Helicopter money (and Hitler)

Pressure groups, reformers and economists (such as Positive Money) have long argued that “Helicopter Money”, a term coined by Milton Friedman in his 1969 work “The Quantity Theory of Money” (although to be fair Hitler had had the same idea a generation before so I don’t know why they don’t call it Heinkel Money), is better than Quantitative Easing (QE) in circumstances of disaster and distress. Their argument is that instead of pumping money into financial markets (as central banks did with QE in response to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008), it would stimulate the real economy by transferring money directly to citizens.

As I wrote in Financial World magazine, the traditional financial system is of course an option. Instant cash handouts work well in an economy where everyone has a bank account (let’s say Denmark, for example, where 99.92% of the population over 15 has one) and some form of widely-accepted digital identity (let’s say Denmark, where 92% of the population over 15 has one) it’s quite straightforward. The central bank harvests from the magic money tree and sends the fruit to the commercial banks, the commercial banks add it to the accounts of individuals who register for it with their digital IDs (as in “I am Dave Birch and I claim my £5”). And for the the few remaining people who feel that they have missed out on the free cash, well, they can go to a Post Office or whatever. But what if you are in a country where not everyone has a bank account? The UK, for example, where the Financial Inclusion Commission reckons that there are one-and-a-half million adults without a bank account (and the World Bank puts us in the world top ten for banking inclusion!). Only half of them actually want a bank account although I suppose they might be persuaded to get one for the purposes of receiving a stimulus payment.

It can’t go on like this.

When the next pandemic arrives, things will be different. Or at least they will be different in some countries. The ones with digital currency. In report on digital currency for the CSFI, back in April, I wrote that central banks have long considered it a key advantage of digital currency that it adds to their policy toolkit in interesting ways. It removes the zero-lower bound on interest rates, increases economic activity (the Bank of England Staff Working Paper No. 605 by John Barrdear and Michael Kumhof, “The macroeconomics of central bank issued digital currencies” estimated that substituting only a third of the cash in circulation by digital currency would raise GDP by 3%) and, of course, enables helicopter money. If every citizen has an electronic wallet, then sending electronic cash over the airwaves and directly into those wallets becomes simple.

One of the unexpected consequences of the COVID crisis and the international response to it may well be to accelerate the transition to digital currency. Click To Tweet

One of the unexpected consequences of the COVID crisis and the international response to it may therefore be to accelerate the transition to digital currency that can be delivered directly to citizens. This may have seemed the province of Bitcoin fans until quite recently. However, in the Spring the People’s Bank of China began testing their “DC/EP” system (it stands for Digital Currency/Electronic Payment) in four cities: Shenzen, Chengdu, Suzhou and Xiong’an. The uses will vary, but we already know that in Suzhou, the pilot began in May by paying half of the travel subsidies given to public sector workers as digital currency.

DCEP phone

with the kind permission of Matthew Graham @mattysino

At the virtual SIBOS 2020, PBOC’s deputy governor Fan Yifei said that by late August, the bank had already processed more than three million DC/EP transactions worth some $160+ million, with over  6,700 pilot use cases implemented. He went on to say that “113,300 personal digital wallets and 8,859 corporate digital wallets have been opened”.

Lets hope the Bank of England don’t take this laying down. When the next pandemic rolls in, Andrew Bailey should be able to juggle his spreadsheets and have the stimulus Sterling in our pockets like greased lightning, no helicopter (or commercial banks) needed.

Me with patriotic cushion

Hitler’s plan for Helicopter Money failed.

If you are curious about Hitler’s plan for helicopter money, by the way, the story is told in the brilliant film “The Counterfeiters”, which won the 2007 Oscar for best foreign film. It is the true story of Operation Bernhard, which was the name of that Nazi plan to devastate the British economy by printing money. The idea, conceived at the very start of the Second World War, was to drop worthless counterfeit banknotes over England, thus causing economic instability, inflation and recession.

The film is based on a memoir written by Adolf Burger, a Jewish Slovak typographer who was imprisoned in 1942 for forging baptismal certificates to save Jews from deportation. The Nazis took Burger and more than a hundred other Jews from a variety of trades — printing, engraving and at least one convicted master counterfeiter, Salomon Smolianoff — and moved them from different death camps to a special unit: “Block 19” in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. There they set about forging first the British and then the American currency.

(The BBC produced a comedy drama series based on Operation Berhard in the early 1980s, “Private Schulz”. The characters were based on the real inmates of Sachsenhausen, where 30,000 people were murdered during the course of the war.)

In the end, the prisoners forged around £132 million, which is about five billion dollars in today’s prices. The forgeries were perfect, but the Nazi plan probably wouldn’t have worked. They were churning out £5, £10, £20 and £50 notes at a time when the average weekly wage in Britain was a fiver. The Bank of England though were so concerned that should the Sachsenhausen operation switch to lower denominations then there could be trouble. For this reason, it had to make a contigency plan to withdraw the £1 note and the ten shilling note! So British Intelligence asked Waddingtons Games (who made Monopoly) to print five shilling (25p) and two-and-half shilling (12.5p) notes to replace coins instead of its usual game currency money.

These notes were never used and were destroyed at the end of the war, because the Nazis were never able to put their plot into operation. They packed up all the printers’ plates and counterfeit bills into crates which they dumped into Lake Toplitz in Austria, from which they were subsequently retrieved, which is how it is that I have one of the real fakes hanging in my study.

[An edited version of this piece appeared on Forbes.com, 26th July 2020].

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