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Central banks around the world have already reduced interest rates to zero or below to reduce borrowing costs and discourage saving. Some central banks have moved towards negative interest rates – charging certain depositors for keeping their cash in the bank. While some argue for going further, others worry that negative interest rates could reduce the stability of the system.
Central banks have also restarted and expanded post-crash programmes of quantitative easing (QE) – colloquially known as printing money, but in practice taking the form of asset purchasing programmes.
These programmes attempt to place a floor beneath falling asset prices to prevent insolvencies and a destabilising cycle of debt deflation. One criticism of QE programmes has been that they exacerbate social inequality and disproportionately benefit high-carbon firms. Alternative green QE versions have been proposed but not adopted.
Even before Covid-19 there were calls for governments to write off some or all of mounting personal debt, on grounds of social justice and the impacts of debt on the poorest in society.
Some governments have now taken measures to guarantee existing or new corporate and/or personal borrowing to prevent defaults. There are two main drawbacks: firstly, the guaranteeing of loans transfers risk from private banks to the state without imposing costs on the former. Secondly, it can create moral hazard by failing to differentiate between more and less creditworthy borrowers. Guaranteeing borrowing may be a less effective measure than other approaches, such as converting corporate loans to equity.
The flip side of reducing debt is to increase incomes. Many governments have already introduced such measures temporarily – for example, the UK’s coronavirus furlough scheme. More broadly, campaigns and proposals for a universal basic income or similar argue for a permanent floor on incomes. One key issue with income support is that unless high outgoings are reduced, much of it will accrue in practice to banks, landlords and other rentiers.