Aug 28 2010
I received the following email today, which gave me a great excuse to write a blog post about monetary policy! My reply to the teacher is below.
I hate to bug you, but I have a question. I am a first year AP Econ teacher and I know something is going to come up right away and I want to explain it in the simplest way. “Why can’t the govt. just print more money?” I know the inflation part of it, but when I am reading to look for quality ways of explaining it, I see plenty of information about it, but I can’t grasp it. Principle 9 in Mankiw text states “Prices rise when the govt. prints too much money.” I feel like a dumb kid and I am supposed to teach this!!!!
If you can help, great, if not, I will figure it out.
I love your question! It is definitely one of those issues that gets glossed over in most economics textbooks. Or it is assumed that the money supply diagram makes it obvious why excessive monetary growth leads to inflation. But I agree, this is one of those things that for the first couple of years I taught economics, I probably didn’t really understand all that well either! So let me try to break it down in plain English for you. This will be good for me too, cause I always understand things more clearly myself after writing them (which is why writing a textbook is about the best PD I’ve every undertaken!)
So, here it goes:
Printing money and its effect on inflation is a bit more complicated than it sounds. In fact, it is the US treasury that prints money, but it is the Federal Reserve that determines how much money is actually in circulation in the economy. Money printed by the Treasury is distributed to the twelve Federal Reserve banks around the country. The treasury and the government of which it is a part does not have any say on how much money actually gets injected into the economy, as monetary policy decisions are left up to the Federal Reserve.
Traditionally, the Fed has one tool for injecting new money into the economy, a tool known as “open market operations”. (I say traditionally, because in the last three years the Fed has devised numerous new ways to “inject liquidity” into the economy, which I will not get into now). To increase the nation’s money supply, the Fed buys US government bonds on the open market from commercial banks. Commercial banks invest some of American households’ savings into government bonds just like they invest some of our money into individuals and businesses by making loans and charging interest on those loans. Commercial banks will want to buy government bonds if the interest on them rises and will want to sell those bonds when the interest rate falls.
If the Fed want to increase the money supply to stimulate spending in the economy, it will announce an open market purchase of bonds. When the Fed buys bonds, the demand for bonds increases, raising their prices and lowering their effective interest rate. As the interest on government bonds falls as a result of the Fed’s open market operations, banks find them less desirable to hold onto as investments and therefore sell them to the Fed in exchange for, you guessed it, liquid money, fresh off the printing presses!
Remember, the money printed at the Treasury and held at the Fed was NOT part of the money supply, since it is out of reach of private borrowers. But as soon as the Fed buys bonds with that money, it is deposited into commercial banks’ excess reserves and is therefore now in the commercial banking system and therefore part of the money supply. So, “printing money” does not immediately increase the money supply since newly printed money only ends up in the Fed; only once the Fed has undertaken an expansionary monetary policy (an open market bond purchase) does the newly printed money enter the money supply.
So the next question is, why does this lead to inflation?
Banks now hold more excess reserves, most of which are kept on reserve at their regional Federal Reserve bank. Reserves held at the Fed do NOT earn interest for the banks, and therefore actually lose value over time as inflation erodes the purchasing power of these idle reserves. Banks, of course, want to invest these reserves to earn interest beyond the rate of inflation and thereby create earn them revenue. In order to attract new borrowers, commercial banks, whose reserves have increased following the Fed’s bond purchase, must offer borrowers a lower interest rate. The increase in the supply of money leads to a decrease in the “price” of money, i.e. the interest rates banks charge borrowers.
So here we see why an increase in the money supply leads to lower interest rates. With greater excess reserves, banks must lower the rate they charge each other (the federal funds rate) and thus the prime rate they charge their most credit-worthy borrowers and all other interest rates in the economy, in order to attract new borrowers and get their idle reserves out there earning interest for the bank.
Lower interest rates create an incentive for firms to invest in new capital since now more investment projects have an expected rate of return equal to or greater than the new lower interest rate. Additionally, the lower rates on savings discourages savings by households and thereby increases the level of household consumption. Households find it cheaper to borrow money to purchase durable goods like cars and it also becomes cheaper to buy new homes or undertake costly home improvements. So we begin to see investment and consumption rise across the economy as the increase in the money supply reduces borrowing costs and decreases the incentive to save. Aggregate demand has started to rise.
Additionally, the lower rate on US government bonds resulting from the Fed’s open market purchase reduces the incentive for foreign investors to save their money in US bonds and in US banks, which are now offering lower interest rates. Falling foreign demand for the dollar causes it to depreciate. A weaker dollar makes US exports more attractive to foreign consumers, so in addition to increased consumption and investment in the US, net exports begin to rise as well, further increasing aggregate demand.
Increasing the money supply (not so much by printing money rather because of the “easy money” policy of the Fed), leads to increased consumption, investment, and net exports, and therefore aggregate demand in the economy. The rising demand among domestic consumers, foreign consumers, and domestic producers for the nation’s output puts upward pressure on prices as the nation’s producers find it hard to keep up with the rising demand. Once consumers start to see prices rising, inflationary expectations will further increase the incentive to buy more now and save less, leading to even more household consumption. Firms see price rises in the future and increase their investment now to meet the expected rises in demand tomorrow.
It does not take much for inflation to accelerate in such an environment. If the the government and the Fed do not slow down the increase in the money supply (STOP THE PRINTING PRESSES!) then soon enough workers will begin demanding higher wages and resource costs will start to increase in all sectors of the economy, causing the nation’s aggregate supply to decline as firms find it harder to cover their rising costs. Now we have both demand-pull AND cost push inflation! The weaker currency also makes imported raw materials more costly to firms, further adding to the inflationary environment. An inflationary spiral is now underway!
Milton Friedman said that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”. Controlling the rate of growth in the money supply, say the monetarists, will assure that the fluctuations in the business cycle will be mild and periods of dramatic inflation and deflation can be avoided. Stable money growth should lead to stable economic growth. But as soon as we start running the printing presses inflation will not be far behind. On the flip-side, contractionary monetary policies should in theory lead to the exact opposite of what I describe above and cause a deflation. If a central bank were to tighten the money supply too much, interest rates would rise, investment, consumption and net exports would fall, and falling prices would force firms to lay off workers, leading to high unemployment and an economic contraction.
I’ll leave you with one question to ponder (the answer to which would require a much longer article than this one!). If Friedman was right, and increasing the money supply will always and everywhere lead to inflation, then how is it that the monetary base in the United States increased by 142% between 2008 and 2009, yet inflation declined over the same period and fell to as low as -2% in mid-2009? That’s right, the money supply more than doubled, yet the economy went into deflation. Was Friedman missing something in his calculation that monetary growth always leads to price level increases? In other words, is an open market purchase of bonds by the Fed all that is needed to stimulate demand during a recession? Perhaps Friedman, who died in 2006 right before the US entered the Great Recession, would have to re-consider his famous quote if he could see the effect (or lack of effect) of America’s unprecedented monetary growth over the last three years!