Casual Monetarism

In an Op-Ed for The New York Times, Japan’s Economy, Crippled by Caution, Paul Krugman is seen using a highly Monetarist language:

As I said, you might think that ending deflation is easy. Can’t you just print money? But the question is what do you do with the newly printed money (or, more usually, the bank reserves you’ve just conjured into existence, but let’s call that money-printing for convenience). And that’s where respectability becomes such a problem.

When central banks like the Federal Reserve or the Bank of Japan print money, they generally use it to buy government debt. In normal times this starts a chain reaction in the financial system: The sellers of that government debt don’t want to sit on idle cash, so they lend it out, stimulating spending and boosting the real economy. And as the economy heats up, wages and prices should eventually start to rise, solving the problem of deflation.

… When you print money, don’t use it to buy assets; use it to buy stuff. That is, run budget deficits paid for with the printing press.

Now, there are several things wrong about this. The most important one is the implicit assumption in the “model” that fiscal expansion via increased government expenditure is about neutral and that domestic demand is boosted only because of the way in which the government debt is financed – i.e., central bank purchases of government debt. In other words, Krugman is saying that if there is deflation and if there is an expansion of fiscal policy via a rise in say government expenditures, it will have little effect when the central bank doesn’t purchase government debt. Put it in another way, it is saying that the government expenditure multiplier effect acts mainly because of central bank purchase of government debt and not because of the increase in government expenditure per se.

This is silly intuition and the cause of this is the notion that fiscal policy is more or less neutral except in special circumstances.

In reality, it is the other way round. If the government expenditure rises, and if the central bank purchases government debt, the rise in output is mainly attributable to the former. This can of course be seen in a stock-flow consistent model but can also be seen by simple accounting and flow of funds. A rise in government expenditure on goods and services raises output directly and also via the multiplier effect. The central bank has a huge control over interest rates and the additional debt is simply absorbed by the bond markets easily. There’s no competition with other borrowers as the wealth of the private sector rises. In addition, if the central bank purchases government debt, it is hardly clear if households know if inflation is going to rise and increase their consumption because of “inflation expectations”. Even if they think that if inflation is set to rise, they might reduce consumption as inflation might reduce their real wealth.

Which is not to say that asset purchase programs of the central bank or “quantitative easing” has no effect on demand and output. It works via capital gains in wealth leading to higher consumption and the feedback effects of this. It also works if economic units shift their portfolios to buying non-financial assets. The effect of all this is unclear. In addition, as mentioned earlier, casual Monetarism like the language used by Paul Krugman mixes up correct attributions of government expenditure and central bank government debt purchases on output, misleading everyone.

Simply say “raise government expenditures”. Why all this casual Monetarism with “printing presses”?

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