Since I grew up in the 1970s, I figured the FTPL would have its day when inflation unexpectedly broke out, again, and central banks were powerless to stop it. I figured that the spread of interest-paying electronic money would so clearly undermine the foundations of MV=PY that its pleasant stories would be quickly abandoned as no longer relevant.
I may have been exactly wrong on both points: It seems that uncontrolled disinflation or deflation will be the spark for adoption of FTPL ideas; that the equivalence of money and bonds at zero interest rates, and central banks powerless to create inflation will be the trigger.
These thoughts are prodded by two pieces in the Economist, "Out of Ammo:" and "Unfamiliar Ways Forward" (HT and interesting discussion by Miles Kimball)
If you want inflation (a big if -- I don't, but let's go with the if) how do you get it? Ultra-low rates, huge bond purchases, and lots of talk (forward guidance, higher inflation targets) seem to have no effect. What can governments actually do?
"Out of ammo" explains
... At least some of them [politicians] have failed to grasp the need to have fiscal and monetary policy operating in concert....
... One such option is to finance public spending (or tax cuts) directly by printing money—known as a “helicopter drop”. Unlike QE, a helicopter drop bypasses banks and financial markets, and puts freshly printed cash straight into people’s pockets. The sheer recklessness of this would, in theory, encourage people to spend the windfall, not save it.The "recklessness" part is crucial. "Unfamiliar ways" has a more intricate scheme to communicate that recklessness
..a central bank and its finance ministry ... collude in printing money to pay for public spending (or tax cuts). ...the government announces a tax rebate and issues bonds to finance it, but instead of selling them to private investors swaps them for a deposit with the central bank. The central bank proceeds to cancel the bonds, and the government withdraws the money it has on deposit and gives it to citizens. “Helicopter money” of this sort—named in honour of a parable told by Milton Friedman, a famous economist—is as close as you can get to raining cash from a clear blue sky like manna from heaven, untouched by banks and financial markets.
Such largesse is, in effect, fiscal policy financed by money instead of bonds... But the unaccustomed drama—indeed, the apparent recklessness—of helicopter money could increase the expected inflation rate, encouraging taxpayers to spend rather than save.Simpler, in my mind, the Treasury borrows and sends checks to voters. The Fed buys the bonds and then cancels them.
In addition to rather convoluted scheme, the pieces are not quite clear why the fiscal counterpart is necessary -- or why money has to be involved with fiscal policy. That was not a central part of Friedman's helicopters. Miles is clearer about this:
the government give[s] away so much money that people would be convinced there was no way the government could ever sell enough bonds to soak that money up.This is clear and good FTPL thinking. The value of money is set by how much there is vs how much people expect the government to soak up via taxes -- or bond sales, backed by credible promises of future taxes.
If the government drops $100 in every voter's pocket but simultaneously announces "austerity" that taxes are going up $100 tomorrow, even helicopter drops would have no effect.
Helicopter drops are a clever fiscal signaling device. Canceling the bonds in the Economists plan is the crucial signaling device. They say "we are really going to be reckless." When governments sell a lot of bonds, people think the government is sooner or later going to soak up these bonds with taxes, and do not spend. That's the whole point -- bond sales are set up to raise revenue, not to create inflation. The whole canceling the bonds thing in the Economists's plan, or the helicopter drama in Friedman's, is a clever psychological device, to convince people that no, the government is not going to raise taxes to soak money or underlying bonds up, so you'd better spend it now before it loses value.
Well if (if) our central banks want inflation, why not get out the helicopters?
Such shenanigans are not possible in the euro zone, where the ECB is forbidden by treaty from buying government bonds directly. Elsewhere they might work as follows:
monetary financing is prohibited by the treaties underpinning the euro, for exampleThe US Federal reserve is similarly constrained to always buy something in return for creating money -- it can't send checks to voters.
Why? The people who set up our monetary systems understood all this very well. Their memories were full of disastrous inflations, and they understood that printing money without clear promises that taxes would eventually soak up that money would lead quickly to inflation. So, yes, central banks are prohibited from doing the one thing that would most quickly produce inflation! For about the same reason that wise parents don't keep the car keys in the liquor cabinet. (There are also all sorts of good political economy reasons that an independent central bank should not lend to specific businesses or send checks to voters.)
The Economist articles are also quite good at the evidence that current monetary policy is essentially powerless.
If policymakers appear defenceless in the face of a fresh threat to the world economy, it is in part because they have so little to show for their past efforts. The balance-sheets of the rich world’s main central banks have been pumped up to between 20% and 25% of GDP by the successive bouts of QE with which they have injected money into their economies (see chart 1). The Bank of Japan’s assets are a whopping 77% of GDP. Yet inflation has been persistently below the 2% goal that central banks aim for.The power of open market operations -- buying bonds in return for money - is just dramatically refuted, at least at zero interest rates, by recent experience.
One way to get them back up might be to set a higher inflation target. But when inflation sits so persistently below today’s targets, persuading people that higher targets would produce higher rates will require action, not just words.Or as I call it, the speak loudly because you have no stick policy. If central banks announce a 5% inflation target, and inflation goes down anyway, now what? Announce a 10% target?
Miles goes on about the power of negative interest rates to stoke inflation, which will be a topic for another day. If negative 2% real rates (2% inflation, 0% interest) didn't stoke "demand" and revive the extinct Phillips curve, I don't see how negative 3% (2% inflation -1% interest rate) or negative 5% will finally do the trick. In the standard models I've been playing with, raising nominal interest rates, and committing to keep them there, is the way for central banks to raise expected inflation. That action would, however, also cool the economy, producing stagflation, and thus be particularly pointless.
I also fully admit that I'm cherry-picking the things I like from the Economist article, and ignoring all sorts of things that seem pretty silly to me. The point: I'm glad to see fiscal-theory thinking making its way out of academic debate into real-world commentary, if only in the "radical ideas" section. Now, on to the "conventional wisdom" section!