This note has the aim to show that QE will fail to deliver benefits for ordinary people in the Eurozone, and argues that what is needed now is an alternative approach that puts new money directly into the real economy. It is based on the work of Frank van Lerven, researcher in Positivemoney.org
Since the 2008 global financial meltdown, the Eurozone has experienced a sovereign debt crisis, a double dip recession, and is now on the brink of deflation. To spur growth in the Eurozone’s flailing economies, it is necessary to stimulate aggregate demand by raising levels of spending. A fiscal stimulus however, seems extremely unlikely as Eurozone governments are primarily interested in running a budget surplus and applying austerity measures. Weak global demand suggests that an export-led recovery is not an option. Consequently, the responsibility for boosting aggregate demand and higher levels of spending has fallen to the European Central Bank (ECB).
To date the ECB’s attempts to stimulate spending and aggregate demand have had limited success. The ECB has therefore chosen to replicate the Quantitative Easing (QE) policies used by Japan, the UK and the US. Between March 2015 and September 2016, the ECB will create €1.1 trillion of new central bank money and use this to purchase government bonds (and other asset-backed securities and covered bonds) from the financial markets. The ECB hopes that this process will result in higher spending, higher inflation, and a return to economic growth. But the channels through which QE works are weak and uncertain. Proponents of this policy have resorted to arguing that, although the effects of QE are unclear, the economy would surely be worse without it. The policy also has several undesirable side effects, such as increasing inequality and encouraging dangerous speculative bubbles in financial markets.
Even if QE is considered to be an effective policy, the conditions that justified the policy in the US and UK don’t apply in the Eurozone. In the US and UK, bond yields were high when QE was implemented; in the Eurozone, bond yields were already extremely low. In the US and UK, banks were initially short of central bank reserves (as the fear in the market had caused the interbank market to freeze). In the Eurozone, banks were already flooded with central bank reserves as a result of the ECB’s earlier schemes to provide liquidity to the banking sector.
More importantly, the ECB’s QE program is intended to boost spending by incentivizing the banking sector to increase lending and enticing households and businesses to borrow more. The success of the QE program depends upon the private sector taking on more debt. But the banking sector is reluctant to expand its volume of lending, as it is presently preoccupied with repairing its balance sheet. More significantly, bank lending is demand constrained: weak growth, low economic confidence, meagre potential for business expansion, and substantially high levels of unemployment mean that the private sector is more concerned with paying down existing loans than taking out new ones. It is highly unlikely that there will be a substantial increase in the level of private-sector borrowing, so this approach to generating a recovery in the Eurozone would almost certainly be ineffective.
If the Eurozone needs an economic stimulus to boost employment, output and a return to growth, then QE is the wrong tool to use. We can argue for an alternative approach to a Eurozone stimulus, in which the ECB still creates new money, but injects this money into the real economy rather than the financial markets. The various proposals for this form of monetary financing (where the state proactively creates money) have been referred to as QE for People, Overt Monetary Financing (OMF), Green QE, Helicopter Money, Strategic QE, and Sovereign Money Creation.
We welcome the wide range of proposals for using monetary financing to boost aggregate demand in the real economy. However, due to space and time constraints, we focus on the two broad recommendations for how the ECB could distribute newly created money into the real economy.
In the first proposal, the ECB would transfer newly created money to the Eurozone national governments. These governments would then use the newly created funds to increase their spending. This additional spending could, for example, be focused on ‘green’ infrastructure projects.
In the second proposal, the newly created money could be distributed equally between every citizen of the Eurozone. This type of “citizen’s dividend” would put additional purchasing power directly into people’s pockets.
In both proposals, monetary financing offers a number of added benefits when compared to conventional QE. Most importantly, it would boost aggregate demand without relying on households and businesses to borrow more, and therefore would not cause a rise in already-high private sector debt. It would therefore compensate for the reduction in total spending caused by private sector deleveraging. Indeed, monetary financing aimed directly at the real economy increases the net financial assets held by the private sector, while the additional spending boosts private sector income and reduces the private sector’s debt-to-income ratio. These two effects increase financial stability.
In simple terms, QE works by flooding financial markets with billions of euros and hoping that some of it ‘trickles down’ to the real economy. In contrast, the form of monetary financing proposed here is a tool that would grant policymakers greater macro-economic control over the real economy; and would also ensure that the benefits of central bank money creation are more evenly distributed. Similarly, unlike QE, monetary financing for the real economy avoids the risk of creating destabilizing asset bubbles, and thus makes the recovery more sustainable in the long run.
Monetary financing for the real economy can be expected to be many times more effective than QE in boosting demand and output. For the Eurozone, statistical analysis of income and consumption patterns suggests that €100 billion of newly created money distributed to citizens would lead to an increase in GDP of around €232 billion. Using IMF fiscal multipliers, our empirical analysis further suggests that using the money to fund a €100 billion increase in public investment would reduce unemployment by approximately one million, and could be between 2.5 to 12 times more effective at stimulating GDP than current QE.
Of course, these figures are estimates and not certain predictions. But it is clear that if the ECB wishes to boost employment and meet its inflation target, then it would be better off using the ECB’s powers to create money to either finance public expenditure or distribute new money directly to citizens. Replicating the UK and US’s approach of inflating financial markets and hoping that this increased financial wealth would ‘trickle down’ into the real economy is likely to be just as ineffective in boosting output and employment, and meeting inflation targets, as it was in the UK and US.