The Cons and Cons of Debt Monetisation

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Below is an excerpt from a commentary originally posted at on 8th July 2012.

Although it probably won’t happen within the next couple of months, it’s a good bet that the ECB will eventually be prodded into monetising a large amount of European government and commercial bank debt. It is therefore appropriate for us to discuss the pros and cons of such a development, but since we can’t think of any pros we’ll have to focus on the cons.

A critical point to understand is that monetary inflation carried out by the central bank is a problem for the same reason that private counterfeiting is a problem. It results in an exchange of nothing for something and is therefore a form of theft. Nobody would argue that a private counterfeiter was providing a valuable service to the economy if he printed-up money to buy the bonds of financially-stressed governments, so why do many people believe that the central bank can do some good when it buys bonds with money conjured out of nothing?

Even believing that under certain conditions the central bank does no harm (rather than does some good) when it creates new money requires disabling the part of the brain devoted to logic and common sense. Of course it does harm! Adding to the supply of money cannot possibly add to the total wealth in the economy, and yet some people get richer as a result of the monetary injection. If some people get richer while the total wealth is not increased, then other people must be made poorer and what we are dealing with is a forced transfer of wealth.

We now get to the essence of what central bank debt monetisation is: a means of transferring wealth from some people to other people. In the specific case of the ECB using new euros to buy-up the bonds of insolvent governments and banks, it would be a transfer of wealth to the investors in these bonds from everyone with euro-denominated savings. In effect, the costs of making a bad investment in bonds would be shifted from those who made the ill-conceived investment decision to those who had nothing to do with the decision. Furthermore, the shifting of costs would be done surreptitiously. If all euro savers were sent a bill for their share of the wealth transfer there would be an uprising, but when the transfer is done via monetary inflation not even one person in one hundred will be able to figure out why he/she has become poorer.

The costs to euro savers are hidden from view because rather than there being an immediate transfer of money there is a gradual transfer of purchasing power. Bondholders and banks see an immediate boost in purchasing power because they are the first receivers of the new money, but savers see a gradual decrease in purchasing power as the new money works its way through the economy. It should also be understood that the price-related effects of the new money will be lumpy, in that some prices will be affected more than other prices. This leads to mal-investment and means that the debt monetisation not only brings about an unethical transfer of wealth, it also brings about a reduction in the overall pool of wealth.

All of which prompts the question: Why do it? Why would a central bank monetise debt when doing so helps a small number of speculators at the expense of a large number of savers and brings about a reduction in the total amount of wealth?

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