Could The Fed replace QE with a Basic Income?

Should the Federal Reserve provide liquidity via bank deposits for all Americans instead QE?

The purpose of quantitative easing is to lower interest rates, inject liquidity into the economy, and prevent the collapse of financial markets. It’s the ultimate top down approach to the problem – funnel money into too-big-to-fail financial institutions, and hope that this settles the market’s nerves and trickles down into the real economy.

In a sense, quantitative easing is the ultimate form of trickle down economics – inject money into the wealthiest parts of the  economy to keep them wealthy during a downturn, and hope that this trickles down to Main Street.

During the 2020 COVID19 pandemic the Fed has taken a broader view of its powers than ever before, instituting over a dozen new programs in record time. The Federal Reserve balance sheet hit $7 trillion in 2020, far exceeding total Fed intervention in the financial crisis, and unleashed at unprecedented speed. This has stabilized the stock market, with essentially zero downside for the year after a sharp tumble and equally sharp recovery from February to April. The Fed made this recovery possible by pledging to buy unlimited quantities of securities, and for the first time stepped into multiple new roles, buying individual bonds, buying ETFs, creating a Main Street lending program, and more.

All of this begs the question – why not dispense with all the hijinks and provide liquidity directly to the people, where it’s much more likely to be utilized within the real economy? Various proposals like Andrew Yang’s freedom dividend and others peg the cost of providing $1000/month to American adults at around $2T per year. If the Fed were to engage in such a program, how might it work, and what are the potential benefits and risks?

Potential Structure of a Federal Reserve-Funded Basic Income:

  • The Fed would offer funding for deposits at 0% interest to the banks.
  • Any bank that deposited these funds in equal amounts in every individual account at the bank would receive a 10bp servicing fee for providing this service. The bank would also not be required to repay these funds to the Federal Reserve.
  • The total amount offered to a bank would be dependent on the number of individual customers served by the bank.
  • Safeguards would have to be established to ensure that individuals with accounts at multiple banks only received funds once.

Potential Benefits of the Program

  • Given that individuals have a much higher marginal propensity to consume than banks or corporations, these funds would get spent, thus powering the real economy and GDP growth
  • Banks would be empowered to lend against the deposits on their balance sheet – this is the opposite of what’s happening with reserves that banks have parked at the Fed earning interest
  • The Federal Reserve would still have QE and control of the yield curve in its toolbox, but could use these tools much less, which would result in more normal interest rates across the yield curve.

Potential Risks and Downsides

  • Inflation is the principle risk of such a program – give the people money, and inflation will run wild – right? A basic income of about $500/month would cost $1T per year – this is the same rate of money supply expansion since 2008. The Fed could also use higher interest rates to keep overall money supply growth in check.
  • The Federal Reserve could simply swap this form of money supply expansion for its current use of QE. But individuals might expect this to be a stable, recurring payment – would this rob the Fed of flexibility?

Now that the Federal Reserve has opened Pandora’s box with numerous programs not codified within its charter, it’s time to reexamine a fundamental premise – are these the best ways to inject liquidity into banks? Or should the Fed put the reserves in checking deposits at banks? This serves a dual purpose of both capitalizing the bank and the public at the same time, and with a direct and dramatic impact on the economy. It may sound like heresy, but the ZIRP alternative was not exactly showing great economic growth prospects even prior to the pandemic.

The US is the world leader in innovation – can the Fed break out of the box and consider a program to help all Americans?