Bruce Bisset: Roll out the money and ease away

By Bruce Bisset

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Seems to me if we want to stop collectively sliding into a Third World poverty trap then it's time to embrace some creative economic initiatives - not after, but before, we hit rock bottom.

Which, whether you agree with their suggestion or not, was surely the point of the Greens call for "quantitative easing" of the money supply, or "printing money" as those anti the idea like to smear it.

Because in case you weren't aware, all the indicators are trending downward: Growth has stalled, debt is burgeoning, spending is down, confidence is weak, mortgagee sales are up, and anyone trying to export is being clobbered by the high kiwi dollar.

That's a false high propped up by forex traders in the big overseas markets; as John Key would be well aware, our currency is a nice little plaything on which to speculate, suspended on the myth that our debt is not so bad and our economy not so fragile as it actually is.

Hence the attempt on Wednesday, by NZ First backed by Labour and the Greens, to introduce a bill to widen the Reserve Bank's powers beyond simply regulating inflation to also assume hands-on control of the exchange rate.

This failed, by one vote, not because it wasn't a reasonable idea to boost exports and create jobs, but primarily because National have the typical we're-the-Government attitude that always gets in the way of solutions: Regarding anything someone else comes up with as automatically bad.

In this case, "wacky" according to Key, "snake oil" according to Finance Minister Bill English.

In the same way, and with the same dismissive phrases, the Greens call for quantitative easing (QE) was also quickly put down. Yet QE is currently being used by three of the top four global economies - the US, Europe, and Japan - so it can't be that wacky, can it?

That depends on which economist you talk to and what they've had for breakfast. For the rule of thumb with economists is to paint black as white or vice versa at whim. Which is not surprising considering money is, at root, merely a convenient fiction.

So what is QE? Essentially, it's the central bank of a nation buying up that nation's debt, usually in the form of government bonds or other securities such as mortgages.

As opposed to private enterprise or foreign funds or governments buying that debt - if there are willing buyers.

Why it's called "printing money" is because on the face of it the government creates money (by expanding supply) to fund itself.

But the term is a misnomer because it still costs: just as the money is "real", the resulting debt is real, and must eventually, one way or another, be repaid.

Japan has used QE since their banking crisis of the 1990s to fund a massive programme of public works that has quietly kept their economy afloat, accumulating a US$13 trillion ($15.8 trillion) debt the next generation(s) will somehow have to repay.

The US, in contrast, is using QE to shore up its crippled housing sector by buying up mortgage debts, while Europe is using a more traditional form to staunch the bleeding of its banks exposed to member-governments' liabilities.

However, the major argument for QE is that it is a tool that stimulates the economy; more money going round funds new projects and creates jobs, while the cost of such debt is less because it is internalised.

Whereas the major argument against is that it creates inflationary pressure, while also "risking" affecting other debt and so potentially pushing up general interest rates.

Economists vehemently slice these arguments every which way and then some, while all accepting it as a "tool of last resort".

But if QE provides a useful stimulus, why wait until the train has crashed?

Respected commentator Brian Fallow this week argued against it on the basis New Zealand isn't "desperate" or "maxed out" enough - and in the very next paragraphs bemoaned that because we are "up to our nostrils in debt" (some $142 billion), using QE would send a wrong signal.

Sorry, Brian, but the signal I want to see is one that gives impetus to our stalled economy and helps redress poverty.

If printing money can do that, then get the presses rolling.

That's the right of it.


Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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