Friday, December 05, 2008

Needed: A Large Drop of Helicopter Money

During the past half year, the concerns of the Fed have shifted from worry about commodity-driven inflation (recall $147 oil in July) to its polar opposite--fear about the onset of deflation (coinciding with oil falling below $40 today). With short-term interest rates now lower than the targeted 1% rate, traditional monetary policy measures have become less potent and the U.S. economy is more susceptible to descending into a "liquidity trap." As mentioned by Ben Bernanke in a 2002 speech, one way out of such a predicament is a "helicopter drop"--effectively dropping money from helicopters to consumers and businesses below in order to thwart deflation, stimulate spending and prevent economic stagnation.

Consumer-Based Crisis

The financial crisis we are facing today first surfaced a year and a half ago as a consumer-based subprime mortgage problem that soon developed into an institutional credit crisis, morphed into a pervasive illiquidity dilemma, and earlier this week was, long after the fact, officially named an economic recession that began 12 months ago! As parallels with the Great Depression of the 1930s and Japan's stagnant economy of the 1990s grow more conspicuous, the gloomy predictions of NYU economist Nouriel Roubini loom larger and closer. We are now one year into a recession that, according to Roubini, will most likely extend at least another year. What began as a seemingly minor problem has expanded into a full-blown, global financial crisis that could very well extend into 2010, becoming the most severe economic downturn in the adult lifetime of anyone alive today--unless, of course, our policymakers take appropriate and sufficiently drastic measures to stabilize the financial system.

Bush, Bernanke and Paulson have tried to fix the problem with a whole series of measures--a moderately sized consumer stimulus package in early 2008, bailouts of financial institutions, successive rate cuts, capital infusions to strengthen bank balance sheets, an increased limit on bank deposit insurance, government backstops on portfolio asset losses, purchases of illiquid assets, etc. So far, nothing has worked as well as anyone would like, and our faltering economy and plunging real estate and stock markets continue week after week to drive each other lower, in a relentless asset deflation spiral that is dragging down even the endowments of elite institutions like Harvard. Come January 20, President-elect Obama (incidentally, a Harvard Law alumnus) and newly appointed Treasury secretary Geithner will replace Bush and Paulson, respectively, and we can only hope that the stimulus package in Obama's vision for the future of our economy will be large enough to usher in real change in a favorable direction.

As for the root cause of our economic problems, the consensus opinion among economists and laymen alike implicates overleverage, basically too much debt and too little savings, particularly among consumers. Everyone agrees that saving more would be prudent for any individual consumer facing an uncertain future, but when aggregate consumption falls our economy unfortunately enters a vicious circle, as reduced consumer demand (from saving more) leads to reduced delivery of goods and services and higher unemployment, which, in turn, reduces demand still further. To halt this vicious circle before it does further collateral damage to our fragile economy, we need to find a practicable way to provide debt relief at the consumer level--as soon as possible. This is where the helicopter money comes in.

Helicopter Money Initiative

As Bernanke pointed out in his speech, even when monetary policy by itself becomes ineffective, there are a number of alternative ways to combine monetary policy with fiscal stimulus to prevent deflation and encourage economic growth, despite being in a near-zero interest rate environment like the one we are experiencing today. These less traditional, more innovative measures are:

A. Broad-based tax cuts,
B. Increased purchases of goods and services by the government,
C. Purchase of private assets via the Treasury, and
D. Increased direct transfer of money from the government to the private sector.

President-elect Obama is already planning to provide tax cuts (measure A above) to at least 95% of Americans and some talk of reducing payroll taxes is also circulating. The large (maybe $1 trillion?) stimulus package (measure B) currently under discussion in Congress will hopefully be ready for signing by inauguration day. Purchase of private assets (measure C) is already underway in the commercial paper and mortgage-backed security markets, but practical limitations (i.e., how to price highly illiquid instruments) have prevented the proposed wide-scale purchase of toxic mortgage assets that was the main objective the initial TARP plan. Consumer stimulus packages (measure D), along the lines of the one implemented in the first half of 2008, work most directly and immediately to maintain GDP growth and, for this reason, deserve further serious consideration.

Because near-term inflation is no longer an issue, policymakers now have the luxury of taking the most aggressive actions possible to turn our economy around. With the financially stressed, heavily indebted American consumer so central to our problems, it makes sense to implement an enhanced version of measure D--this time in much larger size. Just as people suffering in the aftermath of a natural disaster need immediate and basic emergency assistance, prior to tax-related benefits and government spending to rebuild infrastructure, our severely damaged economy needs a very significant injection of helicopter money delivered directly to the overleveraged consumer.

To achieve the quickest and most direct money transfer to the consumer, here's what our government should do:
Beginning during the first half of 2009, write checks to every household filing a tax return, in the amount of, say, $10,000 per dependent (taxpayer, spouse, children, other household members), which is an order of magnitude larger than the consumer stimulus in early 2008.
Offhand, it might appear that this type of seemingly frivolous fiscal policy would be a desperate and highly wasteful use of taxpayer money that could spark a new, undesirable bubble. However, given the precarious state of our economy, such a radical measure stands a greater chance of doing more good than harm and has many benefits:

1. Immediate and Direct Impact: Helicopter money provides an immediate stimulus to consumers and businesses, directly benefiting Main Street (a refreshing change after all the prior rescue plans with trillions of dollars going to Wall Street financial institutions);

2. Reduced Consumer Leverage: Consumers will use some of the money to pay down mortgages, credit card debt, car loans, etc.;

3. Increased Consumption: Consumers will use some of the money to do what consumers do best, i.e., buy products and services, which will immediately boost sales of businesses large and small, preventing further job destruction;

4. Market Support: Some of the money will be invested in the stock and real estate markets, relieving downward pressure on asset prices and helping to create the market bottom that is so badly needed to build consumer and investor confidence and turn our economy around;

5. Global Economic Growth: Reduced consumer leverage, increased consumption and increased investment will all boost the U.S. economy, which in turn will help revive the global economy.

With the U.S. population at about 300 million, this new consumer stimulus package of $10,000 per person would total $3 trillion, which is about four times the $700 billion TARP package but less than half of the approximately $8 trillion in cumulative funds the government has already committed through all of the various measures announced. The net effect of this helicopter money plan would be to shift up to $3 trillion of debt from the consumer to the government. This would reduce leverage at the consumer level and boost aggregate demand to stave off a deflationary spiral.

As Professor Roubini points out in this interview, the basic structural problem we face is a global supply glut cannot immediately be reduced even though demand has fallen. Therefore, at least in the short run, the severity of the current crisis justifies "pulling out all stops" to create the demand necessary to meet existing supply. A large helicopter drop appears to be exactly what is needed to stabilize our economy and sidestep the negative impact that further deterioration in employment and the housing and stock markets will otherwise bring.