Friday, 15 March 2013

Who cares if central banks make a so called “loss” when QE is unwound?

Those under the illusion that central banks can be viewed thru the lens of microeconomics (i.e. those who think a central bank can be compared to a COMMERCIAL bank or other commercial entity) are getting worried about the so called “loss” that central banks might make when QE is unwound. This Telegraph article is typical. Plus Andrea Leadsom (UK politician) also got worried about this point – see question 37 & 38.
In contrast, those who understand Modern Monetary Theory know better, and for the following reasons.
As Abba Lerner (founding father of MMT, according to some) put it (p.39 here):
“…government fiscal policy, its spending and taxing, its borrowing and repayment of loans, its issue of new money and its withdrawal of money, shall all be undertaken with an eye only the RESULTS of those actions on the economy and not  to any established traditional doctrine about what is sound or unsound.”
In other words if government has to print and distribute a trillion trillion dollars to the population so as to bring an appropriate amount of stimulus, so be it. The fact that the government / central bank has “lost” a trillion trillion dollars according to “established traditional” measures like profit and loss accounts, is totally irrelevant.
Conversely, if government needs to do the opposite, i.e. drastically raise taxes and confiscate half the private sector’s money so as to keep inflation under control, so be it. The fact that the government / central bank can be viewed according to “established traditional” measures as having made a large profit is irrelevant.
And same applies to unwinding QE. If that unwinding results in the private sector making a profit at the expense of a central bank, that is nothing more than a slight inconvenience.
It’s inconvenient because a central bank is only going to unwind QE if it thinks the economy could with some “anti-stimulus” or deflation. And if that’s the objective, we don’t really want holders of government debt going on a McMansion buying spree using the profit they’ve made out of government debt.
But never mind. As already intimated, governments and central banks can withdraw or confiscate any amount of money from the private sector any time. So any profit that the private sector makes from QE being unwound might need to be counterbalanced by some extra confiscation.
And that is no more than an inconvenience. It should not be regarded as a “loss” (in the conventional sense of the word) made by the central bank.

Hat tip to Denis Cooper on John Redwood’s blog alerting me to the Telegraph article.


  1. A terrible dog whistle article on the Telegraph.

    Particularly as QE making a profit is a bad thing from their point of view - since it would essentially be a tax on private savings.

    The job of the central bank, as currency issuer, is to make a steady loss over time - ensuring that sufficient money is in circulation to keep a growing economy going.

    The notion of a loss is meaningless to an entity where its balance sheet is denominated in its own liabilities.

  2. Normally the problem with central bank loss taking is that it leaves money in the economy that the central bank can not "retire" by selling assets. When the loss counteracts the deflationary pressure from a debt-overhang, however, I'm not so sure there is much harm in the form of inflation risk... Now the distributional effects are still an issue, I think. Say, for the sake of illustration, that the central bank first buys treasuries from the Chinese and then rips them up. That's a cash for trash deal, basically a handout of public funds to a foreign entity. Most ways of central bank loss taking are probably in a more subtle form than this, but the principle is the same.


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