Monday, 5 June 2017

Magic Money Trees

One of the latest lines to come from the Tories has been the suggestion that Jeremy Corbyn believes that there is a ‘magic money tree’ somewhere.  This tree, they claim, is the only possible source of all the money he needs to pay for his election promises.  It’s actually a good line, and plays well to the idea that the government, like the average household, needs to raise money before it can spend it.  It’s also complete and utter nonsense.  There really is a magic money tree; it’s called quantitative easing. 
In essence, QE is a process in which the central bank creates new money out of thin air, and since QE started in 2009, the Bank of England has created some £435 billion of new money.  It has used this money to buy up government bonds, effectively repaying government debt by giving money back to those who loaned the money (the government now nominally owes the same money to the Bank – which the government also owns…) leaving those people free to decide how to re-invest the money which they’ve been repaid.  So governments can and do create money – and there’s no fixed limit on how much they can create.  Insofar as there is a practical limit, it’s the point at which all that extra money starts to cause inflation; a point which the UK has not yet reached, because of the overall weak state (whatever the government may claim) of the UK economy.
The bigger question is how that new money is used.  The idea behind the process was that the money would find its way into the ‘real’ economy and boost investment and productivity, but using it to repay debt by buying up bonds has merely put it into the hands of people who put it back into other financial products (and some of it even got loaned back to the government in new bonds).  The effect of this has been that very little of the money has actually reached the ‘real’ economy – most of it has ended up benefiting the richest 5%, according to an estimate by the campaigning group Positive-Money.  On their calculations, for every £ created by the Bank of England, around 8p has made it into the everyday economy whilst the rest has gone into the pockets of the wealthiest.
It didn’t have to be this way, though – there’s no hard and fast rule which says that newly created money can only be used to buy up government debt.  The same money could have been used to invest directly in new infrastructure – a proposal put forward by Corbyn in 2015, and described as People’s Quantitative Easing.  The idea is not without its problems, and is supported by some economists and criticised by others, but Positive-Money estimates that every £ used this way would generate around £2.80 worth of extra economic activity.  That means, of course, that a much lower level of money creation would have a much greater effect in terms of stimulating the economy.
In criticising Corbyn for believing in a magic money tree, the Tories are diverting attention from the fact that they already have one of which they are making extensive use, but are using it to benefit the few not the many.

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