The ECB is warming up to engage in quantitative easing this quarter. Again the newspapers will be filled with stories of money printing. And so it seems an opportune time to again ask ‘what do we mean by money printing?’
The phrase appears pretty self-explanatory, but kind of assumes that we know what money is. But we all do know what money is, right? It is possible that I was late this. So I thought it might be worth skimming through some basics with respect to what money actually might be in case anyone else has become a bit confused along the way. Then a bit on what money printing is. I apologise in advance.
First of all, there is not just one sort of money, but two: Inside Money and Outside Money. The distinction is not trivial.
Inside Money is private sector money endogenous to the financial system; it constitutes the vast majority of what we tend to think of as money (c£1.7tn in the UK if we exclude things that probably need to be excluded), but is more handily remembered as ‘stuff’ that is kept inside banks, and can never ever ever leave them. This is because Inside Money is short-term tradable bank debt (often also known as a bank deposit) effectively sitting on a series of giant interconnected spreadsheets. Put another way, most of what people understand as their own money is just a massive series of interconnected spreadsheets. People will give you real-life things in exchange for you instructing your bank to reduce the number in your spreadsheet cell and increase the number in your counterpart’s spreadsheet cell, but it would be a bit silly to think you could take the actual numbers out of the spreadsheet.
Outside Money on the other hand is stuff that looks like stuff we tend to refer to as money: banknotes with physical form, (but also bank reserves, more on which later). Outside Money is more handily remembered as stuff that can exist outside of banks although most of this stuff still only exists on spreadsheets. How much Outside Money is there in the UK? There are about £70bn notes (and coins), and another £300bn in reserves (spreadsheet Outside Money that only banks can own) in the last weekly Bank of England return (although there are a few other things on the balance sheet that might also qualify, taking the total up to maybe c£400bn).
The trick that any functioning banking system needs to pull off is to make these two sorts of money appear utterly interchangeable (when in fact they are oil and water). Or as Ha-Joon Chang pithily puts it ‘banking is a confidence trick (of a sort), but a socially useful one (if managed well)’. I agree.
What sort of money is being printed when central banks quantitatively ease? Outside Money. Outside Money is the liability of a Central Bank (and HM Treasury), that is to say, like Inside Money, it’s a sort of debt. Crucially, it is a liability of a State that is short-term rather than long-term. It’s short-termness defines its moneyness. What do I mean by short-term? An overnight deposit would be short-term obligation of the State. A ten-year government bond on the other hand would be a long-term obligation of the State. (The weird thing about the short-term obligations is that they are repayable only in themselves. But don’t get too hung up on this quite yet.)
In fact money, whether Inside or Outside, will always be someone’s debt. If you have deposits at a bank, you are on the creditor of the bank. If you have notes and coins in your pocket you are a creditor of the State. As long as not everyone tries this together your bank should be able to redeem its debt to you (ie, pay you back the Inside Money that you have on deposit in the form of Outside Money) without notice. But in a fiat money world, the state never needs to pay you out. This might make Outside Money sound like a bad deal (forgetting for a moment that Inside Money is in some ways just a sort of ersatz Outside Money).
So what is Outside Money actually good for?
- The quick answer is paying taxes. Having a heavily-armed State threatening to exercise its monopoly use of violence against you to extract payment in a currency of its choosing concentrates the mind. Taxes are debts that are invented by the State in a manner that its controllers see fit (the People, the political classes, the Autocrat, whoever). They can be progressive or regressive, life-enhancing or otherwise. But by projecting debt unto the people, the State projects a widespread and regular demand for its Outside Money into an economy.
- The long answer is society.
I think that this is pretty amazing.
Secondly, how do Central Banks print this money?
In straightforward quantitative easing (as opposed to quantitative and qualitative easing as seen in Japan) they buy government bonds from people/ firms/ agents. In so doing they take a long-term tradable debt security (aka a bond) out of the market, exchanging it for bank reserves (a Central Bank deposit of sorts). (NB, if financial intermediaries are using these bonds as collateral – that is to say in money-like ways – things possibly get complicated.)
And given that money is always a debt (and it is), we can see that by engaging in quantitative easing, a Central Bank exchanges one State debt (a long term government bond) for another (bank reserves) without actually increasing or decreasing the total debt of the State. What has occurred? The maturity of the State’s debt has been changed.
So money-printing doesn’t change the amount of State liabilities out there, it just shortens their maturity profile. Does this create refinancing risk? I would argue not, given that Outside Money is at once short-term (eg an overnight Central Bank deposit rather than a 10 year government bond) and perpetual (eg unredeemable in anything other than itself). Outside Money is clever weird stuff.
Finally, in saying that QE ‘just’ changes the maturity profile of government liabilities I am not intending to diminish it. Unlike private debt (issued by non-financials to fund expenditure within a household budget constraint), monetary sovereigns issue debt to monetarily sterilise their fiscal expenditures. That is to say that they sell government debt not because they need the money to finance government expenditure but because they don’t want quite so much Outside Money with which they have paid civil servants, government contractors, benefit recipients etc, sloshing around the system, and so they effectively mop it up by selling government bonds. Government bonds cannot be used in quite the way that overnight Outside Money can be (again, assuming that they aren’t used as collateral.) And so quantitative easing represents the desterilisation of past fiscal deficits – no more no less. But perhaps that’s for another day.
PS: Yes, I know that all the above is only questionably applicable to the ECB given that there is an ambiguity over what Inside Money is and what Outside Money is in the Eurozone. This rolling ambiguity is actually an essential characteristic of the Eurozone monetary crisis.