Never mind the quality of the Green New Deal just feel the width

The Green New Deal has another of their little reports out. Essentially saying the same as all of the previous ones. Print more money to spend on all that Caroline Lucas holds dear. But it really does have to be said that the level of economic knowledge that goes into these reports is not all that high. We’ve for some years now had the egregious Richard Murphy shouting that we should just collect all hte tax avoided and evaded in order to beat austerity. He not realising that collecting more tax is austerity. For it reduces the fiscal stimulus as it reduces the budget deficit.

And of course, there’s a similar gross error in this latest report:

No Need to Repay QE
Since QE involves a central bank putting new money into circulation by creating e-­‐money and using it to buy assets, this will not increase Europe’s debt levels according to the originator of the term ‘quantitative easing’, Professor Werner, Director of the Centre for Banking, Finance and Sustainable Development at the University of Southampton. He states that since the central bank
can simply keep the assets on its balance sheet then there is no need for taxpayers to pay or to expand public debt. The assets should simply stay on the central bank balance sheet.
Furthermore, this debt, which would be owed by the government to the central bank would not have to be repaid, as Adair Turner, the former Chairman of the UK Financial Services Authority has made clear.
In the European context, the EIB is the European Union’s bank, owned by and representing the interests of the EU Member States and so the debt that the EIB would incur through Green Infrastructure QE would also not have to be repaid.

Well, according to that first paragraph I’ve no need to repay my mortgage as I used the loan to buy an asset. But leaving that aside note the deep appreciation of matters economic on display here.

QE is the central bank creating money to purchase assets. Therefore the EIB can and should do this. But the EIB is not a central bank with money creating powers. It’s an EU development bank that borrows on the usual capital markets for funding. The EIB simply cannot do QE because it’s not a central bank.

We might not expect any more insight than this from a combination of Caroline Lucas, Richard Murphy and Colin Hines. But Larry Elliott has always been rather more sound than this: is he still with this group or has he left in disgust?

Adam Curtis and the shapeshifting lizards

It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance

~ Murray Rothbard

Adam Curtis’s segment in Charlie Brooker’s look back on 2014 tells us that news is confusing, and hard to paint into black and white. We’ve withdrawn from Afghanistan, but did we win or lose? Bashar al-Assad is bad, but is ISIS even worse? But nothing, he says, is more confusing than the economy.

The economy is growing, but wages are falling; the deficit is falling, but the national debt is rising. This, he says, keeps the population (whether intentionally or not) in a state of confusion and apathy.

But at the ‘dark heart of this shapeshifting world’ he says, is quantitative easing (QE), which pumps hundreds of billions of pounds into the economy at the same time as the government is ‘taking it out’ via its austerity programme.

According to Curtis, the Bank of England has ‘admitted’ that his has accrued to the richest 5%, a failure of the programme. He calls it ‘a ruthless elite, siphoning off billions of pounds of public money’. He even suggests it’s roughly analogous to the situation in Russia, comparing British wealthy to oligarchs.

But I wonder if he’s looked at any of the research into the programme, asked any economists, or even, perhaps, interviewed some people at the Bank of England?

The reason why some Bank of England research says that the wealth benefited disproportionately in wealth terms is that without the QE programme there would have been a depression, and asset prices would have collapsed. The rich hold assets, the poor don’t. But does anyone think the poor would have done better had there been a depression and mass unemployment?

Curtis might find a comparison between what Ambrose Evans-Pritchard calls the ‘QE bloc’ of the US and UK (and now Japan) and the Eurozone germane. Where have we seen deflation? Where have we seen mass unemployment?

They might look at some of the peer reviewed and robust research telling us whether and how QE has worked.

Much of it is from the Bank of England and Federal Reserve, although I suspect that the credence Brooker & Curtis give to the Bank only extends to stuff that says things they want to hear. Anything else may be dismissed as being exactly what you’d expect the shapeshifting lizards to say.

If QE avoided a Depression it doesn’t matter if it increased inequality

I’ve just come from a fascinating event with The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson, on his recent Dispatches show, How the Rich Get Richer. In general the show was very good, and it’s extremely refreshing to see someone as thoughtful as Fraser get half an hour of prime time television to discuss poverty in Britain from a broadly free market perspective.

But I did take issue with the show’s treatment of Quantitative Easing (QE). Fraser described this as ‘perhaps the biggest wealth transfer from poor to rich in history’. The evidence for this was the rise in asset prices following QE, particularly in stock markets. Since rich people own assets and poor people don’t, the rich got richer and the poor didn’t.

That’s a common view and I understand it, but I think it’s wrong. 

Consider the Great Depression. When the money supply (and hence nominal spending) collapsed in the 1930s, the US economy did too, for reasons outlined in Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s Monetary History of the United States.

Basically, contracts are set in nominal terms, so if nominal spending collapses, you’re left with a musical chairs problem where you have too little money to go round. So people are laid off and firms go bankrupt that would not have done so if money had remained stable across the board. Enormous amounts of wealth were destroyed unnecessarily because the government mismanaged the money supply. (It shouldn’t be managing money at all, in my view, but if it is we can at least try to minimise the harm it does.)

Perhaps inequality fell during this period because the rich lost proportionally more than the poor – they had more to lose, basically. But who cares? Everyone became worse off. That’s what matters.

The point of QE since 2008 has been to try and avoid a repeat of the 1930s by boosting the money supply. Its supporters wanted to avoid another massive destruction of wealth that would make everyone much worse off. 

Yes, QE boosted stock markets a lot. But there is nothing about QE that meant that banks or other investors would have to invest there – it’s not an ‘injection of cash into stocks’, as some people seem to believe. Stock markets rose because investors reckoned that QE would help avert a much worse Depression, which meant that firms would be (much) more valuable compared to a QE-less world where many of them may have gone bankrupt, or at least taken severe losses, instead.

Yes, that increased inequality because rich people own stocks and poor people don’t. But if everyone would have been worse off without QE, the extra inequality is beside the point. It’s people’s absolute wellbeing that should matter, if what you’re avoiding is a big Depression. You might as well think economic growth is bad because it makes everyone richer, but rich people a little more so.

Of course, it’s an open question whether QE actually did work as intended. Perhaps it made things worse, or did nothing at all. That is a question worth asking and it’s not one I can answer. But focusing on whether it increased inequality or not is beside the point – what matters is whether it prevented a Depression.

QE cannot both boost asset prices and wreck pensions

Quantitative easing is complex and difficult to understand—economists aren’t even sure exactly if and how it works. It would be unreasonable to expect non-economists to fully grok its workings even if journalistic explanations were clear and overall true. Since economics journalist’s explanations have been largely lacking (including, I expect, my own, when I was an econ journo), it would be very difficult for others, further removed from economics, to ‘get it’.

Still, this piece on Bank of England staff pensions from Richard Dyson, the Telegraph’s personal finance editor, has a number of problems which I can’t help but try and correct. Dyson argues that (a) the Bank of England’s pension scheme is ‘eye-catchingly-generous'; (b) final salary pension schemes have died in the private sector substantially because of the BoE’s quantitative easing (QE) programme; (c) QE has harmed pensioners; and (d) the Bank’s policy of investing in pension pots in bonds is too low-risk and earns insufficient returns. All are substantially false.

Firstly, the Bank of England’s ‘generous’ pensions are (as Dyson notes at the end) to compensate for lower regular and bonus pay than the jobs that very smart and qualified BoE staff could get elsewhere. Dyson might be right that this, overall, is larger in the public sector, indeed there is a literature suggesting that the total pay + benefits for public sector workers of a given skill and experience level is higher than for private sector workers. But the simple fact of a relatively large fraction of that coming out in pensions doesn’t tell us anything on that point—and I would wager that the Bank is run much more like a profit-maximising private organisation than most arms of the state.

Secondly, as we see in Dyson’s graph, private sector final salary/defined benefit pension schemes have been declining since a peak in the mid sixties, with about half of the drop coming in the 70s and about half in the 90s. Practically nothing has happened to them since the introduction of QE.

Which brings us onto thirdly: QE boosts asset prices. QE raises the value of stock markets and bonds and pretty much all securities that people hold in their pensions. QE makes pensioners better off, like it makes pretty much everyone better off. Yes, you’ve heard that QE leads to lower interest rates. I’m not sure that’s true. Remember we are at the bottom of a 30-year slide in real risk-free interest rates, and it seems much less clear that QE is a big factor.

Finally and fourthly, is the Bank too careful with its money? I don’t actually have an answer here but I’d suggest that Dyson (and Ros Altmann, who he quotes on this) are a tad too confident. If the Bank invested in riskier equities or emerging markets or whatever, then sure it would be likely to earn a higher return, but would the Bank’s critics really give it any slack if these investments went bad, as they’d be more likely to do? I don’t really know how the BoE should invest its pension fund, but it seems to me that they are going to be damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

So I think we should leave off the Bank and its pension scheme, whatever issues we might have with its macroeconomic management. It pays high pensions to attract talent. It didn’t cause the decline in private sector final salary pensions (I think government is probably to blame for that). It’s not to blame for high interest rates and it has helped those with pension investments. And we probably don’t have the right info to choose its investment portfolio for it.

What Robert Peston gets wrong about QE

I don’t usually read Robert Peston, now the BBC’s economics editor, but I came across this piece he wrote for their website on the end of the ongoing US quantitative easing (QE) programme. Here he makes the case, overall, that even though QE did not cause hyperinflation (yet!) it could still prove ‘toxic’ because it ‘inflates the price of assets beyond what could be justified by the underlying strength of the economy’. Basically every line of the piece includes something that I could dispute, but I will try and focus on the most important issues.

The first problem is that Peston takes a hardline ‘creditist’ view that not only is QE mainly supposed to help the economy through raising debt/lending, but by raising it in specific, centrally-planned areas (e.g. housing). When we find that QE barely affected lending, it seems to Peston that it failed. But QE does not raise lending to raise economic activity—QE raises economic activity through other channels, which may lead to more lending depending on the preferences of firms and households.

In his 2013 paper ‘Was there ever a bank lending channel?’ Nobel prizewinner Eugene Fama puts paid to this view. He points out that financial firms hold portfolios of real assets based on their preferences and their guesses about the future. QE can only change these preferences and guesses indirectly, by changing nominal or real variables in the economy. For example, extra QE might reduce the chance of a financial collapse, making riskier assets less unattractive. But when central banks buy bonds investors find themselves holding portfolios not exactly in line with their preferences and they ‘rebalance’ towards holding the balance of assets they want: cash, equities, bonds, gilts and so on. This is predicted by our basic expected-profit-maximising model and reliably seen in the empirical data too. It’s good because it implies that monetary policy can work towards neutrality.

This doesn’t mean Peston is right to be sceptical about the benefits of QE. QE has worked—according to a recent Bank of England paper buying gilts worth 1% of GDP led to .16% extra real GDP and .3% extra inflation in the UK (2009-2013), with even better results for the USA. The point is that it works through other channels—principally by convincing markets that the central bank is serious about trying to achieve its inflation target or even go above its inflation target when times are particularly hard. This is not an isolated result.

The second issue is that Peston claims QE isn’t money creation:

Because what has been really striking about QE is that it was popularly dubbed as money creation, but it hasn’t really been that. If it had been proper money creation, with cash going into the pockets of people or the coffers of businesses, it might have sparked serious and substantial increases in economic activity, which would have led to much bigger investment in real productive capital. And in those circumstances, the underlying growth rate of the UK and US economies might have increased meaningfully.

But in today’s economy, especially in the UK and Europe, money creation is much more about how much commercial banks lend than how many bonds are bought from investors by central banks. The connection between QE and either the supply of bank credit or the demand for bank credit is tenuous.

That is not to say there is no connection. But the evidence of the UK, for example, is that £375bn of quantitative easing did nothing to stop banks shrinking their balance sheets: banks had a too-powerful incentive to shrink and strengthen themselves after the great crash of 2008; businesses and consumers were too fed up to borrow, even with the stimulus of cheap credit.

This is extremely misleading and confused. He suggests that printing cash and handing it out would boost the ‘underlying’ growth rate, which is nonsense—the ‘underlying’ growth rate is driven by supply-side factors. He claims that money creation is identical with credit creation, when they are separate things, and he has already pointed out that creating money doesn’t always lead to more credit. We have already seen how credit is not the way QE affects growth, despite what economic journalists like Peston seem to unendingly tell us. Indeed, it seems quite clear that the great recession caused the credit crunch, rather than the other way round.

His ending few paragraphs are yet stranger:

But the fundamental problem with QE is that the money created by central banks leaked out all over the place, and ended up having all sorts of unexpected and unwanted effects. When launched it was billed as a big, bold and imaginative way of restarting the global economy after the 2008 crash. It probably helped prevent the Great Recession being deeper and longer. But by inflating the price of assets beyond what could be justified by the underlying strength of the economy, it may sown the seeds of the next great markets disaster.

It’s not clear at all why Peston thinks that QE would inflate asset prices beyond what could be justified. I’ve written at length about this before. The money a trader gets from selling a gilt to the Bank of England is completely fungible with all their other money. There is no reason to expect they will put this money in an envelope and save it for a special occasion. They try and hold the same portfolio of assets as they did before. Through various channels (including equity prices -> investment) QE raises inflation and real GDP and surprise surprise these are exactly the things that asset prices should care about.