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Time for Helicopter Money?

WASHINGTON, DC – “Out of ammo? The Economist recently asked of monetary policymakers. Stephen Roach has called the move by major central banks – including the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of Sweden – to negative real (and, in some cases, even nominal) interest rates a “futile” effort that merely sets “the stage for the next crisis.” And, at the February G-20 finance ministers meeting, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney reportedly called these policies “ultimately a zero-sum game.” Have the major advanced economies’ central banks – which have borne the burden of sustaining anemic post-2008 recoveries – really run out of options?

It certainly seems so. Central-bank balance sheets have swelled, and policy rates have reached their “near zero” lower bounds. There is plenty of cheap water, it seems, but the horse refuses to drink. With no signs of inflation, and growth still tepid and fragile, many anticipate chronic slow growth, with some even fearing another global recession.

But policymakers have one more option: a shift to “purer” fiscal policy, in which they directly finance government spending by printing money – a so-called “helicopter drop.” The new money would bypass the financial and corporate sectors and go straight to the thirstiest horses: middle- and lower-income consumers. The money could go to them directly, and through investment in job-creating, productivity-increasing infrastructure. By placing purchasing power in the hands of those who need it most, direct monetary financing of public spending would also help to improve inclusiveness in economies where inequality is rising fast.

Helicopter drops are currently proposed by both leftist and centrist economists. In a sense, even some “conservatives” – who support more public infrastructure spending, but also want tax cuts and oppose more borrowing – de facto support helicopter drops.