Aug 28 2010

“Why can’t the government just print more money?” – NOT such a silly question!

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.

Jason,

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.

Thanks,
Teacher

Dear Teacher,

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.

Now, commercial banks have just sold their illiquid assets (government bonds) to the Fed in exchange for liquid money. Picture the money market diagram and you will see the money supply increasing.

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!

36 responses so far

36 Responses to ““Why can’t the government just print more money?” – NOT such a silly question!”

  1. Antonette, Kate, Joeon 11 Dec 2010 at 12:29 am

    Jason,

    We are four students in AP Economics. At first, the same question crossed our minds as to why the government can't just print money and put it in the economy also. Then we learned that the Fed controls the money supply and makes the decisions about how to change it. We further studied how establishing expansionary monetary policy leads to a shift right in the AD curve on the aggregate supply and demand graph and leads to inflation, and how the loanable funds market and consumer expectations can cause inflation as well. So as we read your question about how there was monetary growth between the years of 2008 and 2009, we wondered why you think that there was deflation despite the fact that the Fed increased the money supply. Do you think that the open purchase of bonds by the government didn't affect consumer demand in this instance? If so, why?

    Thanks,

    Students Antonette, Kate, Joe, and Sarah

  2. John Eon 21 Dec 2010 at 3:18 pm

    This is in response to the article, "“Why can’t the government just print more money?”

    A BETTER QUESTION IS WHY DOES OUR GOVERNMENT HAVE TO PRINT MORE MONEY?

    http://welkerswikinomics.com/blog/2010/08/28/why-

    Mr. Friedman did not expand on a few items in his calculation. I believe he thought we Americans were smart enough to know them already. I guess he was wrong.

    1. The banks have to be willing or forced to lend the money. In this atmosphere the banks have already been castrated for foolishly lending money to millions who they knew could not make the payments on the loans. Why were they doing this? Were they forced to by someone?

    2. The People who are able to pay back loans have to be willing to borrow the money. The Government has businesses and capable borrowers scared to death with their button pushing tactics. For example the latest button pushing is a method to discontinue the ability to write off the interest on home loans. People who intended to pay off the loans built houses based on the current taxation rules. After investing the money, the button pushers now are deciding to pull the carpet out from under the feet of millions. The tax code people are now turning off the button changing the rules on tax rules for married filing jointly….The credit for each child in the household is being reduced. How about the new 3% tax that is now payable to the government for those that sell their house. This is in the new healthcare LAW in order to pay for the affordable "Free healthcare".

    Let’s see what this (Free healthcare) red button will do if we push it.

    Hmmmm look at the pretty blue (tax increase) button …yah try that one.

    Or should we idle the knob that previously enticed the banks to actually loan money. Wow that one had great negative effects on the public as well as private sector. Seems the banks became more willing to loan money to the Fed at 1% in order to stay in business instead of the public at 6%.

    The orange toggle button (Cash for Clunkers) raised the car sales short term and then was toggled back off.

    Or the green ethanol button that actually changed the corn / bean market. Yes people used the corn and beans to feed animals and people. When the corn is used for ethanol the price for the corn (feed) went up and so did the cost to raise the animals it was intended for. On top of this the ethanol doesn't even provide an economic fuel. One gallon of diesel fuel will push a vehicle way further down the road than a gallon of ethanol. Look it up!

    Now let’s look at the solar fiasco. The cost of the solar cells and the wind mills to purchase and install takes approximately 30 years to recoup. These are really cool ideas but they are not saving money and are not sustainable. Want to go green? Buy a green automobile that runs on gasoline. And oh by the way…It is not a sin to drill our own oil. Every country in the world that has oil…drills for it and sells it to the USA. We have our own oil. DRILL IT !!

    We have our own fertile soil. GROW CROPS ON IT and get rid of the subsistence that pays people not to grow crops. It is a well kept secret but….. shhhhhh WE CAN SELL THE CROPS TO THE BILLIONS OF PEOPLE IN THE OTHER COUNTRIES ON THIS BIG BLUE PLANET.

    Another well kept secret. We also have products we can actually make in this country. Between taxation and the EPA regulations and OSHA safety regulations in the USA, our businesses are being strangled.

    This Is Why There Are No Jobs in America

    By Porter Stansberry

    I'd like to make you a business offer.

    Seriously. This is a real offer. In fact, you really can't turn me down, as you'll come to understand in a moment…

    Here's the deal. You're going to start a business or expand the one you've got now. It doesn't really matter what you do or what you're going to do. I'll partner with you no matter what business you're in – as long as it's legal.

    But I can't give you any capital – you have to come up with that on your own. I won't give you any labor – that's definitely up to you. What I will do, however, is demand you follow all sorts of rules about what products and services you can offer, how much (and how often) you pay your employees, and where and when you're allowed to operate your business. That's my role in the affair: to tell you what to do.

    Now in return for my rules, I'm going to take roughly half of whatever you make in the business each year. Half seems fair, doesn't it? I think so. Of course, that's half of your profits.

    You're also going to have to pay me about 12% of whatever you decide to pay your employees because you've got to cover my expenses for promulgating all of the rules about whom you can employ, when, where, and how. Come on, you're my partner. It's only "fair."

    Now… after you've put your hard-earned savings at risk to start this business, and after you've worked hard at it for a few decades (paying me my 50% or a bit more along the way each year), you might decide you'd like to cash out – to finally live the good life.

    Whether or not this is "fair" – some people never can afford to retire – is a different argument. As your partner, I'm happy for you to sell whenever you'd like… because our agreement says, if you sell, you have to pay me an additional 20% of whatever the capitalized value of the business is at that time.

    I know… I know… you put up all the original capital. You took all the risks. You put in all of the labor. That's all true. But I've done my part, too. I've collected 50% of the profits each year. And I've always come up with more rules for you to follow each year. Therefore, I deserve another, final 20% slice of the business.

    Oh… and one more thing…

    Even after you've sold the business and paid all of my fees… I'd recommend buying lots of life insurance. You see, even after you've been retired for years, when you die, you'll have to pay me 50% of whatever your estate is worth.

    After all, I've got lots of partners and not all of them are as successful as you and your family. We don't think it's "fair" for your kids to have such a big advantage. But if you buy enough life insurance, you can finance this expense for your children.

    All in all, if you're a very successful entrepreneur… if you're one of the rare, lucky, and hard-working people who can create a new company, employ lots of people, and satisfy the public… you'll end up paying me more than 75% of your income over your life. Thanks so much.

    I'm sure you'll think my offer is reasonable and happily partner with me… but it doesn't really matter how you feel about it because if you ever try to stiff me – or cheat me on any of my fees or rules – I'll break down your door in the middle of the night, threaten you and your family with heavy,

    Automatic weapons, and throw you in jail.

    That's how civil society is supposed to work, right? This is America, isn't it?

    That's the offer America gives its entrepreneurs. And the idiots in Washington wonder why there are no new jobs…

    It is time to untangle this mess and get back to true responsible and uninterrupted business. Quit the petty Bullshit of pushing random buttons and get back to work.

    Lead responsibly or get out of the way.

    signed: My two cents.

  3. Sello Malatsion 14 Mar 2011 at 5:02 pm

    I'm B-tech student in Economics, but I'm still frustatated after reading what Jasen welker tried to explain

  4. narayanon 23 Jun 2011 at 12:43 pm

    which bases on govt print currency notes

  5. GM Ellison 24 Jul 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Please explain what is supposed to happen August 2, 2010. If the government can't issue more debt (debt ceiling remains unchanged), and payments must be made on the existing debt, won't they simply make those payments with Federal Reserve Notes? Expanding the money supply may cause inflation (not a terrible result in the current economy?), but that would be a much better choice then defaulting on bond payments.

  6. A personon 02 Aug 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Yeah, I still don't get it. Is there a way to explain it in small steps using easy to understand examples? All that talk about the Fed being in control of the money and banks and loans threw me off. I am even more confused than I was before.

  7. Sunil Upadhyayon 20 Sep 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Still not clear…..

    How government decide… How much currency needs to be printed?

    There is some basis of that to decide that, this much of amount needs to be printed on the basis of holding gold and bullions….

    Hope you can help me to resolve this query

  8. Jason Welkeron 20 Sep 2011 at 3:55 pm

    The amount of money in an economy has no impact on that economy's ability to produce goods and services. Money is a medium of exchange, just like seashells or stone circles have been in other cultures. Increasing the money supply may increase people's desire to spend money, but it does not necessarily increase the economy's capacity to produce goods and services. More spending without more production leads only to inflation.

    A nation's central bank is able to control the amount of money in circulation at any given time, but it cannot increase or decrease the productive capacity of the economy. Therefore, a central bank cannot contribute to long-run economic growth in a nation. What it can control, essentially, is the amount of money in circulation, and thus the value of money. If too much money circulates, the value of money falls (meaning everything is more expensive), if too little money is in circulation, its value increases (meaning prices will fall). Therefore, most central banks today view their primary role as maintaining price level stability, since they recognize that the amount of money has no real bearing on the production possibilities of a nation's economy.

  9. GM Ellison 20 Sep 2011 at 6:39 pm

    I understand that printing money doesn't increase productivity. The value of all productivity in the nation is X and the aggregate price for that productivity is that number divided into the total money supply. Increase the money supply and prices go up.

    But there is almost no inflation right now (despite the increasing money supply over the last two years), so what is the harm of continuing to increase the money supply? At what point does it tip the scale and turn into runaway inflation? Some inflation is good–it increases prices, increases tax revenues and helps stimulate the economy. The stimulus money–all of which was either borrowed through bonds or printed–was supposed to "prime the pump" but has had negligible impact. Isn't paying down the debt by expanding the money supply a viable option? If not, why not?

  10. S Q T....Stupid question thread - Page 16on 19 Nov 2011 at 12:13 pm

    [...] is not a stupid question btw Shitrus. This explains it in detail but simplified… “Why can’t the government just print more money?” – NOT such a silly questio… Reply With Quote + Reply to [...]

  11. Timothyon 05 Dec 2011 at 9:36 pm

    Perhaps a most basic and grossly simplified example might help a little, at least it helps me think about it at a basic level. What would happen if the government printed massive amounts of extra money and gave $1 million to each person in the U.S). What would happen next? How many would go to work the next day? No one. At least not any who supply basic every day needs. Who would need to earn a few dollars with a million dollars in hand? Everyone considers themselves "wealthy" and can afford to be "the idle rich." Until everyone gets "hungry."

    How much money would have to offered to convince people to go back to work and produce the things they used to produce? Everything would escalate in price propotional to the amount of unsubstantiated gain the economy received. Workers would not work until the cost of printing money works through the economy and a $200 grocery bill turns into a $20,000 grocery bill and a $20,000 car turns into a $2,000,000. The bottom line is that we can reasonably conclude that the end of this experiment people will be no better off after they received the million dollars then before (although it might actually make the situation worse then before).

  12. welkerjasonon 05 Dec 2011 at 11:32 pm

    Timothy, that's an excellent explanation! Thanks!

  13. [...] “Why can’t the government just print more money?” – NOT such a silly question! [...]

  14. [...] “Why can’t the government just print more money?” – NOT such a silly question! [...]

  15. leonardon 14 Feb 2012 at 11:30 pm

    everyones debts should be cleared, more money printed . no loans or credit cards, or store cards or mortages. start from fresh. soend what you have and what you earn. affordable prices for houses, so people can save while renting and then buy a house in one go when they saved enough money.

  16. leonardon 14 Feb 2012 at 11:31 pm

    life doesn't have to be that complicated. there's enough money and food in the world for everyone. no one should have to go hungry or without. i hate this world we live in. we are not in peace no matter what we think.

  17. leonardon 14 Feb 2012 at 11:33 pm

    well???

  18. kayon 21 Feb 2012 at 3:30 pm

    john E, best. read. ever.

  19. shahidon 11 Apr 2012 at 7:36 pm

    I think the money supply in the economy should not be control by any ,the actual production and actual consumption should be the measure of the price of any goods.if the govt just go on printing more money and inject it in the economy,only the debt will increase and the real measure of price will not be know it is the policy control price of commodity.let the nature decide how and what should be the price of a coomodity.

  20. Sidon 14 Apr 2012 at 5:24 pm

    People and businesses are still deleveraging. Rates are low because the demand for borrowed funds is weak. If people and businesses dont borrow, they dont spend. If they dont spend, then we have deflation. So Friedman's theory was incomplete. An increase in the money supply is only the first component of inflation. The second is a willingness to borrow and spend.

  21. Sidon 14 Apr 2012 at 5:32 pm

    As a side….

    Would it make a difference if the US debt was $100T if almost all of it was owed to the Fed? In other words, what are the repercussions of the Fed amassing this much in Treasuries if the "interest" they earn is just given back to the Treasury? Certainly there's a point where the public gets scared. But so what, as long as the Fed keeps buying Treasuries with money they create, to run the goverment.

  22. Chrison 18 Apr 2012 at 1:45 am

    I am speechless…but this my friend is so true! Thank you putting this all together for me.

  23. lesleyon 16 May 2012 at 6:34 pm

    yes i understand but still they should print more money anyway and use this money for povety and for medical and to do away with starvation in the whole world . just pay off all defecit and start fresh like just admit it the the world needs this break now forget politics for a one time pay all debt and feed the world and yes its that bloody simple.

  24. Bradon 24 May 2012 at 6:29 pm

    Seems like a lot of well deserved anti-government monetary policy hate here, I like it. :)

    But more to the actual question that was asked and for those who might still be looking for a more than probable answer, try this:

    The increase in money supply does have a profound effect on spending and aggregate demand as a whole leading to inflation – provided…. and this is a big, often overlooked condition, provided the people in the society are willing and exuberant enough to actual spend the money that is available to them.

    What we are seeing know across the board in many developed countries are people being somewhat overly cautious about economic stability, with no fault on their part, as bi-rational beings (humans) it makes sense that after a serious recession that people felt the consequences of, they would think twice about loosening the purse strings for another go on the "roller coaster".

    So what we are seeing in my opinion is the government pumping money through the Fed into the country but failing to inspire consumer confidence and spur spending and borrowing and investment and entrepreneurial spirit that can then lead to more spending – whether good or bad.

    I think you get the gist.

    Many would likely disagree with me, but I subscribe fully to the hypothesis that human beings are emotional in many ways, and in decision making more so than others.

  25. [...] [...]

  26. Venkata Sunilon 03 Sep 2012 at 5:38 am

    Hi Brad,

    I am from India. I understand the inflation concept. But my question is…. Why can't a country like India which has huge foreign debt, print rupee (Indian currency) and pay off its debt. If the printed money is circulating within the country then it can lead to inflation. But if the printed currency is pumped out of the country by way of paying foreign debt then where does the point of inflation come? As long as the pumped out currency doesn't come back to India, we are safe from inflation. Isn't it ? Correct me if I am wrong.

  27. Curiouson 04 Sep 2012 at 5:21 am

    I'm not an economist or even an economy student by any means, just a lay person trying to understand this. This article explains a lot of things very well, but the basic thing that I want to know is this:

    Why does all money that is created have to be distributed through the Fed and big banks, by loaning it out with interest? Doesn't this method create a situation in which debt will always outweigh money supply? If money is supposed to simply be a way of facilitating trade, wouldn't it be better to simply create more money and distribute it in some way that did not involve usury, to match the growing GDP/economic activity, and facilitate the amount of trade taking place? Why is the element of debt, interest, and usury a necessary part of this equation?

    Again, I'm a total noob to economics, but the situation seems to me like a scam, as if a credit card company somehow lobbied congress to ensure that they were the only source of money, and so every time money is created, the people collectively owe them more than it is possible to repay, due to the debt always outweighing the money supply. Perhaps there is something I'm not seeing here, please help me to understand.

  28. [...] orwell76 wrote: if the US government is serious about ending this bankers' tyranny, they can stop borrowing from Federal Reserve, let the US treasury print the money instead… but be very sure any US President who that does this will be assassinated… Republican candidate Ron Paul openly speaks of the banker tyranny… no chance he will ever get elected… think the treasury prints the money but how the money goes into the system is dictated by the federal reserve. “Why can’t the government just print more money?” – NOT such a silly questio… [...]

  29. Robyon 23 Apr 2014 at 4:50 pm

    Friedman was wrong because didn't know the MMT!

  30. […] Which bought me to the bigger question – Why can’t the Federal Reserve Bank just print money? […]

  31. nileshon 29 Jul 2014 at 12:54 pm

    read this article written on the same topic..

    May be this will make your article more explanatory.. So will not mond if you want to add the link to your article as well:
    http://nxtinsight.com/why-cant-just-print-more-mo

  32. TruthorConsequenceson 20 Aug 2014 at 4:21 pm

    You are correct Curious, it's the devaluing of the currency that causes price increase and that is done by not printing the interest on the debt and is escalated by the feds easy money policy. Therefore, eventually all the "money" in circulation will be to pay the interest on the debt…that's not good! Seems to me we are getting close to insolvency.

    Interestingly, the US Treasury prints the money and loans it to the fed and they loan it back with interest…the same accounting as done on a mortgage (dead pledg—>literal French meaning). When the promisory note is signed it is immediately deposited into an account (as if you loaned the bank the money for your own loan) and then loaned back to us (the lender) with amortizing interest. Very profitable scam! I thought something had to initially be in your possession before it could be loaned…not according to the fed! Good ole fractional reserve banking…if the Treasury would just print the money and cut the fed out of the equation a multitude of evils would disappear. That's what middle-men do, get their cut of the action and jack up the price for goods.

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