Trump’s Latest Pick for the Fed Is No Fan of Paper Money
Economist Marvin Goodfriend doesn’t like the green paper rectangles in your wallet, which are formally known as “Federal Reserve notes.” His opinion matters, because President Trump has nominated him to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. If confirmed by the Senate to a 14-year term, Goodfriend may take the opportunity to pursue his academic interest in abolishing—or at least demoting—paper money.
Goodfriend’s dislike for cash could become an issue in his confirmation hearings, which are not yet scheduled. Senators could soon be getting an earful from constituents who fear that taking away paper money is a step toward socialism or totalitarianism. Those voices are already being heard. “Is Marvin Goodfriend the Worst Fed Nominee of All Time?” asks a Dec. 1 post on the website of the Mises Institute, a think tank for the Austrian school of economics. An earlier Mises post in which Goodfriend’s name was first raised said, “Given his radical views on monetary policy, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that Goodfriend’s nomination would represent a genuine danger to the economic wellbeing of every American citizen—or at least those outside of the financial services industry.”
It’s not just the Mises people who want to hang onto paper money. “Cash Means Freedom, Which Is Why So Many Officials Hate It” was the headline on a post by the libertarian Reason Institute last year. Last year, in the Wall Street Journal, financial commentator James Grant attacked a book called The Curse of Cash by Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff, writing, “The author wants the government to control your money. It’s as simple as that.”
Goodfriend is concerned that the existence of cash makes it harder for the Fed to lower interest rates below zero. In the next crisis, he says, the Fed might want to push interest rates into negative territory to prod people to stop sitting on their money and do something with it, such as consumption or investment, that would get growth going again. But today, the Fed would not be able to push interest rates on checking or savings accounts very far below zero because as soon as it did, people would simply withdraw cash from the banks and store it in the mattress or a vault. The European Central Bank and Swiss National Bank have managed to push rates only slightly negative.
Trump’s nominee hasn’t tried to hush-hush his views on this controversial topic. Far from it. Goodfriend presented a paper on it in 2016 in Jackson Hole, Wyo., at a high-profile annual conclave of central bankers. His title: “The Case for Unencumbering Interest Rate Policy at the Zero Bound.”
To make it less convenient for people to hoard cash, he says in the paper, the government could phase out high-denomination bills or charge banks and the public whenever paper money is paid out or received. But even those steps might not be enough to suppress the use of cash, Goodfriend surmises. So he weighs three stronger measures.
One is simple: Abolish paper currency, which means that to pay for anything, you’d have to use money kept in a bank. The Fed could cause banks to charge negative rates on your deposit so you’d have a strong incentive to use it or lose it.
The second option: Break the one-for-one link between the value of a dollar bill and the value of money deposited in a bank. If the use of negative interest rates lowered the amount of your deposit in the bank from $1 to 90 cents, then your paper dollar bill would also become worth only 90 cents.
The third option: currency cards, which would look like credit or debit cards but would represent real money, straight from the Fed. The Fed could control its value electronically. Goodfriend argues in the paper that “the public would likely find electronic currency an acceptable alternative to paper currency.” His main concern is that “electronic currency would require investment in banking, central banking and payment system infrastructure before it could be made available.”
I asked Harvard’s Rogoff, the Curse of Cash author, what he thinks about Goodfriend’s nomination. He wrote back, “Thank goodness there will be someone at the Fed with the foresight to realize that world needs to start thinking about how central banks can best deal with the inevitable next deep financial crisis. And negative interest rate policy is the best idea out there by a wide margin; hopefully we won’t need it anytime soon. Still, I believe that within a decade, all the world’s major central banks and treasuries are likely to have taken the simple steps necessary to create the foundations for effective negative interest rate policy in deep recessions or financial crises.”
Could Goodfriend just be ahead of his time? The Senate is bound to have some questions.