[Second in a 2 part series about economics (the subject no-one knows much about) by a non-expert]
QUANTITATIVE EASING (ELECTRONIC MONEY PRINTING) – THE STORY SO FAR
The idea of quantitative easing (QE) supposedly arose because inflation was falling in the wake of the banking crisis and people at the top started worrying about a “deflationary spiral” (you know for example where the house prices start to go down to sensible levels instead of going up all the time). The idea of QE is SUPPOSED to be that you depress interest rates and this stimulates lending, which in turn stimulates the economy. A side effect (or is it the main effect) of QE is that it depresses the yield on bonds (relative to how much the bonds cost), and therefore makes it cheaper for govt.s to borrow more money (I think that’s how it works). With our governments struggling with a seemingly ever growing debt burden, you can see the attraction of THAT to the govt. QE is not supposed to be like printing extra banknotes (you know like they did in Weimar Germany), but I think it is like that, except that its not banknotes that get made up out of thin air, its 1s and 0s on a computer somewhere, and there are also different immediate effects, which I will try to identify presently.
In this article the BBC attempts to explain quantitative easing to dummies:
Between 2008 and 2015, the US Federal Reserve in total bought bonds worth more than $3.7 trillion.
The UK created £375bn ($550bn) of new money in its QE programme between 2009 and 2012.
Hearing of all this extra money being printed at the time got me thinking, maybe I can get my hands on some of it! I therefore decided to ask for a raise. I went to see my boss at the office in which I worked and, a bit like Oliver Twist begging for his extra bowl of gruel, I meekly asked for a raise. “What, can’t you see I’ve got IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO RIGHT NOW TINKER!!!” shouted my boss and he thumped his fist on his desk, causing the steel balls of his desktop toy to crash into each other in a menacing manner. I imagined I could hear my colleagues sniggering in the office behind me as I retreated to his office door, stammering as I went “I’m sorry Mr. Shankly I did not realize you were so busy”. As I shuffled back to my desk I could see my colleagues smirking all around me and I thought to myself – I wish I was a banker, what am I doing here? It was true that that noble profession had taken a bit of a hit in the popularity stakes in recent years, following the recent banking crisis (like interest rates, popularity can go below zero). However it still seemed to be the only occupation where people still made anything like a decent income. It seemed pretty clear unfortunately that I was not going to see any of this money, after all. Anyway, enough about my own tragicomic existence.
At the end of the above BBC article there is a section titled:
Are there any losers from QE?
in which the BBC identifies who it thinks are the losers:
investors have to pay more to get the same income.
However I have this nagging feeling that these investors are not necessarily losers at all if they decide to sell their bonds back to the govt. (more on that in a moment). I have this nagging feeling that we, the little people, are the real losers, somehow. Remember that in matters of finance, there are always a lot of speculators swimming around with their dorsal fins sticking out of the water, waiting for an easy meal. I know that pensioners own bonds in their pension funds, so pensioners could be winners or losers in this I suspect, depending on who is managing their funds. There are a lot of younger people to think about however as well, who are struggling and striving away while the debt that will be their children’s legacy is growing.
SO, WHERE WAS/IS ALL THE MONEY GOING??
Now I began to start wondering what on earth was going on in the wake of all this “quantitative easing”. In the first place, I rather expected high inflation to result (that’s normally what happens when govt.s print loads of money). There was a bit of inflation going on in the supermarket, I seemed to notice, but not really a huge amount. There did seem to be a slight improvement in the economy, if the newspapers were anything to go by, but you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers. My own economic circumstances did not seem to have improved at all, what with slight inflation and stagnant wages and house prices going up again.
Then they reduced and then stopped quantitative easing for a bit, and again, nothing much seemed to happen. Where was this deflationary spiral we had been warned about by the experts? Surely now that QE had slowed down, there would be deflation! What the heck was going on?? Some media “economics” pundits were actually suggesting that the problem was we weren’t doing ENOUGH “quantitative easing”! It was such a great idea that we needed to print MORE money. In this article there is a graph showing how QE was in fact reduced in the UK from 2011 to 2012:
An anonymous young man showed up at a talk by Lionel Shriver (I don’t know who she is either), and explained to Ms. Shriver why the huge quantitative easing had not caused high inflation:
‘Only 8 per cent of QE has been re-lent into the productive economy’. The rest has gone to hedge funds and investment banks, which have stuck the dosh into ‘property and luxury assets of all kinds — which is why we see massive inflation in these particular asset classes, but not for the rest of us’.
I have a funny feeling that young man was right. This seems an entirely plausible account to me. I had been scratching my head about this for some time, trying to figure out what the heck was going on. So, the owners of these particular asset classes had got very rich, THAT was what had happened, and that was more or less ALL that had happened (apart from very low interest rates for govt. debt). This seemed to me rather believable, and a bit sickening, to put it mildly. But, if you just sell something (in this case bonds) for the same price you bought it, then you are no richer. The question is, are the bonds bought back at the same price the bonds were originally sold for? I think probably not.
Now I am dimly aware of a thing called the bond market. If there is a market for bonds, then bond prices surely go up and down, because that’s what things normally do in financial markets. I don’t know if this is really how it works (so please jump in and comment below if you know better than me), but it seems to me if people hear the govt. is about to buy back a load of its own bonds, then the price is going to go UP beforehand, meaning that some people who own bonds are going to get rich out of quantitative easing, because they will be selling for more than the price they bought at. Apparently I’m not the first person to think of this, but its “apparently” more complicated according to an expert at investopedia (when is finance not):
If anybody can read that and translate it into short plain English for me I will be grateful. So far, my suspicions remain. Why would people sell things at the same price they bought them at? Possibly they had decided the govt. was a dodgy institution and they just wanted to get rid of them? No, I don’t think things have got anywhere near that bad yet. Confidence in govt. lending may one day collapse, but we’re nowhere near that point yet, IMHO.
In a similar way (although in reverse), when Gordon Brown announced to the world that he was going to sell half of the UK’s gold reserves, the price of gold fell in anticipation, causing the UK to lose a lot of money in the sale:
The advance notice of the substantial sales drove the price of gold down by 10% by the time of the first auction on 6 July 1999
No doubt, not only did the UK get poorer, but some speculators circling around saw their opportunity and made a killing. If we blindly trust our politicians to look after the nation’s finances, then well you see what I’m driving at, that’s not been going very well in the recent past.
IS IT NECESSARY FOR THE GOVT. TO PRINT HUGE AMOUNTS OF MONEY?
Here is the view from the Bank of England (beware, the BofE may be somewhat BIASED in this matter):
If you follow a link to a pdf at the end of this, you see it says:
The Bank of England creates new money electronically to buy financial assets like government bonds. This cash injection lowers the cost of borrowing and boosts asset prices to support spending and get inflation back to target.
Right, see that? That seems to be an admission of the assumption I made at the beginning, that a motivation is to lower the cost of govt. borrowing, its not all just about controlling inflation/deflation. So, it IS like Weimar Germany money printing, its just that the IMMEDIATE effects are different. That worries me, because I wonder what the LONGER term effects will be like as well.
IS IT STILL GOING ON?
Yes it is in the UK (I’m not sure about the US). Now that the bandwagon is rolling, its difficult to get it to stop. QE seems to have spread like a virus, the Japanese, the EU. I thought the UK had stopped but it appears they started again in 2016:
QE or not QE The Bank of England’s new quantitative-easing programme is not a failure
Note this article seems to think QE is good but it also seems to confirm that telling people in advance you’re going to buy large quantities of something affects the price, although it does so in economist-speak:
Bank officials suspect that the holders of long-term bonds underestimated the price that would prevail at the auction on August 9th. As a result they held back from selling. Now, however, the expectation is that at the next auction of long-term gilts, expected to be on August 16th, the final price will be higher. Investors are unlikely to make the same mistake.
CORBYNOMICS VS TINKERNOMICS
What is Corbynomics exactly? When I first heard about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s “QE for the people” idea, I had visions of red helicopters (emblazoned with the hammer and sickle), flying over council estates and dropping wads of cash on the delighted inhabitants. I posted my council housing application that same day, hoping to position myself directly under the helicopters’ flight path.
It seems I got it wrong though, that’s not quite what “QE for the people” is all about. The Daily Mail explains it in their financial section:
His biggest headline-grabber has been the suggestion of People’s QE to fund his infrastructure plans, which we explain below.
Meanwhile, Corbyn says he would end the public sector pay freeze, and he is a staunch opponent of welfare cuts. He argues that austerity is about political choices not economic necessities – and that there is money available.
new, large-scale housing, energy, transport and digital projects
Read more: http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/news/article-3211449/What-Corbynomics-Labour-frontrunner-s-economic-plan-explained.html#ixzz4VYcDTdVk
Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook
Well you know, there is always money available, over in socialism opposite-land. It seems Corbyn is actually planning to print money and use it to build council houses for one thing, and then rent them out (no doubt at low rents well below the rental market) to poor people, including to those who don’t work no doubt. Having now spent a considerable part of my adult life working and saving to buy a little house which forever grew in “value”, always staying tantalizingly just beyond reach, I have to tell you readers that I am not very happy about Corbyn’s plans, not very happy at all. Being a wage slave for a company is one thing, but being a wage slave for a company AND a loony lefty govt., well that’s too much. I quit.
Governments in the UK in the last century built a lot of council houses (and tower blocks), and many of them have since been demolished. A lot of the houses that were demolished to make way for the new council houses were perfectly useful houses, that were labelled as “slums” by the govt. often for really silly reasons such as the fact that they didn’t have bathrooms. A lot of the tower blocks that replaced these perfectly good houses have since become slums themselves, “sink estates” where drug taking and gang culture goes on. Quite a lot of these tower blocks have been blown up in controlled demolitions since. I don’t want to sound patronizing, I know this is very basic economics, but if you build some houses and then knock them down and then build some more and then knock them down and so on, this all costs money.
It seems a slum is more defined by the behaviour of its inhabitants than the buildings. Many of the tower blocks were truly hideous as well, and many of the little terrace houses that escaped demolition have since had bathrooms and fancy kitchens installed (not to mention damp proofing) and the areas have become gentrified and seen astronomical house price rises despite the modest investment in refurbishment. If you think drug taking and gang culture doesn’t go on in nicer low-rise estates as well btw, think again, it does. This is probably a subject for a separate discussion though, council housing is a big subject in its own right, and I do appreciate there were problems with overcrowding in those days.
Would Corbyn’s ‘QE for people’ float or sink Britain?
For the avoidance of doubt, this is not same-old, same-old socialism; it is new, radical thinking.
It sounds very same-old, same-old to me. Is this the same-old, same-old BBC, grasping at a straw – leftyism may have failed in every “form” its taken, its just not been done the right way yet (bit like what many Muslims in the West say about Islam)? Robert Peston, the smug BBC (now ITV) economist superstar, does however conclude his article by expressing doubts about Corbynomics (I can never quite work out if Peston is a proper lefty or not, he seems to hedge his bets in both directions here):
Because there would be widespread concerns that the Bank of England would be indirectly financing white elephants via this investment bank – and would, as I mentioned earlier, be throwing good money after bad.
Ambrose Evans Pritchard (that well known member of the Communist party (that’s fake news by the way, he isnt really)) at the DT is egging Corbyn on:
Jeremy Corbyn’s QE for the people is exactly what the world may soon need
Much of the money has leaked into asset booms, greatly enriching the “haves”, with a painfully slow trickle-down to the rest of society. A pervasive sense that the financial elites pulled a blinder – while austerity is for little people – explains in part why Mr Corbyn has suddenly stormed into the limelight, and why the US socialist Bernie Sanders has so upset the Democratic primaries.
AEP seems to confirm my above suspicions here about QE causing an asset boom at least. Note what he is saying here, note it well – Corbyn should not be underestimated. Note particularly that Corbyn is promising to crack down on tax avoidance and tax evasion, which will also be a vote winner, even though every party always says that. Then AEP made me wonder if he might be a member of the Communist party after all, when he says this:
[Milton] Friedman did not, of course, mean that banknotes should be dropped from the sky, though they could be in extremis, but rather that central banks have the means to create money to fund tax cuts, or to cover state spending, until the economy comes back to life.
See that “though they could be in extremis”, so AEP would actually support the fictional/joke helicopter drop that I described at the beginning of this section. Fortunately one of our correspondents was on hand to witness the first helicopter money drop:
PILOT: Welcome on board Mr Evans-Pritchard, did you bring those suitcases full of banknotes that we told you to bring, of your own money, that we’re going to throw out of the helicopter?
AEP: Yes, I brought them as requested, I think this scheme is an excellent investment opportunity! Power to the people!
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Corbyn air traffic control here, you are clear for takeoff! Good luck with the money drop!
That’s fake news by the way, I just made that up.
AEP also says this:
Some invoke the spectre of Weimar, but Germany’s hyperinflation of 1923 followed the breakdown of the Wilhelmine state after the First World War. The German people saw it as their patriotic duty not to pay taxes that would be siphoned off for Versailles reparations.
Weimar tells us absolutely nothing about the merits or demerits of monetary financing in stable democratic societies with fully-functioning institutions that face a deflation crisis.
I would be interested to know what readers make of THAT.
Corbyn also wants to introduce a MAXIMUM wage, just by the by:
How would Tinkernomics work? Tinker is of the view that when governments meddle, they make a mess. Tinker favours a more hands off approach that involves governments not printing money, and not doing a lot of other things as well, such as knocking perfectly good houses down to make way for new houses that have to be knocked down after a few decades.
There is no easy way out of a big national debt (IMHO), except to reduce govt. spending or increase taxes, or to sell off assets. I suspect that some people are getting rich out of QE right now, not for doing anything useful. It may be that the national debt (that’s OUR debt) is not going up as rapidly as it might otherwise be if bond yields were higher, but we can’t keep doing this QE, we are living in la la land if we think so.
If the real aim of QE is to get the national debt down (or stop it getting any bigger) by printing money, and the fear about a deflationary spiral is unfounded (as it seems to be to me), then I think the consequence will be some type of inflation. There will be inflation in SOMETHING corresponding to the amount of the QE, and growing wealth inequality if the QE mainly benefits people who are already rich.
If we keep doing the type of QE we have been doing then the wealth gap will grow so big that eventually Corbyn will be able to storm the capital with his comrades and the red flag will be flying over Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament (not literally of course).
What do you think? Please add your comments below.
OTHER VIEWS ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB:
The Guardian jumps on the Corbynomics bandwagon: