Governments can now spend as they please. That presents opportunities—and grave dangers
各国政府现在可以随心所欲地花钱。这带来了机会——和严重的危险

【双语】白来的钱 Free money-书迷号 shumihao.com

IT IS SOMETIMES said that governments wasted the global financial crisis of 2007-09 by failing to rethink economic policy after the dust settled. Nobody will say the same about the covid-19 pandemic. It has led to a desperate scramble to enact policies that only a few months ago were either unimaginable or heretical. A profound shift is now taking place in economics as a result, of the sort that happens only once in a generation. Much as in the 1970s when clubby Keynesianism gave way to Milton Friedman’s austere monetarism, and in the 1990s when central banks were given their independence, so the pandemic marks the start of a new era. Its overriding preoccupation will be exploiting the opportunities and containing the enormous risks that stem from a supersized level of state intervention in the economy and financial markets.

人们有时会说,各国政府白白浪费了2007至2009年的那场全球金融危机,因为它们在危机过后并没有反思经济政策。这次新冠疫情不会再招来同样的非议了。疫情爆发以来,各国争先恐后地出台在几个月前还难以想象或者会被视为离经叛道的政策。因此,经济运作正在发生一场深刻的转变——二三十年一遇的那种。正如上世纪70年代排外的凯恩斯主义阵营让位于米尔顿·弗里德曼(Milton Friedman)严格的货币主义,以及90年代央行获得独立性一样,这次疫情也标志着一个新时代的开始。在这个时代,国家以超大规模干预经济和金融市场,第一要务将是抓住由此带来的机遇并遏制其中的巨大风险。

This new epoch has four defining features. The first is the jaw-dropping scale of today’s government borrowing, and the seemingly limitless potential for yet more. The IMF predicts that rich countries will borrow 17% of their combined GDP this year to fund $4.2trn in spending and tax cuts designed to keep the economy going. They are not done. In America Congress is debating another spending package. The European Union has just agreed on a new stimulus funded by common borrowing, crossing a political Rubicon.

这个新时代有四个基本特征。首先,如今各国政府举债规模之大令人瞠目结舌,而且似乎还有无限的潜力继续下去。国际货币基金组织(IMF)预测,发达国家今年的债务规模将占其GDP总量的17%,为它们4.2万亿美元的支出和减税措施提供资金,从而维持经济运转。还不止于此。美国国会正在辩论另一项开支计划。欧盟在政治上破釜沉舟,刚刚就一项基于共同借款的新刺激计划达成一致。

The second feature is the whirring of the printing presses. In America, Britain, the euro zone and Japan central banks have created new reserves of money worth some $3.7trn in 2020. Much of this has been used to buy government debt, meaning that central banks are tacitly financing the stimulus. The result is that long-term interest rates stay low even while public-debt issuance soars.

第二个特征是印钞机的轰鸣声。美国、英国、欧元区和日本的央行在2020年已经发行了约3.7万亿美元的新货币储备。大部分已经用来购买政府债券,这意味着央行正在心照不宣地为刺激计划提供资金。其结果是,即使公共债务发行量飙升,长期利率仍然维持在低位。

The state’s growing role as capital-allocator-in-chief is the third aspect of the new age. To see off a credit crunch, the Federal Reserve, acting with the Treasury, has waded into financial markets, buying up the bonds of AT&T, Apple and even Coca-Cola, and lending directly to everyone from bond dealers to non-profit hospitals. Together the Fed and Treasury are now backstopping 11% of America’s entire stock of business debt. Across the rich world, governments and central banks are following suit.

国家日益成为“资本配置总监”是新时代的第三个特征。为避免信贷紧缩,美联储与财政部一起介入金融市场,大举购买AT&T、苹果甚至可口可乐等公司的债券,并直接向从债券交易商到非盈利医院的各类机构放贷。现在,美联储和财政部一起为美国全部企业债务的11%提供了担保。在整个富裕世界,政府和央行正纷纷效仿。

The final feature is the most important: low inflation. The absence of upward pressure on prices means there is no immediate need to slow the growth of central-bank balance-sheets or to raise short-term interest rates from their floor around zero. Low inflation is therefore the fundamental reason not to worry about public debt, which, thanks to accommodative monetary policy, now costs so little to service that it looks like free money.

最重要的是最后一个特征:低通胀。既然没有价格上涨的压力,那么央行既不需要着急放缓扩表的速度,也不用急于将短期利率从接近于零的底部上调。因此,低通胀是无需担心公共债务的根本原因,而由于宽松的货币政策,公共债务现在的偿债成本极低,钱几乎就是白来的。

Don’t fool yourself that the role of the state will magically return to normal once the pandemic passes and unemployment falls. Yes, governments and central banks may dial down their spending and bail-outs. But the new era of economics reflects the culmination of long-term trends. Even before the pandemic, inflation and interest rates were subdued despite a jobs boom. Today the bond market still shows no sign of worrying about long-term inflation. If it is right, deficits and money-printing may well become the standard tools of policymaking for decades. The central banks’ growing role in financial markets, meanwhile, reflects the stagnation of banks as intermediaries and the prominence of innovative and risk-hungry shadow banks and capital markets. In the old days, when commercial banks ruled the roost, central banks acted as lenders of last resort to them. Now central banks increasingly have to get their hands dirty on Wall Street and elsewhere by acting as mammoth “marketmakers of last resort”.

千万不要天真地以为,一旦疫情过去、失业率下降,政府的角色就会神奇地回归常态。没错,政府和央行可能会降低支出和纾困力度,但经济运作的新时代反映了一些长期趋势达到顶点。即使在疫情爆发之前,在就业市场繁荣的情况下,通胀和利率依然低迷。今天的债券市场仍然没有表现出对长期通胀的丝毫担忧。如果真是如此,赤字和印钞很可能会成为未来几十年制定政策的标准工具。与此同时,央行在金融市场中的作用日益加强,反映出银行的中介作用陷入停滞,而富于创新、敢冒风险的影子银行和资本市场正大行其道。过去商业银行当家作主的时候,央行是它们的最后贷款人。而现在越来越多央行被迫亲自上阵,直接介入华尔街和其他市场,充当巨人般的“最后做市商”。

A state with a permanently broader and deeper reach across the economy creates some opportunities. Low rates make it cheaper for the government to borrow to build new infrastructure, from research labs to electricity grids, that will boost growth and tackle threats such as pandemics and climate change. As societies age, rising spending on health and pensions is inevitable—if the resulting deficits help provide a necessary stimulus to the economy, all the more reason to embrace them.

政府对经济的干预不断扩大和加深会创造出一些机会。低利率让政府能以低成本举债 ,建设从科研实验室到电网的各种新基础设施,从而促进经济增长,并应对流行病和气候变化等威胁。随着社会人口老龄化,医疗和养老金支出增加将不可避免——如果由此产生的赤字有助于为经济提供必要的刺激,那就更应该欣然接受。

Yet the new era also presents grave risks. If inflation jumps unexpectedly the entire edifice of debt will shake, as central banks have to raise their policy rates and in turn pay out vast sums of interest on the new reserves that they have created to buy bonds. And even if inflation stays low, the new machinery is vulnerable to capture by lobbyists, unions and cronies.

然而,新时代也预示着严重的风险。如果通胀率出乎意料地飙升,各国央行就必须提高政策利率,进而又得为购买债券而发行的新储备支付巨额利息,整座债务大厦将摇摇欲坠。而即使通胀保持在低位,新机制也容易被说客、工会和朋党钻空子。

One of monetarism’s key insights was that sprawling macroeconomic management leads to infinite opportunities for politicians to play favourites. Already they are deciding which firms get tax breaks and which workers should be paid by the state to wait for their old jobs to reappear. Soon some loans to the private sector will turn sour, leaving governments to choose which firms fail. When money is free, why not rescue companies, protect obsolete jobs and save investors?

货币主义的一个关键见解是,无节制的宏观经济管理会给政客无限的机会去偏袒徇私。他们现在已经在决定哪些公司可以享受减税,哪些劳动者应由国家支付工资直到可以重回旧岗位。用不了多久,给私营部门的一些贷款将变成坏账,届时政府又要决定该让哪些企业倒闭。既然钱是白来的,何不救助公司、保护该淘汰的职位、拯救投资者?

However, though that would provide a brief stimulus, it is a recipe for distorted markets, moral hazard and low growth. Fear of politicians’ myopia was why many countries delegated power to independent central banks, which wielded a single, simple tool—interest rates—to manage the economic cycle. Yet today interest rates, so close to zero, seem impotent and the monarchs who run the world’s central banks are becoming rather like servants working as the government’s debt-management arm.

尽管这会带来短暂的刺激,却会导致市场扭曲、道德风险和增长低迷。正是出于对政客短视行为的担心,许多国家才将权力授予独立的央行,而央行在管理经济周期时只使用一种简单的工具——利率。但如今利率已接近于零,这种工具似乎已经失去效力,而世界各国掌管央行的君主们正在沦为替政府管理债务的仆人。

Free markets and free lunches

自由市场和免费午餐

Each new era of economics confronts a new challenge. After the 1930s the task was to prevent depressions. In the 1970s and early 1980s the holy grail was to end stagflation. Today the task for policymakers is to create a framework that allows the business cycle to be managed and financial crises to be fought without a politicised takeover of the economy. This may involve delegating fiscal firepower to technocrats, or reforming the financial system to enable central banks to take interest rates deeply negative, exploiting the revolutionary shift among consumers away from old-style banking to fintech and digital payments. The stakes are high. Failure will mean the age of free money eventually comes at a staggering price.■

经济运作的每个新时代都在对抗一项新挑战。上世纪30年代之后的任务是防止经济萧条。在70年代和80年代初,梦寐以求的目标是结束滞胀。而今天,政策制定者的任务是创建一个框架,在不对经济做政治化接管的情况下管理经济周期和应对金融危机。这可能包括将财政权交给技术官僚,或者改革金融体系从而允许央行将利率下调至远低于零,充分利用消费者从传统银行服务转向金融科技和数字支付的革命性转变。这事关重大。一旦失败,这个白来钱的时代最终将付出惊人的代价。