the first place. You have your causality the wrong way round.

      The BoE offers *unlimited intra-day overdrafts* and nobody operating those accounts needs to co-ordinate the balances until the end of the day. That's how it works.

      Dynamically it is better for all instrument sellers in the system for the overdrafts to be at their highest points *before* they start offering their own instruments into the market. Since that would guarantee the best bid.

      What I'm saying is that the DMO does what it can to get the best deal for the Treasury, and the best is likely to be achieved if it offers after it believes those overdrafts have expanded - since there will be more bids in the market and they would get a better price.

      I would expect serious treasury department in any organisation to know when they get the best price for their placements.

      So I would suggest it irrational behaviour for a treasury department of any organisation to pre-fund if they can get away with it.

      Choosing bonds or interest on reserves is just an asset swap and has *nothing* to do with 'funding' government spending.

      The key analytic technique that MMT uses that sets it apart from most others, is that it uses a consolidated government sector in its analysis. This allows it to cut through the obfuscating political constructions between the various government departments and institutions and concentrate on the essence of what is happening.

      This is entirely consistent with accepted accounting practice, using a technique known as group accounting - which produces consolidated financial statements (income, balance and cash) amongst a related group of entities. The international accounting standard for that is IFRS 10 'Consolidated Financial Statements' which requires that entities under common control present a consolidated set of accounts so that external users can obtain a 'true and fair view' of the actual underlying economic transactions.

      The Central Bank in all sovereign jurisdictions falls under the definition of control by the Treasury - often de facto by the operation of law (Bernanke: "Our job is to do what Treasury tells us to do"), but also de jure, e.g in the Sterling area HM Treasury actually owns the entire shareholding of the Bank of England.

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  7. Does HM have different implications for households' marginal propensity to consume as compared to ever-more-negative rates (passed on to depositors as Martin Sandbu would like)? I have the impression that evenly distributed HM would lead to more spending than a tax on deposits, but I really don't understand all of the implications. Thanks so much for your blog.

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  8. Won't any government that is reluctant to do fiscal expansion also be reluctant to do helicopter money, since the superficially compelling though spurious reasons they cite for rejecting fiscal expansion are still more (superficially) compelling in the case of HM? If so, then HM will hardly serve as an insurance policy against fiscally inept government.


    Furthermore, suppose the objections have been overcome and it has been decided to create more money, would it not always be beneficial to take advantage of the opportunity that this offers to relieve poverty and to target the new money somehow at the needy, rather than distributing it undiscriminatingly?

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    1. But the central bank does HM as part of its demand management/inflation control responsibility. All the government has to do is set up the mechanism for this to happen. In this sense it is best to think about HM as an alternative to QE.

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    2. Is it plausible that a government would implement an insurance policy against its own ineptitude?

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  9. It seems strange to me that a government would consider handing out money to the public, by whatever means, when it will have no control over how that money is spent. Where will it be spent? - imported liquor, imported perfume, imported drugs, imported cigarettes, prostitution, imported sex toys, overseas travel, imported TVs, imported cars, imported shoes, whatever. So, there is the question of how much of the expenditure is socially acceptable and how much of the expenditure leaks away on imports. Why not have the government plan and manage the spending such that it is directed to socially useful purposes such as schools, universities, hospitals, roads, ports, cleaning up polluted environments and directed to spending that benefits home production and employment with minimal leakage to imports? That kind of directed expenditure is more likely to lead to productivity gains for home enterprises. Helicopter money, QE, it doesn't matter. What matters is where and how the money is spent.

    Henry.

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    1. Or HM could be used to pay down debt, which in unproductive.

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  10. You say "So if we want to think about a market for money, you cannot raise the supply of money and raise its price - the interest rate - at the same time."

    Why not? Say the Central Bank, which had been following a policy of increasing the quantity of money by 0%, announces a policy of raising the quantity of money by 20%, and everyone anticipates that this will raise prices by 20%. Won't this 20% higher expected inflation lead to nominal interest rates being 20 percentage points higher than before. So the Central Bank has raised both the quantity of money and the interest rate.

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    1. Agreed. My post was about a similar effect working through output/income. The cannot increase quantity and price idea only works if you hold everything else constant, which it will not be.

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  11. Seems to me what you are calling helicopter money is fiscal policy done by the central bank. The idea is to give the central bank the authority to directly spend in the real economy, which is the essence of fiscal policy, and fundamentally different from monetary policy, which interacts with the real sector indirectly through regulating financial sector behavior.

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    1. I agree. I do not care what you call it, as long as we know what we are talking about.

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    2. Technocrat wants technocracy?


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  12. i dont think this is the confusion, at least not mine,

    my confusion is as follows: taking helicopter money as a policy innovation, through which workhorse monetary equation do you expect it to causally change the future price level?

    buiter's argument about asymmetric relaxation of the governments future budget constraint (a particular--and in my mind peculiar version of ftpl)?

    mv=py? what if r remains at zero forever, how much m do you need. what if current r is below zero so that cash is actually a dominant store of value

    phillips curve? prices dont intially rise at all--paradoxically but output does and eventually that does lift prices?

    see the problem is not that there is no free lunch--its that i dont understand why this one is better than the others.


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    1. Inflation depends on the *flow* of money in the current time period.

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  13. "...right now I would take additional public investment over a helicopter drop, because the micro case for investment is in many cases (and countries) very strong, interest rates are low and investment improves the supply as well as the demand side."

    OK, but why not have an option for the Central Bank, alongside a traditional helicopter drop (i.e. into citizens' bank accounts), of the CB placing money into a quasi-autonomous national investment bank with a mandate for either infrastructure or investment in research, a la Obama's Arpa-E?

    If the CB has these tools, and retains its independence, it can provide an effective safety valve against Osborne-style austerity by deploying , effectively, its own fiscal policy, and giving it an option to deploy target that toward investment.

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    1. It has been proposed

      Look up "People's QE"

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  14. "We are in a world of inflation targeting, and anything that raises demand (as a fiscal expansion will) will tend to raise inflation, and so the monetary authorities will tend to raise nominal interest rates."

    Further,

    More dough in the economy would quickly lift business marginal ROI off the floor and suddenly raise demand for loan capital. The inflation effect you mention could be quite delayed by comparison.

    John

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