Monetary Madness in Europe

On Monday, in an analysis of the ECB’s declared intentions to monetize government deficits and the apparent desire to get the wheels going again in the European economy, I wrote that:

Unless the ECB is planning to buy bonds directly from European consumers, there is no direct connection between Draghi’s bond purchases and consumer spending. If he is hoping to depress interest rates even further and thereby stimulate consumption, then he has very little to play with. In most euro-zone countries interest rates are plunging toward zero – credit is practically available for free.

My comment about consumers was a bit tongue-in-cheek; it should be apparent to everyone, I thought, that handing out cash to consumers is not the way to go if you want more growth, more jobs and more prosperity.

Apparently, I had missed out on just how desperate – or economically ignorant – well-educated people can get. Alas, from Der Spiegel:

It sounds at first like a crazy thought experiment: One morning, every resident of the euro zone comes home to find a check in their mailbox worth over €500 euros ($597) and possibly as much as €3,000. A gift, just like that, sent by the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt. The scenario is less absurd than it may sound. Indeed, many serious academics and financial experts are demanding exactly that. They want ECB chief Mario Draghi to fire up the printing presses and hand out money directly to the people.

This is being done on a daily basis. Tens of millions of working-age Europeans receive cash directly from government through all sorts of cash entitlements. In 2012 the governments of the 28 EU states handed out 2.37 trillion euros in cash benefits to its citizens. That was an increase of 288 billion euros, or 12.1 percent, over 2008.

In Spain the increase was 15.8 percent, while the economy was in complete tailspin. Greek cash entitlement handouts grew by 11.7 percent; during the same time period the Greek economy shrank by one fifth in real terms.

What some thinkers in Europe are now proposing is, for all intents and purposes, the same kind of cash entitlement program, only with a short-cut administration process: instead of governments borrowing the money from the ECB and then handing it out as entitlements, the ECB should simply send the checks directly to people.

It has not worked when done the traditional way; but shame on those who give up on a hopeless idea – maybe if we print just a little bit more money, and send it to just a little bit more people, then all of a sudden the free cash won’t have the same work-discouraging effect it currently has. If we just churn out a bit more newly printed money, we will find that sweet spot when people start spending like mad dogs.

Yep.

Back to Der Spiegel:

Currently, the inflation rate is barely above zero and fears of a horror deflation scenario of the kind seen during the Great Depression in the United States are haunting the euro zone. … In this desperate situation, an increasing number of economists and finance professionals are promoting the concept of “helicopter money,” tantamount to dispersing cash across the country by way of helicopter. The idea, which even Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once found attractive, has triggered ferocious debates between central bank officials in Europe and academics.

In addition to the fact that proponents of this ludicrous idea won’t learn from existing examples, there is also the tiny little nagging thing called the Stability and Growth Pact – Europe’s constitutional debt and deficit control mechanism. The Pact consists of three parts:

1. Government debt cannot exceed 60 percent of GDP and government deficit cannot exceed three percent of GDP;

2. Member states cannot bail out each other in times of deep deficits; and

3. The ECB is banned from monetizing debt and deficits.

For a long time, member states have almost made a habit out of breaking the first rule. In recent years that has led to intervention from the EU, the ECB and the IMF, also known as the Troika, which has imposed serious austerity programs on those countries. The effect has, at best, been temporary and minor.

Germany broke the second rule when it participated in a bailout of Greece, and the ECB has been stretching the third rule time and time again by its participation in member-state bailouts. If this cash entitlement program goes into effect, it will drive a dagger through the heart of the last, remaining piece of the Stability and Growth Pact.

Der Spiegel is not too concerned with the consequences of the Pact falling apart. Instead, their article centers in on the fight against deflation, a battle that the ECB is not winning:

Draghi and his fellow central bank leaders have exhausted all traditional means for combatting deflation. The failure of these efforts can be easily explained. Thus far, central banks have primarily provided funding to financial institutions. The ECB provided banks with loans at low interest rates or purchased risky securities from them in the hope that they would in turn issue more loans to companies and consumers. The problem is that many households and firms are so far in debt already that they are eschewing any new credit, meaning the money isn’t ultimately making its way to the real economy as hoped.

And the bright minds at the ECB headquarters in Frankfurt did not realize this before they bing lending to banks? Of course they did. They just refused to see the causality between a recession, high household debt and the inability of said households to afford more debt.

Somehow they must have thought that if only you print money fast enough, credit scores won’t matter.

Anyway. Back to the helicopter cash idea and its prominent backers in the highly sophisticated world of advanced economic thinking:

In response to this development, Sylvain Broyer, the chief European economist for French investment bank Natixis, says, “It would make much more sense to take the money the ECB wants to deploy in the fight against deflation and distribute it directly to the people.” Draghi has calculated expenditures of a trillion euros for his emergency program, funds that would be sufficient to provide each euro zone citizen with a gift of around €3,000. Daniel Stelter, founder of the Berlin-based think tank Beyond the Obvious and a former corporate consultant at Boston Consulting, has even called for giving €5,000 to €10,000 to each citizen.

If this is such a good idea, why stop there? Why not crank it up to 50,000 euros? A hundred grand? What is keeping them back?

As an addition to the magnanimous disregard for basic economic theory that is fueling the monetary helicopter:

Many academics have based their calculations on experiences in the United States, where the government has in the past provided cash gifts to taxpayers in the form of rebates in order to shore up the economy.

It is one thing to let people keep more of what they have already earned. It is an entirely different thing to give them what they have not earned. When people get a tax refund they have already been productive, they have already participated in the production of total output in the economy. When people are given a handout they have not earned, they do not participate in that same production process, partially or entirely.

Cash handouts discourage workforce participation. It does not matter if it is a one-time event or a permanent entitlement program: the effect is the same, differing only in how long it lasts. When people reduce their workforce participation they increase their demand for other entitlements as well. That effect is small for temporary cash handouts, but consider what will happen in low-income families if, as a pundit quoted above suggested, the ECB gave away 5,000 or 10,000 euros per resident. A family of four would suddenly have 20-40,000 in extra cash.

How likely is it that both parents in that family will continue to work for the next year, when they just got more cash than one of them earns in a year (after tax)?

More cash in consumer hands and less workforce participation is a recipe for rising prices. Which, one should note, is just the intention behind this program. European economists and politicians are paralyzed with fear over the imminent threat of deflation. They will do whatever it takes to get inflation up to the two percent where the ECB would like it to be.

The problem is that if they succeed in causing inflation, it is going to be a rapid spike, i.e., an upward adjustment of prices very early in the spending cycle that the ECB would stimulate with its cash entitlement program. Retailers and manufacturers, squeezed by seven years of economic stagnation, will be quick to raise prices when they see a reason to do so. The price jump will eat up a large share of the consumption stimulus that helicopter proponents expect. As a result, the effect on jobs will be modest, if even visible.

Because of the inflation bump there will not be any lasting effect of this stimulus. It will be a blip on the GDP radar. The risk, however, is that the higher prices linger, thus putting pressure on money wages across Europe. It probably would not be a serious issue, but it would most likely eradicate any remaining stimulative effects of the helicopter entitlement program.

In other words, it is hard to find reliable transmission mechanisms to take the European economy from where it is today to a recovery simply by doing a one-time cash carpet bombing of the economy.