Quantitative easing is not the Titanic

A second round of quantitative easing could boost the US economy, help ordinary working Americans, a

While last week's US midterm elections continue to be dissected on both sides of the Atlantic, less attention was paid to the Federal Reserve's decision to embark on a second round of quantitative easing, even though this may have a greater impact on the US economy. Those who have focused on the Fed's decisions have been generally critical, the former Reagan administration official David Stockman calling it "pure monetary heroin" and other pundits predicting that it will spark a global trade war. That noted monetary policy expert, Sarah Palin, has even taken a break from her reality TV show to conjure up fears of hyperinflation, a worthless dollar and a situation where the Federal Reserve becomes "not just the buyer of last resort, but the buyer of only resort".

On one level, people are right to be sceptical. The Bush administration argued in 2008 that only drastic action could prevent depositors from losing their money and firms' temporary lines of credit drying up, claims that the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis debunked in a study days after the bailout was finally agreed. Similarly, the purchase of $1.25trn worth of mortgage securities in early 2009 failed to prevent the rate of growth of broad money (M3) falling into negative territory this summer.

With US unemployment at 9.6 per cent, the only thing that the interventions seem to have achieved is to enable parts of the financial sector to escape the consequences of their own actions. As an "added bonus", the public backlash has helped elect a Congress committed to extending tax cuts for the rich and rolling back Obama's health-care reforms.

However, by purchasing long-term government bonds, which are more likely to be held by households and non-financial corporations than mortgage securities, a greater proportion of the monetary stimulus will find its way directly into the money supply, rather than relying on increased lending. This in turn should boost economic demand and prevent deflation, which is a very real possibility and would delay the process of economic recovery. That the intervention will involve the purchase of a low-risk asset, instead of securities of uncertain value, will reduce the risk of losses to the US Treasury without further rewarding those who lent and invested recklessly.

Even the warnings from the World Bank that the intervention will lead to a weaker dollar are disingenuous. Since the mid-1970s America has run a continuous trade deficit, importing more goods and services than it exports. This deficit, and the consequent borrowing that was used to cover for it, have now been recognised as one of the main causes of the financial crisis, making a solution imperative for America's long-term future.

Because the only other alternatives are deflation, which would further increase unemployment, and protectionism, which could spark a trade war that could tip the world back into recession, letting the dollar slide is the only plausible solution. Worryingly, protectionist sentiment continues to grow, with a poll conducted in September showing that 69 per cent of Americans believe that free-trade agreements destroy more jobs than they create.

Of course, some risks still remain. While an increase in the money supply is needed to speed recovery and prevent deflation, too great an injection will be inflationary. It is also important to make sure that the Federal Reserve sticks to purchasing government bonds from households and consumers, rather than reintervening in the mortgage market or buying securities from banks or financial institutions (which would only increase the monetary base).

The Federal Reserve needs to increase transparency by publishing the basic broad monetary aggregates that other central banks compile, including those that it discontinued in 2006, rather than forcing economists to rely on composites produced privately. There is also the question of why it has taken Bernanke so long to arrive at a solution that would have avoided much of the cost, moral hazard and public anger generated by the bailouts.

Matthew Partridge is a freelance journalist and a PhD student at the London School of Economics.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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