Mar 27, 2020 - Economy

The plan to fight coronavirus with trillion-dollar platinum coins

An illustration of a $1 trillion coin.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The growing throng of critics who have assailed the Senate's $2.2 trillion spending bill as avarice, insufficient and disappointing have an alternative.

Enter Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and the Automatic BOOST to Communities Act, a bill so massive, audacious and unparalleled in scope that one of its primary authors asserts "There is no number that would be meaningful to estimate" its cost.

What's it is: Tlaib proposes sending to every single person in the U.S. a debit card loaded with $2,000, then reloading that card every month with $1,000 "until one year after the end of the Coronavirus crisis."

Why it matters: There is rising opposition to the idea that government debt is harmful, and more support for programs that dedicate government stimulus money to people rather than business. Tlaib's bill currently has very limited support in Congress, but that could change.

  • "It seems to me that we’re going through the conventional means at the moment, and if that doesn’t work then it will lend to more discussion of these alternative measures," Gennadiy Goldberg, U.S. rates strategist at TD Securities, a primary dealer that does business directly with the Fed, tells Axios.

The intrigue: The #MintTheCoin plan proposes to account for the direct payments — a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests $6.5 trillion is a conservative cost estimate — by having the U.S. Treasury mint a series of "$1 trillion platinum coins."

  • The coins would be created by Treasury and then sold to the Federal Reserve, which would credit the U.S. Mint’s account at the Fed with $2 trillion in reserves.
  • That money could then be loaded onto debit cards by Treasury and sent directly to every person in the country, including children, undocumented immigrants and the homeless.

Between the lines: It would be a "money-financed fiscal program," says Rohan Grey, a JSD candidate at Cornell Law School, who worked with Tlaib's office to draft the bill. That means there would be no government debt issued to pay for the program — the coins are the payment.

  • "The goal is to prevent fear-mongering," Grey, president of the Modern Monetary Network, tells Axios.
  • The way the U.S. currently finances spending, by issuing debt, "gives people who do want to fight these false austerity battles ammunition to say, ‘Look, we’ve added all this money to the government’s credit card and now we have to pay it back.'"

Be smart: The plan is legal, as U.S. law gives the Treasury secretary the power to mint new coins "in qualities and quantities that the Secretary determines are sufficient to meet public demand."

  • And market experts like Goldberg and Thomas Simons, money market economist at Jefferies & Co., tell Axios the trillion-dollar coin idea works, functionally. Though they also say it would be foolish.

Threat level: Potential harms include runaway inflation, destabilizing the U.S. financial system, displacing the dollar as the world's funding currency and undermining institutional confidence in the Fed, they say.

  • "It’s a fun idea, but it’s a gimmick, not really a reasonable plan for financing the government," Simons says.
  • "It suggests that the government can just deliver unlimited amounts of cash to anyone who wants it for any reason. That's dangerous."

Yes, but: Grey foresees a situation now that could be far worse than the Great Recession — unemployment as high as 20%, wide-ranging and permanent destruction of businesses, mass health care bankruptcies and more.

The last word: Like many advocates of Modern Monetary Theory, Grey points to World War II when the U.S. ran up tremendous deficits but also utilized all available resources, including the lion's share of the country's human capital, in remaking the American economy.

  • "We need to make sure we do everything it takes," he says.
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