Tuesday, 1 March 2016

'Helicopter Money' and 'Fee & Dividend'

Helicopter money is being increasingly discussed as the economic outlook darkens with policy rates still extremely low. Simon Wren-Lewis discusses Two related confusions about helicopter money and Miles Kimball says that Helicopter Drops of Money Are Not the Answer. Both these pieces define Helicopter Money as QE + Fiscal Policy i.e. central banks create new money and use to buy government bonds, whilst governments run deficits, effectively giving taxpayers money via reduced tax bills (SWL: "HM is a large fiscal expansion", MK: "Printing money and sending it to people is equivalent to printing money to buy Treasury bills and then selling those Treasury bills to raise funds to send to people").

I think this is too broad a view of helicopter money, which effectively incorporates the QE that we've seen over the past decade. HM could be differentiated from this QE by considering it to be new issues of central bank money that are not used to purchase any assets, but are rather given away. This would mean the exercise of a HM policy would be much more aggressive monetary policy than QE since it would be much more irreversible (the central bank would have fewer assets relative to liabilities with which to defend the value of the currency, unless it were to be recapitalised by the fiscal authorities).

If the view of helicopter money could be narrowed to: the central bank creating new money, all citizens having an account at the central bank, and the new money being deposited on an equal per capita basis in these individual accounts; then there are two further issues that such a putative HM architecture could clarify:

1) Central bank independence in terms of the output-inflation trade-off from the level of fiscal policy. Suppose the monetary authorities have lowered interest rates to zero, and still inflation is below target; the central bank decides to engage in QE, creating money to buy government bonds; demand for bonds rises. However the fiscal authorities do not change their tax and spending plans; There is a mild stimulatory impact from lowered long term borrowing rates, but there has been no "Printing money and sending it to people". Under HM = QE + Fiscal Policy, the central bank cannot decide the level of monetary stimulus without some agreement with the fiscal authorities. If instead HM was a distribution into citizens' individual accounts, then there would be a monetary expansion without any reference to the fiscal authorities. The central bank could exercise this policy lever autonomously in line with its (inflation targeting or other) mandate.

2) Central bank independence in terms of the distributional effects of monetary policy. If the fiscal policy under HM = QE + Fiscal Policy was eliminating corporation tax, capital gains tax, and higher rates of income tax, then this would meet the definition of HM as "Printing money and sending it to people". But "the people" chosen is a highly political choice (in this case the very wealthy). A technocratic monetary authority should not be making, or party to, such political choices: and it would be if monetary objectives mandated QE that gave "windfall" resources to a particular government at a particular point in time with which to make a politicised distribution of this money. Per capita distribution i.e. a lump sum transfer, would of course be a political choice as well. But if this were the instrument specified in legislation and in the political process that set up the HM architecture, then that political choice would have been made appropriately ex ante, and the exercise of the policy lever could be made entirely on grounds of meeting monetary objectives.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on helicopter money. It struck me recently though that setting up a HM architecture of this form would also enable the climate change policy advocated by James Hansen: Fee & Dividend. This is a carbon tax policy, the revenues from which are distributed on a per capita basis. This means that climate policy doesn't cost the average citizen anything (they get back all the extra money they spend) but it changes prices in a way to incorporate the carbon externalities of their consumption choices. The individual accounts at the central bank are a perfect vehicle for paying the dividends associated with the F&D policy.

Always nice to present a single proposal that solves multiple problems...

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