A miracle cure for central bank impotence


Are central banks ever unable to create inflation? The question may seem absurd – why would we ever want them to create more inflation? The typical answer is that deflation can be a lot worse than inflation. But this ignores the fact that prices can fall simply because we can produce things more cheaply. Falling oil prices mean cheaper production, which should mean cheaper consumer products. That's 'good' deflation.

But 'bad' deflation, caused by tight money, can be very harmful, and indeed is what Milton Friedman blamed the Great Depression on. A variant of this view, which looks at market expectations, blames expectations of deflation for the crisis in 2008. Those of us who think that nominal GDP is what matters – since contracts and wages are set in nominal terms – recognise that deflation can knock NGDP off-course and cause widespread bankruptcies and unemployment that would not have taken place in a more stable macroeconomic environment. (Free banking, say.)

So if inflation is sometimes desirable, when it prevents deflation (or collapses in NGDP), the power of the central bank to create it really does matter. That's where Paul Krugman and the Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard have clashed. In response to Krugman's claim that central banks are impotent when their interest rates are zero, Evans-Pritchard writes:

Central banks can always create inflation if they try hard enough. As Milton Friedman said, they can print bundles of notes and drop from them helicopters. The modern variant might be a $100,000 electronic transfer into the bank account of every citizen. That would most assuredly create inflation.

I don’t see how Prof Krugman can refute this, though I suspect that he will deftly change the goal posts by stating that this is not monetary policy. To anticipate this counter-attack, let me state in advance that the English language does not belong to him. It is monetary policy. It is certainly not interest rate policy.

The piece is worth reading in full. I'm less convinced that 'helicopter drops' are actually needed now – if central banks said that they'd do as much conventional QE as it took to raise the inflation rate or NGDP level to x%, that may well be enough. But Evans-Pritchard's basic point that central banks are never 'out of ammo' is what counts.