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].

US cashless backlash: why punish retailers?

The US is behind some other parts of the world, perhaps, but it is trending in the same direction. According to recent research, almost a third of American adults use no cash at all for their weekly purchases (it was a quarter back in 2015). Conversely, a fifth of Americans says that make nearly all of their purchases in cash. Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that some retailers, in some locations, are starting to go cash free. Now, as far as I am concerned, that’s up to them. Writing in the CATO Journal last year — “Special Interest Politics Could Save Cash or Kill It” CATO Journal 38(2): 489-502 (Spring 2018) — Norbert Michel said “it seems risky, at best, to give the government so much control over the form of payment citizens choose, but that is exactly what many policymakers are hoping to do”. He was talking about laws to ban cash, but the argument applies both ways. Should regulators care whether you pay in cash or not and, if they do care, what should they do about it?


Here’s a specific example. In March, Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons, stopped accepting cash for sporting events. Now, I imagine the people who run the Mercedes-Benz to be business persons who operate according to the principles of profit and loss. They’re not making this decision because of some idealogical position about notes and coins. They wouldn’t be doing it unless they thought they would be better off without the costs of cash.

So: should they be allowed to do this, just as Tottenham Hotspur have done with their new stadium at White Hart Lane?

There is no US law on the subject. I see in Payment Law Advisor that the US Treasury Department has guidance on the issue, but it states that refusing cash may be allowable “on a reasonable basis, such as when doing so increases efficiency, prevents incompatibility problems with the equipment employed to accept or count the money, or improves security”. Security and efficiency are precisely the factors causing retailers to shift to cashless operators as far as I can see, so the Treasury guidelines seem to be working.

That does not, however, seem to matter to the State and City legislators who rising to the challenge of dragging America back into the 1950s, when the payment card was a notion restricted to future fiction and the concept of a mobile phone so alien as to be unimaginable. At that level there is a patchwork of regulation. Massachusetts apparently has a little-known 1978 law requiring retail stores to accept both cash and credit although it does not seem to be enforced and the legislature has yet to say whether it applies to restaurants. Food and drink are in the vanguard elsewhere, such as in Pennsylvania, where the head of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association says that there are lots of restaurants (as well as other businesses) that want to go cashless because “places that handle cash are less safe than those that don’t have cash on hand” and that in a cash business “taxes aren’t always paid”.

Yet US legislators seem to be in favour of maintaining this costly and inefficient state of affairs. The New York Times reports that the New Jersey Legislature and the Philadelphia City Council have already passed measures this year that would ban cashless stores and New York City, Washington, San Francisco and Chicago are consider doing something similar. Their objection is that cashlessness marginalises low-income communities. If this is true, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of these lawmakers, then it is a problem with the financial system not retailing. Penalising retailers by forcing them to accept cash because the financial system does not make a reliable, secure electronic alternative available to low-income (or, indeed, any other) communities is peverse.

I don’t want to discuss the causes here – that’s for another time – but the specifically US problem around financial inclusion is the root cause of the problem and that’s what should be tackled. If low-income people in Somalia can buy produce in the local market using their mobile phones, you can’t help but wonder why low-income people in Philadelphia can’t do the same, much to the benefit of society as a whole.