Printing money is okay, we do it all the time!

A lot of people get very worried by printing money. We can trace this line of thought back to the great political economists of the nineteenth century like JS Mill, but it finds itself common on the left and right these days.

You can print yourself into hyperinflation, or even accelerating inflation which can eat into living standards and cloud relative prices. But you can find yourself in deflation by failing to print enough. It is this second problem we have been closer to.

It is sad that people need reminding that hyperinflation impoverished Germany but it was relatively mild reflation which pushed them towards fascism. It seems sensible to me to fear deflation more than inflation. Better yet to find the happy medium, where the economy operates at its potential without prices rising too quickly or people being left on the scrap heap of unemployment.

Unfortunately I don’t know where to get the data for the UK, the UK National Statistics website is a joke, but here is some data for the US showing the potential for disconnect between money and prices.

For two decades, money increases along with economic activity, prices increase more slowly (i.e. we got richer). We reach 2008 and the monetary base explodes but prices do not. In fact, prices fall slightly just as the monetary base grows at over 100% a year.

What does this tell us? It tells us that simplistic talk about “fake credit”, “titanic disasters” or “defy[ing] economic gravity” is very wide of the mark indeed.

Quantitative Easing causes a lot of confusion. Normally a central bank promises to print as much money as is necessary to pin short term interest rates at a level predicted to produce stable prices and full output.

Around the world, our last crisis was so severe that short term interest rates went to zero and stayed there. The central bank’s method for controlling prices and output was suddenly impotent.

QE is an extension of this normal promise to print and spend to long term debt because rates on short term debt have already been pushed as low as it is possible to go.

QE is far from ideal, in fact it is the least a central bank can do once rates hit zero. But it is the only option currently on the table because many people currently resist a central bank even doing this minimum because they seem not to care about unemployment.

If you support more active policy to help people then it has to be both through QE and after QE. Only by supporting a suboptimal policy will the space ever open up for something more efficient for boosting growth but that is less popular with central banking’s elite.