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How governments print money

Money itself is like a commodity and it has a price which bows to Keynesian doctrine of supply and demand. The price of a currency is of course its exchange rate in relation to other currencies. All things being equal, an increase in supply of a currency is inflationary because it stimulates spending and foreign goods become more expensive as its exchange rate depreciates.

Governments have the power to create money into existence and this opens the door to irresponsible fiscal management. Many are critical of money printing by governments, but most folks generally do not actually understand how this is done.

There are two types of money – paper money (currency notes) and digital money. The credit balances in depositors’ accounts with banks are digital money. When you deposit cash into your bank account, you convert paper money into digital money. The printing of physical currency notes and digital money are of course entirely different matters.

Central banks physically print currency notes all the time to constantly keep a ready stock to replace damaged notes and to meet exigencies. Theoretically speaking, increasing the supply of currency notes can lead to inflation. Many experts, from academia and industry, point to same examples where excessive paper money printing has driven countries into banana republics – Weimar Republic (Germany) in 1920s, Hungary 1946, Yugoslavia 1970s, Zimbabwe 2000s, and present day Venezuela.

But they have all got it wrong with the chicken and egg situation. It was systemic corruption which feeds into economic mismanagement that led to massive hyperinflation. As the value of currency shrinks, more currency needs to be printed and in higher and higher denominations. Germany had its 100 million mark notes, Hungary had 100 quintillion pengő, Yugoslavia had trillion dinar, Zimbabwe had 100 trillion dollar notes, and Venezuela has million bolivar notes.

In today’s world, a country’s money supply is predominantly in the form of digital money. Currency notes make up only a fraction of money supply. The discussion of impact of money printing basically refers to digital money.

As mentioned earlier, digital money is reflected in depositors’ bank credit balances. Central banks are governments’ banker. Thus if a central bank simply adds some credit to the government account out of nowhere, ie no transaction related, it creates money for the government. Every central bank charter obviously specifically bars this. Thus in reality, it is a fallacy to say government prints money to spend.

Note the US is unique in that it has no central bank. The Federal Bank System (Fed) comprises of 12 reserve banks which are privately owned by various member banks. The Fed is the government’s banker, but it is not a government agency. Although the government has certain interests and rights, the rights are not proprietary.

Central banks and Fed are tasked with managing the sale and purchase of government securities and monetary policies which are matters concerning quantitative money supply and general price level, or inflation, and by extension, employment. Central banks manage monetary policies of the government whilst the Fed executes the monetary policies of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) which is a committee of the Fed member banks whose policies are made in the interest of the US.

Since governments do not print money to spend, where do the funds for deficit spending come from. Here we are not talking about various government agencies which in some jurisdictions are allowed to take on loans directly. We are referring to governments funding budget spendings in excess of revenue. This is done by issuing government securities (bonds). When investors buy these securities in the primary market, buyers remit proceeds to the credit of government accounts with central banks. By this manner, governments borrow to fund budget shortfalls. There is no money creation.

Singapore is unique in the world. It practices a balanced budget and never borrows for spending.

Well then, where is all this talk about about governments creating money to spend?

Central banks manage liquidity in the market. When money is tight, there is an upward pressure on interest rates and exchange rates. Central banks pump money into the market, ie., central banks may loosen liquidity to stimulate spending which spurs economic activities and employment. This is done in open market operations where central banks purchase securities. Central banks pay for such purchases by simply crediting the seller banks’ Reserve Accounts. Thus central banks acquire assets with money they do not have. They simply create money out of nowhere by making a credit entry in seller banks’ Reserve Accounts. So now the banks have newly created money that can be used in the market. This is an exercise called QE for quantitative easing. Thus money creation via QE has nothing to do with government spending or borrowing.

Some take the macro or bird’s eye view that governments borrow to spend, which then central banks buy back through QE by simply creating money, is tantamount to governments creating money to spend. This notion is not correct as fiscal policies and monetary policies are entirely different affairs. Fiscal policies are managed by Treasury ministries who raise debt to fund budget deficits. Monetary policies are handled by central banks who perform QE to calibrate market liquidity and interest rates.

Thus a situation is created where central banks hold an asset and the governments hold a liability. It is a case of left hand owing to the right hand. In the case of US, the status is different since the Fed is not a part of government. In this scenario, governments do not fear the amount of debts they owe. They simply net off on maturity of the securities. However, doing so will reflect debit balances in governments accounts in central banks’ books. There is no literature on some creative accounting to resolve this. In practice this accounting conundrum does not seem to have presented itself as these securities have been rolled over with more and more new issues paying off maturing ones. Government debts keep pushing the ceiling.

On the other hand, the central banks have a liability for the securities they purchased as well as a valuation risk. When central banks simply credit seller banks Reserve Accounts for securities purchased, they have a liability for the money created. This liability is backed by the asset securities. On a going concern basis, central banks have no worry with the liability because as the money is circulated in the market, all that happens is just debit and credit entries in banks’ Reserve Accounts as money moves from one bank to another.

Most of these securities are government bonds which have no credit risks. Some jurisdictions have seen QE extend to central banks building balance sheet with equities. Bank of Japan is one example. In which case, credit risks exist. In the case of government bonds, market risks exists. With rising interest rates, bond prices tumble. Central banks' capital takes a beating from rising interest rates. With massive balance sheet build up from QE and rising interest rates, the Fed is now actually in negative capital mode if they recognise valuation losses, which they don’t.

There is another way that central banks create money out of nowhere. This happens during financial or economic crisis such as in 2008 and Covid pandemic. Huge sums of money are needed for bailing out businesses in financial distress or for financial aid packages. Central banks initiate bail out programmes, or governments push financial aid packages. For example, Fed had its Tarp, MAS has other various named programmes. These are basically loan facilities. When drawn down, central banks simply record the loan, and post a credit to the Reserve Accounts of the relevant banks. In this manner, unlimited sums of money can be created.

One more way central banks can create money, although indirectly. This is through fractional banking. Banks make money work for them. They take customers’ deposit and loan them out. The full deposit amount cannot be lent out. Banks must keep a certain balance in their Reserve Account in order to maintain liquidity to meet customers’ needs. How much to retain depends on the Reserve Ratio. Suppose the ratio is 10%, if a customer deposits $100 with Bank A, it can lend out $90. This $90 is deposited with Bank B which can lend out $81. This multiplier effect work its way through the market. Theoretically, a newly created $100 and a Reserve Ratio of 10% will end up with $1,000 increase in money supply. Central banks can increase money creation by fractional banking simply by reducing the Reserve Ratio.

Another way central banks create money is in its open market operations in the FX market. Central banks monetary policies are either based on tweaking interest rates or managing its exchange rates. Singapore is an exchange rate regime. Spot rates are volatile throughout the day. Most exchange rate regimes allow the rates to move within a certain band. When the rate is hitting the upper limits, central banks sell their currency to bring rates down. To settle, central banks simply credit the Reserve Accounts of the buying banks. Thus new money is created. Market intervention works both ways. Central banks buy their currency when the lower band is tested which is a reduction of money supply as seller banks Reserve Accounts are debited. Thus money creation can be netted off as negative or positive. A persistent pressure on the upper band means central banks are selling most of the time leading to more new money created. Since FX market intervention is to manage the exchange rate and not liquidity, this money created is nullified by a sterilisation process. This is done by central banks issuing Treasury Bills to mop up the liquidity caused by the new money created.

Governments rollover maturing bonds with new ones and add fresh borrowings. As a result, government borrowings have snowballed. The US national debt is now $35T. Is there no end to kicking the can down the road? This can continue as long as there is demand by investors for the $ bonds. That demand will disappear when the $ looses its role as world reserve currency. BRICS is working on developing an alternate currency to reduce dependency on $ in international trade. It is easier said than done. However, their success will mean the downfall of the powerful USD. All the offshore $ will come home to roost and the massive debt of $35T will need to be paid off as bonds mature, for they no longer can be rolled over as the market for $ bonds disappear. But the massive debt will not bankrupt the US. Any country with monetary sovereignty can always pay off debts in its own currency. The Fed can always credit bond holders' banks' Reserve Accounts. Simply create money $ to pay off debt. But the massive $35T created will drive the $ exchange rate to the ground and bring hyperinflation and deterioration to standard of living. It will impoverish Americans.

This explainer on money creation shows why even though the governments can print money, they still have to borrow. It also shows the fallacy of massive printing of paper money leads to high inflation, but rather, the reverse is true. Hyperinflation leads to massive paper money printing.

The generally held belief is massive money creation leads to high inflation. The past decade or so have seen central banks all over the world build up massive balance sheet in QE exercises, pursued on the belief that liquidity and cheap money stimulates the economy. Strangely, the massive QE have not resulted in massive increase in money supply and high inflation. This seems like one more fallacy but it's for another day.

Addendum:

To make this primer complete, there is one more way central banks create money, but it is a special situation that has no inflationary impact as the money will not be used.

Central banks arrange standby currency swap facilities with each other to provide liquidity for foreign currencies in the event of financial crisis. A swap deal is where one currency is exchanged for another at market rate (spot deal) and reversed at a future date at an agreed rate (forward deal).

For example say MAS has a USD/SGD swap facility with Fed. During a financial crisis where USD became difficult to source, MAS can provide liquidity to the market by availing the swap facility. MAS will buy USD from Fed against SGD say for 6 months. MAS pays for the USD by crediting Fed's account in SGD. Massive sum of SGD may be created this way but it has no effect on inflation because the Fed is never going to use those SGD. The Fed's SGD deposit will be reversed 6 months later when the forward deal matures.

 

Patrick Low

* Article first appeared on Down The Rabbit Hole.

 

Editor's note: The 1st short introductory paragraph of the article has been removed as it relates to a video that we cannot reproduce, link or embed. The removed content is not directly related to the context of this article.

 

 

 

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READER COMMENTS BELOW

6 Responses to “How governments print money”

  • rice:

    This article very “cheem”.
    As i read,i get dizzy.
    Nonetheless,good writing.
    Maybe,use some diagrams or flowcharts to illustrate can make easier grasping by simple sinkie uncles like me?

    All said,the world of finance is upside down.
    Economics logic i studied by reading Lim Chong Yah or Samuelson seem not “logical” anymore.
    Even Practice-economics seem strange these day$$$?
    Not too distant ago,the ANGMOHS AND THEIR AGENCIES like IMF,WORLDBANK,etc, DICTATE THAT ASIAN ECONOMIES MUST ADHERE TO PROPER FISCAL AND MONETARY COMPLIANCE ESPECIALLY DURING AFC(Asian Financial Crisis) WHEN ANGMOH$ FROWNED AT THE HIGH DEBT LEVELS OF ASIAN COUNTRIES.
    So,ANGMOH$ WHACKED ASIAN CURRENCIES LIKE NOBODY’S BUSINESS TILL MANY OF OUR ASIAN NEIGHBOURS “BUAY JIN CHU”.
    ASIAN COUNTRIES WITH HIGH INDEBTEDNESS WEAKENED AND DROPPED IN VALUES DEEP INTO THE DARK ABY$$,ALL “MANIPULATED” BY ANGMOH$!
    Only SG,HK better managed becos of our high reserve balances.
    Dr M was adamant NOT TO KOWTOW to Angmoh$.
    He stood up to them bu using not a small quantum of Malaysian reserves.
    Still,the ringgit got bashed.

    BUT NOW ANGMOHS WITH THE HIGHEST DEBT,STILL MIGHTY USD BECOMES MIGTHIER AND MIGHTIER?!
    ANHMOH$ SAY YOU STUPID PEOPLES,WE CAN PRINT OUR “BANANA USD” BY THE OCEAN-LOAD$ AND YOU THIR$T AND THIR$T FOR OUR BANANA USF NON-STOP!

    Even during COVID,WE,ANGMOH$ ,CAN KEEP PRINTING MORE AND MORE USD TO HELP RICH PEOPLE KEEP BUYING “STOCKS” AND OUR STOCK MARKET$ KEEP BREAKING RECORD AFTER RECORD!!!

    WE ARE MORE AND MORE LIKE “god”.
    In US$ We Trust.
    You fools MUST DO SO too!!!

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  • Gulia:

    Non è così semplice. Altrimenti, siamo tutti qualificati per essere amministratori delegati della banca centrale.

    rice: This article very “cheem”.

    GD Star Rating
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  • Wow:

    Getting Free $/vochure has same effect as drugs.makes one dependent on the source (pusher)

    GD Star Rating
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  • Singaporean R Free Rider:

    Wow:
    Getting Free $/vochure has same effect as drugs.makes one dependent on the source (pusher)

    Getting Free Speech has the same effect as drugs. Makes one dependent on the source (pusher America government)

    America pass bill to curb Free Speech
    https://youtu.be/Pr7JbhnSuTg

    Goh Meng Seng, Jolovan Wham and Opposition like WOW who labelled our great PAP government undemocratic MUST be sued for defamation and spreading fake news.

    Contrast between US and HK campus protest is amazing
    http://youtu.be/Eey8PtfG6zA&t=47s

    Pastor Wu blocked man from seeking truth
    https://youtu.be/ZFK0jCozq2o&t=2s

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  • PAP mandate strong:

    截至3月底,中国广义货币M2余额已超过300万亿元,达到304万亿元。

    https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/694830529

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  • Globalist Elitism vs Populists:
    GD Star Rating
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