Monetary Policy of Choice: The Credit Card

Helicopter money has received a lot of praise, from left and right, as sound monetary policy. Some have gone as far as to say a universal basic income, or broad tax cuts, should be financed by printing money. I don’t like this as an argument for monetary policy for several reasons:

  • Financing tax cuts or a basic income is decidedly political, and blurs central bank independence.
  • It’s very difficult to granularly tune any such “drop”, or broader financing plan. They must either be discrete choices – a onetime expansion of the monetary base by emailing $1000 to each household (stimulus), or a coordinated policy decision.
  • Cash handouts that are big enough can have perverse consequences.

But there’s something much better device that can be finely tuned: the credit card. James Tobin remarked that the “the linking of deposit money and commercial banking is an accident of history”. It is this “accident”, to say the least, that compelled the United States to waste billions feeding AIG bonuses. Banks would not be “systematically important” if their collapse did not cause deep ruin.

Just like the Bank of America and Citigroup, I propose that the Federal Reserve issue each citizen of majority a lifetime credit card. During boom times, the daily interest rate on credit will be pegged to the inflation rate with default risk premium – users will prefer their normal card that offers a 30-day paying block.

However, if nominal GDP ever falls off path, the Fed directly lowers the rate until the FOMC’s forecast hits the target (also, board salaries are docked by the extent to which their forecast misses the target and the actual result misses the forecast). In the counterfactual, after Wall Street imploded, TARP would be completely unnecessary because the Fed would be providing incredibly cheap credit directly to consumers to reflate the economy (otherwise they get no salary!)

This policy isn’t plagued by a “zero lower bound”, either. Instead of highly questionable quantitative easing, the Fed can choose to inflate its balance sheet by bringing direct credit rates below zero, to increase consumer spending. This has the following benefits:

  • QE works through “hot potato” and “wealth” effects, and the extent of monetary base expansion completely contradicts inflation and job growth figures. Mostly because a lot of QE ends up in interest paying reserves, or the Fed mangled expectations. Likely both.
  • Any and all expansions of the monetary base are directly increasing consumption or investment. There is ZERO debate among economists whether this increases nominal GDP.
  • The card will simply be banned from repaying other debts (this will encourage private creditors to artificially increase rates on expectation of a Fed decrease, and hence will be an indirect QE: that is more profit for banks).
  • It also can’t be used on the stock market, we don’t want average Joe to conduct a leveraged buyout with his card. It is a physical card, and has the same limitations. Can’t do any fancy finance stuff with it.

Ben Bernanke would have seen this year’s job reports, thought to himself “wow, this is shit”, and decreased the interest rate on direct credit. He would also have the New York TimesWall Street Journal, and ZeroHedge advertise this rate cut everywhere (because he can), and this would get consumers to go buy more stuff. If rates were -10% (and that’s consistent, for a period of time, with the kind of QE we have) who wouldn’t buy that new Mac Pro?

Note that, if I buy something nice I can’t just wait for the negative rates to cut my burden to zero. As the economy picks up – and it will much more rapidly with this policy – rates again hit market levels. This will allow the Fed to more naturally (than QE) wind-down its balance sheet. Here’s why I’m confident this has to bring NGDP, inflation, and hence unemployment back on track. If it does not, we’ve basically found a forever free lunch. Because this cannot happen, there will be a time when credit rates rise, and that’s good.

That’s prong uno. As we’ve noticed, credit crunches after financial crises leave small businesses without access to corporate bond markets asphyxiated. The Federal Reserve will offer special corporate cards to such entities earning less than whatever the tax code defines as “small business”. (I’ll pass on actually reading it). This will offer ultra low-rate (0% or maybe less) long-run credit for expansionary investment. Cities and states will be given special rates to finance infrastructure or education (the mayor and governor will get diamond-studded platinum cards with free Air America miles).

Feedback loops will reflate the economy. Not only does direct credit access now evade the rotten financial system altogether, but businesses will expect increased demand (because of consumer spending) that will decrease their fear of low profits, and hence convince them that expansion is necessary. Further, more people will be encouraged to open new businesses, and this will keep markets competitive in a recession.

(Okay, there’s a big problem I’m not talking about, which is default. I used to be against this stuff, but since this is the opposite of predatory lending, I’d say the government has your social security number and way more information than normal companies, and can withhold tax returns or income (and even threaten penalties) for default. A little is okay and good.)

Finally, this plan can be augmented with its own Evans Rule (call it the Rao’s Rule?): “So long as unemployment remains above 5% or inflation under 3%, the Federal Reserve will decrease direct financing rates by k*(u-5)% a month” where k is some multiplier, and u is the unemployment rate.

This does a few things the Evans rule does not. First it provides a condition for easing not tightening, which is what we need in a recession. It also achieves what I call “informational neutrality” good news on the job market won’t scare investors into “TAPER TAPER!!!”, because any and all tightening of policy will be linked with proportional decrease in unemployment, and hence increase in aggregate demand. Also, this is not linked to the stock market in the way QE is. That’s a good thing, in case you were wondering.

Under this, the Fed can much more easily commit to be irresponsible (that is, tolerate above-trend inflation in the future), which is the only thing that can gain traction in a liquidity trap, as Paul Krugman famously puts it. All Bernanke needs to do is promise to keep credit card rates negative, or very low, until NGDP is on level (not growth). He needs to bully the FOMC into saying the same thing (and gag Richard Fisher) and there is no way markets won’t believe it.

Problem solved. Oh and the best thing? We could have let the damn banks fail in 2007. Competitive finance, here we come! We even managed to slip in a bit of sneaky fiscal policy with credit financed bridges and education. Might I even say this would end the phrase “zero lower bound”. (The economy’s not picking up? Well lower the rate to -500%, for god’s sake!) Or, if you want to be safe, just stick with Rao’s rule.

P.S. A rather obvious omission is, of course, a credit limit. This would likely be determined by income. The standard refrain might be queasiness at the idea that rich people get access to more cheap (negative) credit, but just consider this compared with the dynamics of QE. Further, most of the rebalancing of the Fed’s balance sheet during the recovery and boom will come from the “rich”.

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7 comments
  1. This seems like it would be a better way to implement an NGDP targeting regime, though I do have a number of quibbles about the details.

    My biggest concern is that you would specifically prohibit consumer-cards being used for household deleveraging. Shifting the balance of consumer debt to the lowest-cost financing method is fairly standard, and being unable to do so with the Fed card would limit appeal and uptake. Besides, if NGDP is falling below target, those same consumers are facing a relative expansion of the real value of their debts against their planned trend-path. Enabling them to refinance would stabilize their situation.

  2. Ashok, how does this differ from a linear combination of

    1) Debt monetization
    2) Federal Lines of Credit, ala Miles Kimball?

    I don’t see any substantive differences in terms of implementation, outside of some agency reshuffling. But when I think about your credit card policy as (1) + (2), I think there’s bigger problems in terms of monetary policy makers doing fiscal policy.

    • As I mentioned in another post (https://ashokarao.com/2013/05/05/never-a-lender-or-lender-be/) this was actually somewhat inspired by Miles Kimball’s FLOCs. However, the ease of controlling the whole project with interest rates is the ability to set rules. The reason I like rules is the market obviously perceives CBs having more information, and hence the way it changes the rate can easily effect expectations.

      After it credibly committed to a rule, a tightening of policy wouldn’t be deflationary because markets believe that inflation is rising which is self-fulfilling. You are right that a whole host of policies (including a better Evans rule) can achieve this, but I can think of relatively few that are a) not affected by a ZLB and b) doesn’t have the distributional unfairness of QE which some also think is deflationary. Market reaction to tapering talk isn’t necessarily proof to the contrary, because I think it has more to do with market perceptions of how the Fed will tune interest rates in the future.

      Another rule would be the obvious NGDP target. But I see that as a metarule, there are many ways in which that can be implemented at the ZLB.

      You’re right about the bigger problems in terms of CB engaging in quasi-fiscal policy. I am sightly less concerned if it operates under strict rules with the only goal of moderating the business cycle.

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