What Is Pushing On A String?

Pushing on a string is a metaphor for the limits of monetary policy and the impotence of central banks. Monetary policy sometimes only works in one direction because businesses and households cannot be forced to spend if they do not want to. Increasing the monetary base and bank reserves will not stimulate an economy if banks think it is too risky to lend and the private sector wants to save more because of economic uncertainty.

Key Takeaways

  • Pushing on a string refers to exerting effort where it will not be useful in a given context.
  • In economics, pushing on a string is when central banks try to enact loose monetary policy when there is already slack in the economy, resulting in little to no results.
  • The term has been attributed to economist John Maynard Keynes, although the phrase was also used in congressional testimony in 1935.

Understanding Pushing On A String

Pushing on a string is a figure of speech for influence that is more effective in moving things in one direction rather than another—you can pull, but not push.

While the phrase "pushing on a string" is often attributed to British economist John Maynard Keynes, there is no evidence he used it. However, this exact metaphor was used in U.S. Congressional testimony in 1935, when Federal Reserve Governor Marriner Eccles said there was little the Fed could do to stimulate the economy and end the Great Depression:

Governor Eccles: Under present circumstances there is very little, if anything, that can be done.
Congressman T. Alan Goldsborough: You mean you cannot push a string.
Governor Eccles: That is a good way to put it, one cannot push a string. We are in the depths of a depression and...beyond creating an easy money situation through reduction of discount rates and through the creation of excess reserves, there is very little, if anything that the reserve organization can do toward bringing about recovery.

String Pushing and the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis

The pushing on a string metaphor was relevant during the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis, when early efforts to stimulate the economy appeared to produce little results. The Fed had allocated trillions of dollars toward quantitative easing (QE) and also lowered the federal funds rate to near zero percent.

At first the Fed appeared unable to produce demand out of thin air because householdsburdened with debtincreased their savings rate. Monetary policy appeared desperate and futile, with the increase in money supply in the U.S. offset by declining money velocity. Hence, the Fed was pushing on a string.

Household debt fell until 2013, but rebounded to a record $14.15 trillion at the end of 2019. Quantitative easing and low rates managed to stave off disaster—though we will never know how much worse the crisis would have been without these efforts.