Citi's Buiter On Plan Z: Unleash The Helicopter Money

Tyler Durden's picture

All is (once again) failing. What to do? Much more of the same of course. Only this time whip out the nuclear option: the Helicopter Money Drop. This is the logical next step that Citigroup's Willen Buiter sees as "Central Banks should also engage in 'helicopter money drops' to stimulate effective demand" - temporary tax cuts, increases in transfer payments, or boosts to exhaustive public spending - all financed directly by the willing central bank accomplice in the monetization gambit. In his words: "This will always be effective if it is implemented on a sufficient scale." It is not difficult to implement, would likely be politically popular (nom, nom, nom, more iPads), and in his mind need not become inflationary. He does come down to earth a little though from this likely-endgame scenario noting that "helicopter money is not [however] a solution to fiscal unsustainability." It is just a means of providing a temporary fiscal stimulus without adding to the stock of interest-bearing, redeemable public debt. Any attempt to permanently finance even rather small (permanent) general government deficits (as a share of GDP) by creating additional base money would soon – once inflation expectations adjust to this extreme fiscal dominance regime - give rise to unacceptably high rates of inflation and even hyperinflation. His estimate of the size of this one-off helicopter drop - beyond which these inflation fears may appear - is around 2% of GDP - hardly the stuff of Keynes-/Koo-ian wet dreams. The fact that this is being discussed as a possibility (and was likely always the end-game) by a somewhat mainstream economist should be shocking as perhaps this surreality is nearer than many would like to imagine.

 

Citigroup's Willen Buiter: Helicopter Money

In cooperation with the fiscal authorities, the central bank can engage in helicopter money drops, as described by Milton Friedman (1969, p. 4). This is a temporary tax cut, increase in transfer payments or boost to exhaustive public spending (including infrastructure investment), financed through a permanent increase in the monetary base. This will always be effective if it is implemented on a sufficient scale. Consider the thought experiment where the Chancellor of the Exchequer sends a £1000 cheque to every man, woman and child in the UK and funds this by borrowing from the Bank of England, which monetises the debt and commits not to reverse this ever. Now consider the following negative economic environment: the British public has become Teutonic in its attitudes towards thrift or caution and decides to save the entire windfall. The solution is simple. Repeat the exercise with a £10,000 cheque for one and all and keep going adding zeros until the consumer cries uncle and starts spending. Ben Bernanke (2002), citing Milton Friedman’s original helicopter money drop parable, listed helicopter money drops (aka money-financed tax cuts) as one of the options open to the monetary authorities at the zero lower bound – as any well-informed monetary economist would have done. He was riled with the epithet “Helicopter Ben” as a result, and has not discussed the merits of the proposal since then, unfortunately.

...It may well be the most effective form of stimulus currently, in particular if directed towards public investment which has taken the brunt of public spending cuts in those countries that have begun fiscal consolidation in earnest (i.e. not the federal government of US or Japan). If the helicopter money were at the pure discretion of the central bank (it could simply say ‘no’), it need not imply weaker incentives for governments to manage their own finances prudently.

...A helicopter money drop is not difficult to implement. It would most likely be politically popular. It just requires cooperation between the central bank and the Treasury. In the US and the UK, helicopter money may in fact turn out to be the true face of the QE we are supposed to have seen these past years. If the asset purchases and monetisation are not reversed at some point in the future, QE will turn out to have been helicopter money after all, if either it brought down government borrowing rates in the primary and secondary markets or if it just provided a subsidy to government funding in the primary markets. Unless the central bank makes a credible non-reversal commitment today, however, the asset purchases and monetisation may be interpreted as temporary – as QE - and their effectiveness therefore less than would have been the case had it been recognised for what it is (or may be) – helicopter money.

Helicopter money, even in huge amounts, need not become inflationary ever. The increase in the government deficit associated with the fiscal stimulus is temporary because the fiscal stimulus is temporary. The associated increase in the size of the central bank’s balance sheet may be large, but it is finite. As long as the current quasi-liquidity trap, high leverage for sovereigns, banks and households endure, much of the money transferred to households (should they be the primary beneficiaries of the helicopter money drop) could well be saved by households, to be deposited in banks who add it to their excess reserves. Should consumers get their confidence back and decide to spend the part of the helicopter money drops they initially saved, fiscal tightening is the solution. Should banks get their confidence back and decide to push their excess liquidity towards the private sector by offering loans on irresistible terms, any inflationary increase impact of the enlarged stock of base money on the stock of bank credit or broad money can be neutralised either by raising bank reserve requirements, or by raising the remuneration rate on excess reserves held by banks with the central bank to levels that would induce banks to keep their money at the central bank rather than lend it out to the private sector.
 
In Japan and in the euro area, central bank independence tends to be interpreted by the central banks as not answering the telephone when the fiscal authorities call. Such a rejection of cooperation between monetary and fiscal authorities and of coordination between monetary and fiscal policies reflects an elementary but damaging misunderstanding of the meaning of independence, in our opinion. If an escape from this self-imposed state of impotence is deemed to require an amendment of the Bank of Japan Law and of the European Treaties, then we would encourage it. We actually believe that the European Treaties, including Article 123, permit the funding of sovereigns by the ECB and the national central banks in the secondary sovereign debt markets. That’s good enough to make helicopter money drops feasible even in Euroland. In any case, good monetary and fiscal policy should not be blocked or inhibited by a blanket or even a partial prohibition of the monetisation of public debt and deficits. If done properly, and subject to the consent of the monetary authority, a monetary authority which we can presume to take its price stability mandate seriously, it would not cause inflation. Instead, we think it would help prevent inflation falling below the level deemed consistent with price stability in the medium term, or even deflation, and the risk of recession or even depression.

Finally, helicopter money is not a solution to fiscal unsustainability. It is just a means of providing a temporary fiscal stimulus without adding to the stock of interest-bearing, redeemable public debt. Any attempt to permanently finance even rather small (permanent) general government deficits (as a share of GDP) by creating additional base money would soon – once inflation expectations adjust to this extreme fiscal dominance regime - give rise to unacceptably high rates of inflation and even hyperinflation. Our estimates of the maximum general government deficit for the euro area and the US that can be financed without a surging rate of inflation are around 2% of GDP at most – hardly the stuff of which permanent monetisation dreams are made. Although unanticipated inflation can reduce and, at the extreme, wipe out the real NPV of servicing a given stock of domestic currency debt, once inflation becomes embedded in expectations, the ability to extract additional real resources through the anticipated inflation tax is very limited.