Recent economic data has convinced the Bank of England not to expand its Quantitative Easing program. According to the Office of National Statistics, annual CPI inflation rose from 3.3% in November to 3.7% in December, 2010 and is now currently 4%. The overall expectation is that CPI inflation will peak at 4.4% by the middle of 2011.
This increase in inflation coupled with poor economic data (with GDP contracting 0.5% last quarter) has come as something of a shock to the Bank of England. The Bank was apparently operating under the assumption that printing money was the way to get the economy going. They are surprised that the result has been a significant increase in inflation and a worsening economy.
Rather helpfully, on the Bank’s website there is an explanation of how Quantitative Easing was supposed to improve the economy. Quite clearly, the Bank explains that they purchased British Government bonds (gilts) and high quality (investment grade) bonds from private sector companies (banks, pension funds, insurance companies and non-financial institutions). The Bank’s concern was that there was too little money “circulating” in the economy. Using this method, the Bank was able to inject the much needed money directly into the economy and the companies that needed it. The idea was two-fold; a) asset prices increase, wealth increases and spending increases; b) more money, means more spending, bank reserves increase, meaning more lending, spending and income increases, inflation arrives at the magic 2% rate and we all live happily ever after, growing fat off of the magic wealth creation machine at the Bank. But there is a dark side to this fairy tale and at the risk of sounding clichéd, it is because in this case, more money really does mean more problems.
The problem is that the Bank is operating under the rather naïve assumption that printing money and rising prices mean that they are creating value. If this were true, none of us would need to work. The government could just issue us all with paper, ink and printing presses. Whenever we needed to buy something we could just print off some money and go to the shops and buy what we need. And of course, prices would rise, the shops would make lots of profits and apparent wealth would increase. There is one nagging doubt however. Who would make all the goods that we would buy, if we are all sitting at home printing money? Perhaps we could get the Morlocks to do it. Or maybe specially trained chimps.
Clearly, the Wizards of Oz, currently residing at the Bank of England, do not understand how value is created, how capital grows and how the wealth in society is generated. To create value one must produce something of value, a good that someone can use to improve their wellbeing or allow them to subsist. This good can be sold for money and the money can be used for consumption, held as a cash balance or to improve the tools needed to produce a greater quantity and quality of goods. Ultimately, all money will be spent on either a consumer good (like a loaf of bread or a new pair of shoes) or a capital good (like a baker’s oven or shoe-making machinery). The latter choice would result in an increase in capital (the value of all capital goods) and capital goods, and in the long run, a general increase in wealth. The increase in wealth occurs because an improvement in the quality and quantity of capital goods allows us to create a greater number of better quality consumer goods in a shorter period of time. This increase in the supply of consumer goods means that their price will fall resulting in a reduction in the cost of living for the society at large. We will all be better off. The important concept to take away is that for this increase in wealth to occur, somebody had to sacrifice some of their consumption to instead purchase a capital good (otherwise known as an income producing asset). This increases the price of income producing assets relative to consumer goods. From the perspective of a consumer like you and me, the goods we buy become cheaper and in a healthy economy, the prices of consumer goods fall over time.
The Bank of England does not believe that any sacrifice is needed today for an increase in wealth tomorrow. In the Land of Oz you do not need to sell something of value in order to get money in exchange, you can just print money instead. Obviously, printing up banknotes does not create anything of value. What happens instead is the reverse of the process described above. The increased supply of money, according to the fundamental laws of economics, will reduce its purchasing power, meaning that the relative prices of consumer goods will rise over time. This will increase the cost of living for people in general, meaning their real wages will fall. Because the cost of labour is now comparatively cheaper, rather than invest in an increase in capital goods, companies will invest in labour instead (Jesus Huerta De Soto, 2009). This means there will be a lower quantity and quality of capital goods and a reduction in the future supply of consumer goods. For the average person, this means a lower salary and a smaller selection of more expensive goods to spend it on. Most of us become poorer.
But not all of us will become poorer. By printing this money and handing it over to a favoured few in society (i.e. the banks) this is in one sense, handing them nothing and in another sense, pure and simple counterfeiting. This is because, in the case of Quantitative Easing, the banks will trade this money for real or financial assets, or to their employees in exchange for their services. This increased monetary demand for financial assets or banking services will bid up their prices. The assets can then be sold in the near term at a profit and the banking employees will spend their increased salaries and bonuses on consumer goods before prices start to rise. Bankers will certainly feel wealthier. In fact, this whole process represents a wealth transfer from one group of people in society to the banks and a shadow tax on much of the population. This is because the early recipients of the new money (the bankers and the Government) will get to spend this money before the prices rise significantly. Slowly this new money will be dispersed around the economy but the further you are from the source the less it will be worth when you finally receive it.
The main beneficiaries of Quantitative Easing therefore, are the Government and the banks. The banks buy gilts from the Government and then sell them to the Bank of England (just under £200bn’s worth) at a profit. The Bank of England pays for these gilts with freshly printed money. Thus the Government has a ready buyer for its debt and the banks become more profitable and apparently more stable. Because of their now greater reserves and new found stability, the official rationale behind Quantitative Easing was that banks would then lend out these reserves to businesses and households thus stimulating the economy. Except, in fact the opposite has occurred. The economy has contracted, inflation is continuing to rise, net lending is down and unemployment has risen.
With a firm understanding of the basics of how wealth is created the Bank of England would have known this would happen. Unfortunately, they operate under the Keynesian delusion of how the world works and their main objective would appear to be saving the banks (because we are all doomed without them) rather saving the economy. With inflation getting higher and higher one might wonder why Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, does not simply raise interest rates or resell the gilts. However, this would set the Bank of England’s plan into reverse, with higher rates leading to lower asset values, weakened balance sheets and an increase in mortgage defaults, leading to more bank losses and bankruptcies.
Clearly, the Bank of England’s plan is doomed to failure and has been from the start. Mervyn King would have greater luck trying to empty the ocean with a bucket. The problem is two-fold; a) the Bank of England views the recovery or liquidation stage of the business cycle as a problem to be solved and; b) it tries to solve this problem by doing more of what caused this problem in the first place. This “solution” has prevented the necessary liquidation of unprofitable projects and write-offs of bad loans, and has continued to subsidise inefficient operations. Quantitative Easing has resulted in a transfer of wealth from society at large to the banks and the Government, and has vastly extended the length of what would have been a short but sharp recession. Quantitative Easing has made us poorer while benefiting a select few in society.
This is a crime by any measure.