Fifteen years after embarking on its largely ineffective quantitative easing program, Japan appears poised to try the form recommended by Ben Bernanke in his notorious “helicopter money” speech in 2002. The Japanese test case could finally resolve a longstanding dispute between monetarists and money reformers over the economic effects of government-issued money.
When then-Fed Governor Ben Bernanke gave his famous helicopter money speech to the Japanese in 2002, he was talking about something quite different from the quantitative easing they actually got and other central banks later mimicked. Quoting Milton Friedman, he said the government could reverse a deflation simply by printing money and dropping it from helicopters. A gift of free money with no strings attached, it would find its way into the real economy and trigger the demand needed to power productivity and employment.
What the world got instead was a form of QE in which new money is swapped for assets in the reserve accounts of banks, leaving liquidity trapped on bank balance sheets. Whether manipulating bank reserves can affect the circulating money supply at all is controversial. But if it can, it is only by triggering new borrowing. And today, according to Richard Koo, chief economist at the Nomura Research Institute, individuals and businesses are paying down debt rather than taking out new loans. They are doing this although credit is very “accommodative” (cheap), because they need to rectify their debt-ridden balance sheets in order to stay afloat. Koo calls it a “balance sheet recession.”
As the Bank of England recently acknowledged, the vast majority of the money supply is now created by banks when they make loans. Money is created when loans are made, and it is extinguished when they are paid off. When loan repayment exceeds borrowing, the money supply “deflates” or shrinks. New money then needs to be injected to fill the breach. Currently, the only way to get new money into the economy is for…