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WaPo Covers MMT, But Does Its Usual Bad Job: Part Three, Banking, and Default vs. “Hyperinflation”

3:25 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

This post continues my critical evaluation of Dylan Matthews’s, post published on Ezra Klein’s blog called “You know the deficit hawks. Now meet the deficit owls.”

Other Issues

Here’s the next exchange envisioned by Dylan:

“According to Galbraith and the others, monetary policy as currently conducted by the Fed does not work. The Fed generally uses one of two levers to increase growth and employment. It can lower short-term interest rates by buying up short-term government bonds on the open market. If short-term rates are near-zero, as they are now, the Fed can try “quantitative easing,” or large-scale purchases of assets (such as bonds) from the private sector including longer-term Treasuries using money the Fed creates. This is what the Fed did in 2008 and 2010, in an emergency effort to boost the economy.

“According to Modern Monetary Theory, the Fed buying up Treasuries is just, in Galbraith’s words, a “bookkeeping operation” that does not add income to American households and thus cannot be inflationary.

“It seemed clear to me that . . . flooding the economy with money by buying up government bonds . . . is not going to change anybody’s behavior,” Galbraith says. “They would just end up with cash reserves which would sit idle in the banking system, and that is exactly what in fact happened.

“The theorists just “have no idea how quantitative easing works,” says Joe Gagnon, an economist at the Peterson Institute who managed the Fed’s first round of quantitative easing in 2008. Even if the money the Fed uses to buy bonds stays in bank reserves — or money that’s held in reserve — increasing those reserves should still lead to increased borrowing and ripple throughout the system.”

Evidently, Gagnon has no idea that increasing the amount of reserves does not lead to increased borrowing, because banks don’t need more reserves to make loans. All they need are credit worthy borrowers and access to the Fed discount window to make whatever quantity of loans they want to. This is one of the main points about the banking system MMT makes. Put simply: lending is not reserve constrained! It’s constrained by bank willingness to lend to credit worthy borrowers.

Dylan’s next point is:

“Mainstreamers are equally baffled by another claim of the theory: that budget surpluses in and of themselves are bad for the economy. According to Modern Monetary Theory, when the government runs a surplus, it is a net saver, which means that the private sector is a net debtor. The government is, in effect, “taking money from private pockets and forcing them to make that up by going deeper into debt,” Galbraith says, reiterating his White House comments.

“The mainstream crowd finds this argument as funny now as they did when Galbraith presented it to Clinton. “I have two words to answer that: Australia and Canada,” Gagnon says. “If Jamie Galbraith would look them up, he would see immediate proof he’s wrong. Australia has had a long-running budget surplus now, they actually have no national debt whatsoever, they’re the fastest-growing, healthiest economy in the world.” Canada, similarly, has run consistent surpluses while achieving high growth.”

Gagnon must be kidding, or at least totally ignorant about Jamie’s background, and the major contributors to the MMT synthesis, Of course, Jamie is quite familiar with Canada having close ties to the land of his father’s birth, and MMT economists know all they need to know about Australia, since MMT leader Bill Mitchell is constantly writing about the Australian economy and its various tragedies. However, the point here is that Gagnon doesn’t see that these two nations show that MMT’s Sectoral Financial Balances (SFB) model is exactly right in its explanations, since they are able to run surpluses without disaster, only because, unlike the United States, the foreign sectors of their economies run deficits (that is Canada and Australia run trade surpluses) large enough to accommodate the private sector savings desires of Australians and also the Government’s desire to run a budget surplus. The US however, currently has a need to run Government deficits of 10% to support both our private sector savings desires of 6% of GDP, and our foreign sector’s desires to export 4% of US GDP to US consumers so they can accumulate US dollars in the form of electronic credits.

Default vs. Hyperinflation?

“But MMT’s own relationship to real-world cases can be a little hit-or-miss. Mosler, the hedge fund manager, credits his role in the movement to an epiphany in the early 1990s, when markets grew concerned that Italy was about to default. Mosler figured that Italy, which at that time still issued its own currency, the lira, could not default as long as it had the ability to print more liras. He bet accordingly, and when Italy did not default, he made a tidy sum. “There was an enormous amount of money to be made if you could bring yourself around to the idea that they couldn’t default,” he says.

“Later that decade, he learned there was also a lot of money to be lost. When similar fears surfaced about Russia, he again bet against default. Despite having its own currency, Russia defaulted, forcing Mosler to liquidate one of his funds and wiping out much of his $850 million in investments in the country. Mosler credits this to Russia’s fixed exchange rate policy of the time and insists that if it had only acted like a country with its own currency, default could have been avoided.

“But the case could also prove what critics insist: Default, while technically always avoidable, is sometimes the best available option.”

Well, this last is a mouthful. Yes, Warren Mosler made a lot of money on his “bets” on Italy, and lost a lot on Russia. But what this shows is that Governments can voluntarily default if they choose to. MMT economists have always said this and still say it. So why is political stupidity or perfidy counted against the truth of the MMT proposition that Governments sovereign in their currency have no fiscal solvency problems, only voluntary constraints and political problems?

On the contrary, I think the Russian case is one of the primary illustrations of a point that deficit owls have been trying to spread far and wide. Namely, that sometimes default is due to stupidity and perfidy and not to economic forces and that citizens in a democracy need to be aware of that, and of the full capabilities of currency sovereign Governments to always pay debts incurred in their fiat currency and to spend whatever is necessary to enable full employment in their nations. They are never, never, out of money except by choice. So, the real questions are:

– why are they choosing to default?
– Who will benefit from this political choice?
– And who will be asked to pay the price?

And how does the Russian case “prove” that: “Default, while technically always avoidable, is sometimes the best available option”? Is Dylan, through this quote from Gregory Mankiw suggesting that “public purpose” in Russia was better served by its voluntary default than it would have been if the Russians repaid their ruble debts in the rubles they might have created had they wished to? I’m afraid that both Dylan and Mankiw will have to prove that statement to me, since Russian citizens seem to have suffered quite a lot by taking the default choice and accepting austerity when they didn’t have to do so.

WaPo Covers MMT, But Does Its Usual Bad Job: Part Two, Inflation/Hyperinflation

10:06 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

This post continues the critical evaluation of Dylan Matthews’s, post published on Ezra Klein’s blog called “You know the deficit hawks. Now meet the deficit owls.”

The Inflation/Hyperinflation Bogeyman

“And while Modern Monetary Theory’s proponents take Keynes as their starting point and advocate aggressive deficit spending during recessions, they’re not that type of Keynesians. Even mainstream economists who argue for more deficit spending are reluctant to accept the central tenets of Modern Monetary Theory. Take Krugman, who regularly engages economists across the spectrum in spirited debate. He has argued that pursuing large budget deficits during boom times can lead to hyperinflation. Mankiw concedes the theory’s point that the government can never run out of money but doesn’t think this means what its proponents think it does.

“Technically it’s true, he says, that the government could print streams of money and never default. The risk is that it could trigger a very high rate of inflation. This would “bankrupt much of the banking system,” he says. “Default, painful as it would be, might be a better option.”

Well, Krugman has argued there is a danger of hyperinflation where deficit spending lasts for many years, but in a really balanced piece, the counter-arguments of MMT economists to his conjecture would at least be mentioned. Dylan doesn’t say what these counter-arguments are.

And as for Dylan’s reference to Mankiw, it’s easy to wave off MMT by saying there is a risk of inflation in using deficit spending to create full employment, but it is entirely another matter to say what the level of risk is, and to provide compelling arguments about why that risk is appreciable, and more costly than the effects of chronic unemployment in a stagnating economy. This Mankiw doesn’t begin to do. I think Dylan should have pointed this out, rather than just mentioning Mankiw’s opinion. Who cares about his opinion? It’s his arguments, his theories, for expecting inflation that we care about. So, why doesn’t Dylan outline what these are and critically evaluate them?

When Mankiw tells us that default might be a better option than risking inflation by printing money, he is going way beyond his claimed area of expertise in economics. The 14th Amendment to the US constitution prohibits even questioning Government debt, much less defaulting on it. Mankiw in his capacity as an economist is unqualified to say whether a violation of the US constitution is a better option than taking the risk of triggering hyperinflation by “printing money.”

“Mankiw’s critique goes to the heart of the debate about Modern Monetary Theory — and about how, when and even whether to eliminate our current deficits.

“When the government deficit spends, it issues bonds to be bought on the open market. If its debt load grows too large, mainstream economists say, bond purchasers will demand higher interest rates, and the government will have to pay more in interest payments, which in turn adds to the debt load.”

Well, this is what the mainstream says. But what do MMT economists say in return? Why doesn’t Dylan mention that?

What MMT replies is that bond issuance isn’t an inevitability, but a result of choices made by the US Congress and the Executive Branch of Government. The Congress could place the Fed under the authority of the Treasury Secretary in the Executive Branch, and then no debt would have to be issued to deficit spend, since the Fed could just mark up the Treasury General Account (TGA) under orders from the Secretary.

MMT also points out that the Fed controls the Federal Funds Rate which, in turn, heavily influences all bond rates. If the Fed targets a near zero FFR, and the Treasury issues no bonds longer than say, three months in duration, then bond interest rates can be kept near zero no matter how much debt is issued. Japan has proved this is the case since its debt-to-GDP ratio is now in excess of 200% while its interest rates are very near zero on short-term debt instruments.

Finally, Mankiw seems not to know that even if neither of these alternatives is pursued, the Executive Branch still has options to avoid further borrowing and paying higher interest rates and ro repay debt without either cutting spending or raising taxes. Here, I refer to Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PPCS).

As I’ve outlined in numerous posts including this one, the President at his option could require the Treasury and the US Mint to create a coin of arbitrary face value and deposit it at the Fed. The coin’s value is limited only by the President’s specification. For example, a $60 T coin might be minted. The Fed must provide $60 T in electronic credits in return for the US Mint deposit of the coin in its Public Enterprise Fund (PEF) account. The Treasury can then “sweep” the PEF for the difference between the Mint’s cost in producing the coin and its face value, and place that difference in the Treasury General Account (TGA). Treasury could then use this “seigniorage” to repay all US debts as they fall due, and to implement all spending in excess of tax revenues appropriated by Congress. Using the PPCS option would require no new legislation. The President can use it at will to fill the public purse awaiting Congress’s appropriations providing authority to spend the electronic credits already in it to secure goods and services from the non-Government sector. Of course, there’s no possible inflationary effect of purse filling as long as Congress’s appropriations and the ensuing deficit spending aren’t inflationary.

Next, Dylan says:

“To get out of this cycle, the Fed — which manages the nation’s money supply and credit and sits at the center of its financial system — could buy the bonds at lower rates, bypassing the private market. The Fed is prohibited from buying bonds directly from the Treasury — a legal rather than economic constraint. But the Fed would buy the bonds with money it prints, which means the money supply would increase. With it, inflation would rise, and so would the prospects of hyperinflation.”

Again, Dylan only tells the mainstream side of the story and not the MMT reply to it. If the Fed buys bonds with money it prints, this will increase reserves in the private sector, but it won’t increase Net Financial Assets (NFA), because buying the bonds is just an asset swap. So with no new NFA being added to the private sector by the Government, this sort of Fed operation won’t be inflationary, as its massive QE programs have just demonstrated empirically. In fact, by removing the payment of interest on bonds from the private sector, and given that most of the Fed profits are returned to the Treasury, some MMT economists say that the end result of such operations may well be deflationary.

Dylan continues:

“Economists in the Modern Monetary camp concede that deficits can sometimes lead to inflation. But they argue that this can only happen when the economy is at full employment — when all who are able and willing to work are employed and no resources (labor, capital, etc.) are idle. No modern example of this problem comes to mind, Galbraith says.

“The last time we had what could be plausibly called a demand-driven, serious inflation problem was probably World War I,” Galbraith says. “It’s been a long time since this hypothetical possibility has actually been observed, and it was observed only under conditions that will never be repeated.”

Note, that Jamie refers to demand-driven inflation above. He doesn’t say that cost-push inflation can’t happen as the economy approaches full employment. MMT economists recognize this possibility, and consider that the 1970s inflation was of this type, but point out that cost-push inflation has little to do with Government deficit spending per se, and must be combated with anti-speculation law enforcement, price controls, targeted taxation, and sometimes even de-regulation (See: [01:03:29] and [01:03:47]) in the effected or related sectors, rather than by raising taxes or cutting spending.

(Cross-posted from Correntewire.com

WaPo Covers MMT, But Does Its Usual Bad Job: Part One, Some Basics and Solvency

4:18 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

It was very welcome to see The Washington Post cover MMT with a reasonably favorable post by Dylan Matthews, published on Ezra Klein’s blog called “You know the deficit hawks. Now meet the deficit owls.” I’m pretty familiar with the deficit owls, having blogged about them soon after they were first named by Stephanie Kelton, in July of 2010, intermittently since, and most recently here. So, I thought I’d review Dylan’s post in the spirit of correcting any mistakes in the record made by The Post and Ezra’s blog in its first real effort to cover MMT. Hopefully Ezra, Dylan Matthews and others associated with WonkBlog learn from these mistakes and not simply double-down on them.

Some Background and Recognizing That “There Is No Solvency Constraint”

Dylan says:

“In contrast to “deficit hawks” who want spending cuts and revenue increases now in order to temper the deficit, and “deficit doves” who want to hold off on austerity measures until the economy has recovered, Galbraith is a deficit owl. Owls certainly don’t think we need to balance the budget soon. Indeed, they don’t concede we need to balance it at all. Owls see government spending that leads to deficits as integral to economic growth, even in good times.”

This is OK for a start but it leaves the impression that Deficit Owls think we ought to run deficits all the time if we want the economy to grow, and that’s a distortion of their position. So, let’s try this.

Deficit owls, believe that there is no structural deficit, and that most of the present US deficit will go away when full employment is reached, but probably not all of it, unless the private savings levels in the economy are balanced by an equal or greater foreign sector deficit (trade surplus). They also believe that in times of unused productive capacity like these, Government deficits are caused by the state of the economic system, and that explicitly managing them by taxing more or spending less will not improve its condition, but only result in a downward economic spiral making conditions still worse.

On the other hand, if real economic problems like unemployment, alternative energy capacity and production, infrastructure renewal, education, and industrial innovations are addressed through Government deficit spending, then aggregate demand spurring private sector business activity and ending U6 unemployment will result. In addition, deficit owls believe that in a fiat money system, where there is no debt in foreign currencies, and no “peg” to such currencies, solvency is never a problem for the Government, and that while inflation partly caused by Government deficit spending can become a problem in such a system, this can only happen when full employment is achieved.

Dylan goes on:

“Modern Monetary Theory” was coined by Bill Mitchell, an Australian economist and prominent proponent, but its roots are much older. . . . “

I think this is just an error. It’s a small thing, but it’s important to stop the propagation of myths. Stephanie Kelton, an important thinker in the core MMT group, who is thoroughly familiar with Bill’s work, says that the MMT name was given to the approach by others and then was adopted by MMT economists, including Bill.

“This claim, that money is a “creature of the state,” is central to the theory. In a “fiat money” system like the one in place in the United States, all money is ultimately created by the government, which prints it and puts it into circulation. Consequently, the thinking goes, the government can never run out of money. It can always make more.”

Not quite what MMT says. Yes, a fiat currency is necessary, but also necessary for currency sovereignty is to have a non-convertible currency, a floating exchange rate, and no debt in a currency not your own. These qualifications are very important because examples (e.g. Weimar, Zimbabwe) that are often given contradicting the claim that there’s no solvency problem for Governments like the US don’t fulfill these conditions.

“This doesn’t mean that taxes are unnecessary. Taxes, in fact, are key to making the whole system work. The need to pay taxes compels people to use the currency printed by the government. Taxes are also sometimes necessary to prevent the economy from overheating. If consumer demand outpaces the supply of available goods, prices will jump, resulting in inflation (where prices rise even as buying power falls). In this case, taxes can tamp down spending and keep prices low.

But if the theory is correct, there is no reason the amount of money the government takes in needs to match up with the amount it spends. Indeed, its followers call for massive tax cuts and deficit spending during recessions.”

This is pretty good. But it doesn’t include one more thing that taxes may be good for, and that’s economic leveling. Inequality in the United States is greater than in most other modern OECD nations. Specific types of taxes are one instrument that can be used to create greater equality.

MMT writers don’t normally advocate taxation for this purpose. But the truth is that we have an inequality problem and it is contributing to undermining our democracy. So a Government fiscal policy incorporating much heavier taxes on very wealthy people may well contribute to the public purpose which is, after all the overall goal of MMT fiscal policy.

(Cross-posted from Correntewire.com