Economies need structural reform, not helicopter money

The European Central Bank continues with quantitative easing and negative interest rates, ignoring that such policies have not sold the problems (source: dpa)
The European Central Bank continues with quantitative easing and negative interest rates, ignoring that such policies have not sold the problems (source: dpa)

Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the People’s Bank of China, admitted at a press conference during the G20 summit in Shanghai that monetary measures have a limited scope for stimulating the economy. Structural reforms, though they hurt, are necessary. GIS experts have repeated this many times over the past few years, but at least the PBoC is willing to admit it officially, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.

For years policymakers in governments, central banks and academia have preached easy money and inflation as a solution to the economic woes in Europe, the United States and Japan. But years of administering this medicine have had no effect on growth. Instead, it has led to an asset bubble, damaged savings (especially retirement funds) and motivated governments to delay painful but necessary reforms.

China tried the same tactics, and was also unsuccessful.

The reasoning behind implementing these measures was an oversimplification: Cheap, abundant money would incentivize businesses to invest and consumers to spend, further allowing banks to lend.

What was ignored, especially in Europe, was that the lack of reform to restrictive labor laws, oversized public sectors and bloated regulatory frameworks creates doubt about whether growth can be sustained. Businesses become reluctant to invest and consumers to spend. Japan and the U.S. are seeing similar effects.

The money therefore stays in the financial system and does not reach the rest of the economy. That some companies prefer to use the excess cash to buy back their own shares is significant: it shows they see a lack of viable options for investment. The blame for that lies not with business, but with bad government policies, which have stifled investment incentives.

In a well-run business, damaging the company, first by assessing the situation wrongly and then by not reacting when the mistake becomes clear, would be grounds for changing management (and their advisors). Not so with these policymakers.

The European Central Bank continues with quantitative easing and negative interest rates, ignoring that such policies have not solved the problem. They will prove even less effective in the future, due to a decrease in marginal utility. Then there are all of the negatives already mentioned.

However, slowly, people are beginning to realize that the abundant, cheap money provided to the banks is not being injected into the economy. Instead of coming to the same conclusion as Mr. Zhou, some analysts are promoting the concept of “helicopter money”: central bank money, freshly printed, provided directly by the government to consumers as a gift – like throwing banknotes out of a helicopter.

That sounds wonderful and might stimulate consumption. But the populace could rightly see it as unsustainable, and might instead decide to save. In any case, such policies will only have a short-term effect and will further delay the necessary reforms. The underlying structural problems will remain.

“Helicopter money” policies may or may not be implemented, but that the discussion has come to this shows the difficulty of changing the mindset that economies can be stimulated purely through money supply. This mentality might lead to helicopter money but is certainly not a helicopter view. An efficient economy needs business, and not theoretical money supply equations.

It was refreshing to hear Mr. Zhou’s words. Such an obviously necessary change of paradigm would be welcome in the West.

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