Archive for the 'Monetary Policy' Category

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.


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.


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!

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Jan 28 2010

The best Econ rap… EVER!! – A new resource for Econ teachers and students, from Russ Roberts and John Papola

The long awaited rap video from George Mason University’s Russ Roberts featuring the theories of John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek has been released at last!

We’ve heard some decent Econ raps before (remember “Demand, Supply” by Rhythm, Rhyme, Results?) But this song covers all bases in the predominant macroeconomic schools of thought. Keynes and Hayek are brought back to life and their theories pitted against one another in an all out liquor fueled debate on the streets of New York City.

The video was just released this week. It is packed full of theory from the Classical, supply-side school of macroeconomics (represented by Hayek) and the demand-side school (represented, of course, by Keynes). The video includes cameos from Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, whose role as bartenders filling Keynes glass reflects their role in the real economy at keeping the money supply and government spending at high levels, fueling economic booms and the eventual busts that result.

Stay tuned to this blog for more feedback on the video, including some graphical analysis and discussion questions for Macro teachers to use in class!

2 responses so far

Aug 26 2009

Inflation: a threat to fear now or a distant concern?

Fidelity Investments – Inflation: A Threat or Not? by Dirk Hofschire

I was surprised to receive an email from the company that manages my personal investments directing me to an article that I would be able to use in class. But this analysis by a vice president of Fidelity Investments offers and excellent, concise examination of the threat posed by inflation in America today. I will use excerpts from the article and present the ideas in a graphical form to help students better understand the situation faced by the US as it struggles to emerge from its deep recession.

Hofschire sets out to answer four questions about inflation:

1. Is inflation accelerating?
2. Why is higher inflation expected?
3. Why hasn’t inflation occurred yet?
4. When will inflation return?
5. How high will inflation go?

1. Is in flation accellerating:

In short, NO.

In June, the U.S. consumer price index (CPI) declined 1.2% (on a year-over-year basis), representing the biggest fall in prices since 1950.1 Much of the decline is attributable to the steep drop in energy prices over the past year, which may reverse itself in the second half of 2009 if crude-oil prices remain near current levels. However, core CPI—which excludes food and energy—was less than 1.8% in June, demonstrating little inflationary pressure in general

A combination of weak aggregate demand and low resource costs for firms has kept price levels down.  While total spending has falling (leftward shift of AD), firms’ costs of production have fallen (rightward shift of AS). Since total output fell we can see that national income (Y) is less in 2009 than in 2008. Since price level has fallen, we can see deflation.

Diagram 1:

25 8 blog post graphs_1

2. Why is higher inflation expected?

With little evidence of economic strength or cost-push inflation today, the concern now is that the monetarist economic view of the world sees inflation clouds on the horizon. The godfather of modern monetarist economic thought, Milton Friedman, once stated, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” What Friedman meant was that money—specifically changes in the supply and use of currency—was the primary driver for changes to price levels in an economy. Friedman informally defined inflation as “too much money chasing too few goods and services.” As a result, an excessive increase in the amount or use of money relative to economic output is the textbook prescription for inflation.

The inflation described above, and feared by Friedman and today’s monetarists is not of the cost-push type, rather the demand-pull variety. As the vast quantities of money injected by the US Fed work their way through the banking system and into the pockets of consumers and the hands of firm managers, eventually demand for America’s goods and services will rise. But in the current recession, the production of those goods and services has stagnated, meaning that once all this money starts getting spent, the competition among buyers for the limited output of producers will drive prices up.

Diagram 2:

25 8 blog post graphs_2

3. Why hasn’t inflation occurred yet?

…there remains considerable downward pressure on prices still in place, due to growing slack in the economy (i.e. underutilized resources, such as labor) and continued deleveraging by consumers and financial firms with heavy debt loads. With the unemployment rate at its highest level in 26 years and consumers saving more and spending less, there is little upward pressure on wages or prices for consumer goods.

Yes, the money supply has increased, which according to our answer to number 2 should lead to inflation. But not if the new money isn’t being spent! Banks with money from the Fed are holding onto their excess reserves instead of loaning them out, due to a prevailing lack of confidence in borrowers ability to repay loans during these hard economic times. If all the money the Central Bank is injecting in the economy is sitting idle, and resources such as labor, land and capital are under-employed, then there is little fear of cost-push nor demand-pull inflation.  Diagram 1 illustrates why inflation hasn’t occured yet.

The excess bank reserves thus represent both the potential for future inflation as well as the explanation for why rapid money growth has yet to create current inflation.

In short, money must be spent to drive inflation up. When households prefer savings to consumption and banks prefer liquidity to risk, inflation is only a distant fear.

4. When will inflation return?

Interestingly, the answer to this question can be summed up as: “hopefully sooner rather than later”. Despite popular belief, some inflation is considered a positive sign of economic growth. Just as deflation is the purveyor of doom and gloom (unemployment, uncertainty, low consumer and investor confidence, credit crunch, etc) inflation is a sign of health returning to the economy (improved confidence, rising employment, looser credit markets, expectations of future growth). Central Bankers like Bernanke will surely be showered with praise, while congressman will be quick to give credit to the fiscal stimulus package.

Whether the pick-up in money velocity leads to significantly higher inflation depends on how quickly the Fed pulls the reins back on the extraordinary credit it is currently providing. In theory, the Fed can take actions to reduce the size of its balance sheet and move back to a more appropriate level of money. In practice, due to the unprecedented expansion in the Fed’s balance sheet, this will be a challenge.

Just as it was the Fed”s and government’s job to get the party started through expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, it is equally important for policymakers to calm the party down should the level of inflation begin to rise.

Diagram 3:

25 8 blog post graphs_3

5. How high will inflation go?

Given the high level of slack (i.e. underutilized resources) likely to remain in the economy during the next two years, there also could be offsetting deflationary pressures lingering in the system. For example, the unemployment rate is expected to rise above 10% and not peak until sometime in 2010. Industrial capacity utilization rates are at their lowest level on record, which means a lot of unused capacity in the manufacturing sector. This slack must tighten considerably before upward pressure is placed on wages and other prices.

As a result of this downward pressure on wages, which remain the largest expense for corporations, it would appear a 1970s-style, double-digit inflation outburst remains unlikely in the short to medium term. Average weekly earnings for U.S. workers rose more than 7% annually during the period from 1975-1981 in which consumer price inflation averaged more than 9% and peaked at 14% in 1980.5 It is hard to foresee wage gains of that magnitude reinforcing inflation pressures during the next couple of years.

The 1970′s was a period of high inflation in the US, caused primarily by higher costs for firms rather than increasing demand for output. This “cost-push” inflation is unlikely to occur in today’s climate due to the high levels of unemployment and under-employment of labor, land and capital resources. This does not mean inflation won’t happen, just that it’s unlikely to look like the cost-push variety of the 1970′s.

Diagram 4:

25 8 blog post graphs_4

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Jun 10 2009

The almighty bond market: Niall Ferguson’s concerns about the US deficit explained

Harvard Economist Niall Ferguson appeared on CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria over the weekend. Ferguson has stood out among mainstream economists lately in his opposition to the US fiscal stimulus package, an $880 billion experiment in expansionary Keynesian policy. While economists like Paul Krugman argue that Obama’s plan is not big enough to fill America’s “recessionary gap”, Ferguson warns that the long-run effects of current and future US budget deficits could lead the US towards economic collapse. This blog post will attempt to explain Ferguson’s views in a way that high school economics students can understand.

Government spending in the US is projected to exceed tax revenues by $1.9 trillion this year, and trillions more over the next four years. An excess of spending beyond tax revenue is known as a budget deficit, and must be paid for by government borrowing. Where does the government get the funds to finance its deficits? The bond market. The core of Ferguson’s concerns about the future stability of the United States economy is the situation in the market for US government bonds. According to Ferguson:

One consequence of this crisis has been an enormous explosion in government borrowing, and the US federal deficit… is going to be equivelant to 1.9 trillion dollars this year alone, which is equivelant to nearly 13% of GDP… this is an excessively large deficit, it can’t all be attributed to stimulus, and there’s a problem. The problem is that the bond market… is staring at an incoming tidal wave of new issuance… so the price of 10-year treasuries, the standard benchmark government bond… has taken quite a tumble in the past year, so long-term interest rates, as a result, have gone up by quite a lot. That poses a problem, since part of the project in the mind of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is to keep interest rates down

There’s a lot of information in Ferguson’s statements above. To better understand him, some graphs could come in handy. Below is a graphical representation of the US bond market, which is where the US government supplies bonds, which are purchased by the public, commercial banks, and foreigners. Keep in mind, the demanders of US bonds are the lenders to the US government, which is the borrower. The price of a bond represents the amount the government receives from its lenders from the issuance of a new bond certificate. The yield on a bond represents the interest the lender receives from the government. The lower the price of a bond, the higher the yield, the more attractive bonds are to investors. Additionally, the lower the price of bonds, the greater the yield, thus the greater the amount of interest the US government must pay to attract new lenders.


Ferguson says that the price of US bonds has “taken a tumble”. The increase of supply has lowered bond prices, increasing their attractiveness to investors who earn higher interest on the now cheaper bonds. Below we can see the impact of an increase in the quantity demanded for government bonds on the market for private investment.


Financial crowding-out can occur as a result of deficit financed government spending as the nation’s financial resources are diverted out of the private sector and into the public sector. Granted, during a recession the demand for loanable funds from firms for private investment may be so low that there is no crowding out, as explained by Paul Krugman here.

But crowding out is not Ferguson’s only concern. The increase in interest rates caused by the US government’s issuance of new bonds could lead to a decrease in private investment in the US economy, inhibiting the nation’s long-run growth potential. But the bigger concern is one of America’s long-run economic stability. If the Obama administration does not put forth a viable plan for balancing its budget very soon, the demand for US government bonds could fall, which would further excacerbate the crowding-out effect, and eliminate the country’s ability to finance its government activities. In other words, such a loss of faith could plunge the United States into bankruptcy.


Fareed Zakaria asks Ferguson:

“Is it fair to say that this bad news, the fact that we can’t sell our debt as cheaply as we thought, overshadows all the good news that seems to be coming?”

Ferguson’s reply:

The green shoots that are out there (referring to the phrase economists and politicians have been using to describe the signs of recovery in the US economy) seem like tiny little weeds in the garden, and what’s coming in terms of the fiscal crisis in the United States is a far bigger and far worse story.

Finally Fareed asks the question everyone wants to know:”What the hell do we do?”


One thing that can be done very quickly is for the president to give a speech to the American people and to the world explaining how the administration proposes to achieve stabilization of American public finance… the administration doesn’t have that long a honeymoon period, it has very little time in which it can introduce the American public to some harsh realities, particularly about entitlements and how much they are going to cost. If a signal could be sent really soon to the effect that the administration is serious about fiscal stabilization and isn’t planning on borrowing another $10 trillion between now and the end of the decade, then just conceivably markets could be reassured.

Ferguson is saying that only if the Obama administration begins taking serious steps towards balancing the US government’s budget can it hope to stave off an eventual loss of faith among America’s creditors (and thus a fall in demand for US bonds). It will be a while before tax revenues are high enough to finance the US budget. But if the country does not begin working towards such an end immediately, it may find itself unable to raise the funds to pay for such public goods as infrastructure, education, health care, national defense, medical research, as well as the wages of the millions of government employees. In other words, the US government could be bankrupt, and its downfall could mean the end of American economic power.

The power of the bond market should not be underestimated. America’s very future depends on continued faith in its financial stability and fiscal responsibility.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think the US government has such a huge budget deficit this year? ($1.9 trillion) Previously, the largest budget deficit on record was only around $400 billion.
  2. How does the issuance of new bonds by the US government lead to less money being available to private households and firms?
  3. Do you think investors will ever totally lose faith in US government bonds? Why or why not?
  4. In what way is the government’s huge budget deficit a “tax on teenagers”? In other words, how will today’s teenagers end up suffering because of the federal budget deficit?

To learn more about the power of the bond market, watch Niall Ferguson’s documentary, The Ascent of Money. The section on the bond market can be viewed here:

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Feb 04 2009

Obama’s stimulus is “the first real test of Keynesian economic policy”

On my way to work this morning I listened to the latest episode of WEBZ Chicago Public Radio’s excellent show This American Life. The theme of this week’s radio show was “the New Boss”. America’s new boss, Barack Obama, has embarked on an ambitious experiment aimed at rescuing the American economy from the most severe recession it has seen since the Great Depression. The economic theory behind Obama’s nearly $1 trillion economic stimulus package was developed by a man we have all heard of in our AP and IB Economics classes, but probably know little about in a historical sense.

The clip from This American Life that I have included below presents a fascinating examination of Keynes’ life and times, and puts his theory into perspective in the history of macroeconomics of the last century. We learn that Keynesian theory has not been truly put to the test, and that Obama’s $830 billion stimulus package is the first real test of Keynesianism.

The clip is a bit long, but it is definitely worth listening to if you are a student or teacher of economics. I know that when I come teo Macroeconomics and Fiscal Policy in my course this spring, I will have my kids listen to and discuss the podcast below. If you’re teaching or learning Macro now, feel free to listen and leave comments about your impressions of the story here.

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