What do you do when the economy needs a fiscal stimulus but there is no money for it?
Central banks have an ever expanding range in their toolkit to choose from to fix their individual economies but none of them seem to have worked so far. This may be because they lack the right tool for the job. In this case, the right tool is likely to be a large hammer in the form of a substantial fiscal stimulus but this is the preserve of governments who, at this point in time, are saddled with too much debt. Yet, there is a way in which central banks could use monetary policy to act like a fiscal stimulus and generate the boost to demand that the global economy desperately needs.
Even new monetary policies are falling short
Economists thought we had it figured out. Simply control the money supply by setting interest rates and it will be possible to ride out any booms and busts. However, the weak recovery following the global financial crisis has shattered this belief. Even manipulating the money supply using newly contrived measures such as quantitative easing has been less fruitful than hoped as well as creating unexpected problems.
Quantitative easing has relied on a convoluted process where central banks create cash in order to buy bonds which frees up money for use elsewhere. The problem has been that there is little demand for money in the actual economy as businesses are not keen to borrow as a result of the weak underlying economy. Instead, what is needed is an instrument for inserting money straight into the economy. This is because, rather than just cheap credit, companies need greater revenues from stronger sales in order to encourage investment and jump-start the economy again.
A fiscal stimulus fits the bill and has been tried already but only in small doses. The key spanner in the works in this case has been high levels of government debt. Before the crisis, politicians everywhere were almost as amped up as bankers and government finances were managed as if the boom time would continue forever. The results have left us short of workable options to bolster the sluggish global economy.
Using Monetary Policy like a Fiscal Stimulus
It may sound like a strange solution, but if monetary policy is not working and higher government spending is not possible, central banks could use their money-printing capacities to engineer a fiscal stimulus. Rather than using freshly printed cash to buy bonds, central banks could just give it away. Or, to use an analogy that economists like to use, drop money from a helicopter.
Central banks operate the valves which control the supply of money, which is already being expanded on a temporary basis using quantitative easing. The helicopter idea is a much more direct approach than shovelling money at the bond market. Recipients of the cash would be free to spend it as they please, thus injecting money into the actual economy and creating a bonus for firms.
The cash would not actually be in in the form of notes or coins but could be paid as a cheque or straight into the bank accounts of tax payers. It strikes at the core of the main problem in the economy, a shortage of demand, allowing for more rapid results and less distortion compared to having surplus cash in the financial system.
The main drawback of this seemingly too-good-to-be-true policy is worries about inflation. This is also the biggest obstacle as inflation is the primary concern of the central banks that would need to print the cash to be distributed. It is the belief of many economists that it is the discipline of central banks which has kept inflation down over the past few decades. Any sign that central banks might allow for more inflation is thought to push prices into a perilous upward spiral. Yet, inflation is no longer the threat it once was and would not become an issue until the economic recovery was well under way.
Just like any handyman, economists have their favourite tools and are sometimes loath to admit that there might be a better option. Unfortunately, it may just be a step too far for central banks to overcome their fear of inflation and leave the safety of familiar ground despite the extra firepower on offer.