Helicopters on a Leash

PARIS – Faced with a slowing global economy, a number of observers – including former US Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke and Berkeley economist Brad DeLong – have argued that money-financed fiscal expansion should not be excluded from the policy toolkit. But talk of such “helicopter drops” of newly printed money has produced a strong counterattack, including from Michael Heise, the chief economist of Allianz, and Koichi Hamada, the chief economic adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and one of the architects of Japan’s “Abenomics” economic-recovery program.

I disagree with Heise and Hamada, but they rightly focus on the central issue – the risk that allowing any monetary finance will invite excessive use. The crucial question is whether we can devise rules and responsibilities to guard against that danger. I believe we can and must, and that in some countries the alternative will not be no monetary finance, but monetary finance implemented without discipline.

As I argued in a recent International Monetary Fund paper, the technical case for monetary finance is indisputable. It is the one policy that will always stimulate nominal demand, even when other policies – such as debt-financed fiscal deficits or negative interest rates – are ineffective. And its impact on nominal demand can in principle be calibrated: A small amount will produce a potentially useful stimulus to either output or the price level, whereas a very large amount will produce excessive inflation.

That is not to deny important complexities in implementing helicopter drops. If money creation finances tax cuts rather than increased public expenditure, the impact will depend on how much consumers decide to spend versus save – a balance that may be unstable over time. And, because money creation by central banks increases commercial banks’ reserves, there is a risk that lending will increase little at first, but then rapidly. But these complexities simply argue for a cautious approach to the scale of monetary finance and the careful use of tools – such as mandatory-reserve requirements – to constrain subsequent knock-on effects.