Printing money costs money

In a letter to the Guardian, Martin Wheatcroft comments on Professor Richard Murphy’s suggestion that ‘People’s QE’ can be used to finance government spending at no cost.

Professor Richard Murphy (Letters, 27 September) is mistaken when he claims that “QE debt carries no interest cost” and that we can ignore capital markets by using “People’s QE” to finance public spending cost-free. As a chartered accountant, he should know better. No debit exists without a credit, and the purchase of bonds by the Bank of England results in one form of public debt (government securities) being replaced by another (Bank of England deposits). Interest is payable on these deposits at the Bank of England base rate – currently 0.25%. This is not zero.

Quantitative easing swaps the benefit of locking-in the interest rate payable on long-term fixed-rate government securities for variable interest charges. The good news is that the £435bn of QE debt that we have today has been swapped into deposits paying 0.25%, costing the exchequer just £1bn in interest each year on this element of the national debt. However, the base rate could change very quickly depending on economic conditions and the decisions of the Monetary Policy Committee. An increase to 2% – historically still quite low – would cost an extra £8bn a year in interest, while at 5% – the rate in 2006 before the financial crisis – the annual interest cost would be £21bn higher than it is now.

Borrowing to finance public spending can be a sensible policy in the right circumstances, especially if directed at infrastructure and other investments that generate economic growth. But, politicians considering People’s QE as a policy choice should understand that there is no such thing as free finance, even for governments. As it turns out, even printing money costs money.

Martin Wheatcroft
Author of Simply UK Government Finances 2017-18