MMT

HSCB – A rebel bank with a cause

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 14/04/2018 - 3:35pm in

Artists and film-makers Hilary Powell and Dan Edelstyn took over a co-op bank to enact community driven debt relief, by the people for the people, in a bid to educate the public about how money and credit are actually created. And instead of putting the Queen on their money, they are making heroes out of the Garys, Sarahs, Tracys and Steves who are fighting for economic justice amid the fallout of the current system we are forced to live under.

The post HSCB – A rebel bank with a cause appeared first on Renegade Inc.

MMT Versus "Structural Keynesianism"?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/04/2018 - 1:08am in

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MMT

Professor Thomas Palley has once again launched a critique of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) in "Modern Money Theory (MMT) vs. Structural Keynesianism." One could argue that there are some useful nuggets in his argument, but they are arguably behind the times. His critique is of how he perceives MMT -- which has only a limited relationship to MMT as it exists now.

I probably should have ignored his article, but too many people have discussed it, and so I do not want to leave the impression that his arguments actually represent weak points of MMT.

Old School Academic IssuesOn the pure academic side, he summarises his views as:

I like to say that MMT is a mix of “old” and “new” ideas. The old ideas are well known among Keynesian economists and are correct, but the new ideas are either misleading or wrong.

I will put aside the "correctness" issue, and focus instead on the originality. If you are an academic that is discussing the history of economic thought, or worrying about the proper citation chain for ideas, originality is a big deal. Back when I was an academic, I treated the importance of originality seriously; I was pretty much the equivalent of a grumpy old man screaming at punks to get off the lawn. I do not have access to an economics research library, and so I am not the person to make judgements on originality in economics research.

That said, I have read the MMT scholarly papers, and I saw no particularly reason to be concerned about the originality of the ideas. The papers made the lineage of MMT abundantly clear. The figure below is my informal summary of the origins of MMT.

I have negligible interest in the history of economic thought, so I am not particularly concerned about any details in the above that might horrify pedants. The point is that it is clear that MMT is at the end of long line of development. If a non-economist can put together this family tree from reading the MMT literature, there is no excuse for an academic to cast aspersions about the originality of MMT.

In any event, this is moot. Modern Monetary Theory is no longer just the writings of a handful of academics, it now comprises a very large research programme. For example, I gave a presentation at the first MMT conference at Kansas City last year, and so that work is arguably part of the wider MMT research programme. His textual analysis of a few decades-old papers is no longer an adequate read of this wider body of theory.
Government Finance -- Not Just PolemicsPalley asserts:

The size of government deficits and how they are financed matters. Deficits involve issuing financial liabilities, and different financing policies involve issuing different mixes of liabilities. The extent and mix of liability issue can have consequences.

These are content-free statements that have no empirical support whatsoever.

He then adds:

They have the ability to borrow from future generations; they can issue money; and they can create a demand for their money by imposing taxes. But that does not mean they are free from market constraints and market competition, and they also confront difficult political constraints. That limits what governments can do.

What are these constraints? Given the huge variety of political forms seen over the centuries, in what sense are "political constraints" binding on economic policy?

Palley's major point about fiscal policy is this:

MMT is best understood as political polemic, aimed at beating back the budget deficit hawks. It does not add to economic theory, so talking of policy being made according to MMT does not make sense.

No, it's not just polemic. Thinking clearly about what the true constraints on fiscal policy -- real resource limitations, and inflation -- eliminates writing content free slogans about fiscal policy. Such as invoking mysterious "constraints" on fiscal policy that cannot be quantified, nor offer any guidance as to what happens when the alleged constraint is violated. One can debate the MMT language, but the complete inability of conventional economists to quantify the consequences of fiscal constraints is obvious when one presses the matter.Misunderstanding of the Job GuaranteePalley asserts:

Fourth, MMT says government can spend its way to full employment by printing money and, when the economy hits full employment, government can just raise taxes and drain the money back out. That is a naïve view. First, the economy is made up of lots and lots of sub-economies so that some reach full employment long before others. That is why inflation starts to appear before full employment.

Palley is thinking like an Old Keynesian, and completely ignores the structure of the Job Guarantee. Non-targeted fiscal stimulus -- infrastructure and military Keynesianism -- does exactly what Palley describes. A Job Guarantee is going to create jobs only where there is already unemployment, and so all sub-economies would hit "full employment" at exactly the same time.

One can debate the effects of the Job Guarantee. But any analysis has to start off with the obvious point that is not structured like Old Keynesian policies.
Interest Rate PolicyPalley gives the conventional line on interest rate policy.

Second, MMT economists tend to say the central bank should park the interest rate at zero and forget about it. I think that is crazy. It is throwing away an important economic policy tool, and it would likely promote dangerous asset price inflation and financial instability which would come back to haunt us.

Sure, interest rates would be lost as a policy tool. But is it really important? Palley just assumes that it is, with providing any good evidence for that claim.

If we look at the post-1990 period, one can have a field day ridiculing consensus forecasts of "hockey stick" recoveries that have never materialised. Conventional economists of all stripes have been horribly and repeatedly wrong about growth.

One may note that the defining characteristic of the consensus is that they all agreed that interest rates for almost entire post-1990 period were "unsustainably low." This presumably led to their repeated wrong forecasts.

There is not a whole lot of empirical evidence to suggest that anyone understands the effect of interest rate policy, which then leads to the obvious question: why is it an "important" policy tool?
Emerging Market CanardAs is typical, he pretends that MMT economists have not discussed emerging markets.

Third, MMT economists say all a country needs is a floating exchange rate, and then it can use money financed budget deficits that push the economy to full employment. I think that is nonsense. Just ask an economist from Mexico or Brazil. Exchange rates matter a lot for economies, and the effects of exchange rates and exchange rate volatility ramify widely, often with very disruptive consequences.
The failure of MMT to provide good guidance for countries like Mexico is important. Economics should provide theory that holds up widely. MMT does not, which is a warning sign something is wrong.

I write about developed country bond market economics, so I am not the person to ask about emerging markets. However, there is a MMT literature on emerging markets.

Sure, everyone wants to pretend that all countries are equal. However, no serious commentator believes that Mexico has the same policy space as Canada. Mexican policy makers need to worry about corn prices on household welfare; Canadian policymakers have not had to worry about the effect of food prices on the household sector for an extremely long time.

The developed countries have largely ignored their currencies for decades; working from memory, the last coordinated forex intervention was when the euro was being trashed after its inception. Otherwise, Japan is the only country that kept the tradition of unilateral forex intervention alive. The argument that "exchange rates matter" in the context of the developed country has not been paying attention to the past few decades (modulo the euro peg system).

(Note: As some might guess, this section got some pushback from certain quarters. To be clear, I am just stating that the MMT research on emerging markets exists. Whether that research could be improved is a question that is outside my area of interest. If there are room for improvements, well that just leaves openings for research at upcoming MMT conferences.) 
Quantitative Regulation?Palley inadvertently provides an example of the advantages of the MMT focus on operations. He cited his paper on "quantitative regulation." He argues that all financial intermediaries should be forced to hold reserves against assets. To describe it as sketchy is an understatement.

  • I have a self-directed Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) which holds financial assets. Legally, it is a stand-alone trust, and it is unclear what separates it from any other financial entity organised as a trust (and that is a lot of them). If we took his suggestion literally, every single retirement account would have to be given direct access to the payments system so that they can post reserves at the central bank. Furthermore, central bank personnel will have to monitor every single retirement account to determine the reserve requirements, which are to be set dynamically based on the asset classification. We then need to multiply this for every single firm that holds financial assets -- which is most of them.
  • If we accept that going that far would be categorically insane, we realise that we need a specific legal criterion to differentiate "financial firms" subject to reserve requirements, and those that are not. Needless to say, his proposal completely misses that discussion (rendering the paper effectively useless as a policy piece). Then we need to explain why firms will not use the principles of English Common Law to have practically every financial intermediary fall under the list of exceptions. Starting in the 1950s, Hyman Minsky was documenting how that process worked.
  • Citing banks and insurance firms does not help his case. They voluntarily submit to regulation to enter lines of business from which they would otherwise be barred. Otherwise, all firms more sophisticated than a lemonade stand have financial subsidiaries, and would end up ensnared in Palley's regulatory net.
  • Even if the regulations stick, they would be largely pointless in regulating activity. Let's say the government forces you to stick 10% of your equity portfolio in non-interest bearing "reserves." What would equity investors do? Borrow 10% against their equities to restore their desired risk exposure. A reform that pushes investors to leverage their portfolios is not going to help financial stability.
  • The proposal seems to somewhat unaware of the existence of financial derivatives -- which typically have a book value of zero, and can be netted out to a zero market value with variation margin. Canada used to have "Canadian content" rules on pension funds (including RRSP's); they were made a mockery of by total return swaps.
  • For all his alleged concern about the foreign sector, he ignores that this proposal would be equivalent to telling everyone in the country to pack up their financial activity and domicile it offshore. All the risky assets would be held externally (beyond reserve requirements), and people will get the risk exposure with (near $0 market value) total return swaps. No country would want to shut down its non-bank financial sector, leaving the financial intermediation to be handled at the behest of foreigners.
  • Since there is no way that every financial entity can bank with the central bank, they will be forced to work with banks as intermediaries. That service will come at a price. Furthermore, extremely few financial firms operate in the repo market or interbank market, nor do they have discount window access -- which means there is no direct way for central bank operations to provide "reserves" for these non-bank firms. You have imposed reserve requirements on firms without having a mechanism to provide those firms with reserves.

The MMT research community is in touch with legal scholars, as well as financial market practitioners. A proposal this far from operational reality would not get very far without being heavily corrected.

(c) Brian Romanchuk 2018

Modern Money Theory (MMT) vs. Structural Keynesianism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 09/04/2018 - 11:47pm in

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By Thomas Palley

A journalist sent me some questions about MMT. My answers are below.

1. What are the major flaws you see within Modern Monetary Theory?

(A.) I like to say that MMT is a mix of “old” and “new” ideas. The old ideas are well known among Keynesian economists and are correct, but the new ideas are either misleading or wrong.

The essential old idea, which everybody knows, is government has the power to issue money. We used to talk of “printing” money. In today’s electronic world we talk about “keystroke” money created by electronic credit entries.

Everyone knows that because government has the capacity to create money, it can always pay its bills and debts by printing money. But having the capacity is not the same thing as saying it should, which is the beginning of where MMT goes astray.

In economic debate and economic journalism there is a “demand for difference”. On one side you have extreme budget hawks who see every deficit as a dire existential threat. MMT is the counterpart to the hawks. And here’s the rub. MMT is needed as an anti-dote to austerity hawks, but neither make for good economic theory.

That creates a dilemma for progressive economists. On one hand, there is need for a powerful progressive polemic to counter neoliberal austerity polemic. The basic MMT message that government has a lot more fiscal space than mainstream economists say, is correct. On the other hand, MMT’s theoretical arguments are not novel, and are sometimes incorrect.

My past criticism has focused on MMT as economic theory (here and here for more academic references).

B) I have found it is difficult arguing with MMT economists because they tend to change their positions. But here are some objections I have made in the past.

Read rest here.

Which Keynesianism?

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 27/11/2017 - 11:41am in

I posted this enormous torrent of blather on Blackboard the other day. It's mostly a restatement of stuff I've said before, but I'll repost it here for the purposes of copying and pasting in the likely case I have to restate it yet again elsewhere.


Because I've been studying economics for the last few years, rather than sticking to the curriculum and dutifully cultivating my employability, I feel obliged to chip in with a cautionary note: Almost all of the academic economists, and their policy prescriptions, which are characterised as Keynesian have nothing to do with the work of Keynes.

The post-war economic order established at Bretton Woods is conventionally understood as being Keynesian, but in fact Keynes was railroaded by the US representative Harry Dexter White, who insisted upon the system of fixed exchange rates pegged to the US dollar, with global dependency on holding US dollar reserves being greatly to America's benefit; the US gained the benefit of cheap foreign imports sold to acquire those reserves. Neither was Keynes responsible for the "Bretton Woods institutions", the World Bank and the IMF. His plan for regulating and settling international financial flows was considerably more humane than the usurious loans and standover tactics these institutions became notorious for.

Even "progressive" and "liberal" economists like Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz are members of the school of "New Keynesianism", a product of what Paul Samuelson called the "Neoclassical Synthesis"; taking some of the superficial trappings of Keynes' work and melding it with the earlier "neoclassical" school of economics, which Keynes actually intended to entirely overturn. Neoclassical models of the economy ignore the role of money and banking, believing that all economic transactions are ultimately barter transactions, and that money is therefore said to be "neutral", and banking is just redistribution of loanable funds, ultimately of no macroeconomic effect. Keynes wrote of this "Real-Exchange economics" (in an article unfortunately unavailable via SCU):

Now the conditions required for the "neutrality" of money, in the sense in which it is assumed in […] Marshall's Principles of Economics, are, I suspect, precisely the same as those which will insure that crises do not occur. If this is true, the Real-Exchange Economics, on which most of us have been brought up and with the conclusions of which our minds are deeply impregnated, […] is a singularly blunt weapon for dealing with the problem of Booms and Depressions. For it has assumed away the very matter under investigation.

This is the answer to Queen Elizabeth's question on how economists failed to see the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) coming; if the financial sector is macroeconomically neutral, as the neoclassicals claim, there cannot be any financial crises. However, outside the neoclassical tradition, the normal functioning of the economy, and the pathologies leading to crises, are well understood:

  • The Chartalists determined that all money is credit, ultimately issued by the state. Michael Hudson recently did some exhaustive historical work on this, which David Graeber popularised in his book Debt: the First 500 Years.
  • Wynne Godley showed how currency-issuing states must spend more than they tax if the private sector is to have the money necessary to spend and save.
  • Irving Fisher identified the role of debt deflation in turning a rush to liquidate debt into an ongoing crisis where outstanding debts become impossible to repay.
  • Hyman Minsky's financial instability hypothesis extended Fisher's work to describe how financial crises arise from the normal workings of a capitalist economy.
  • Keynes implicitly regarded the money economy as a tool for allocating real resources in pursuit of public policy objectives, a principle explicitly formulated by Abba Lerner as "functional finance". This is in opposition to the neoclassical intuition that a household is like an individual, a firm is like a household, and a government is like a firm; therefore a government must follow the principles of "sound finance" and "live within its means".
  • All of the above are incorporated in the teachings of "Post-Keynesian" economics, which Keynes' biographer Robert Skidelsky considers closest to Keynes' own thinking. The sub-field of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) synthesises all of these into a single coherent framework for analysing the economies of countries which issue their own currency.

By the end of World War II, functional finance was so well established as to be almost universally understood to be common sense. The 1945 White Paper on Full Employment in Australia, prepared for John Curtin by H. C. "Nugget" Coombs, and based on the principles in Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, declared:

It is true that war-time full employment has been accompanied by efforts and sacrifices and a curtailment of individual liberties which only the supreme emergency of war could justify; but it has shown up the wastes of unemployment in pre-war years, and it has taught us valuable lessons which we can apply to the problems of peace-time, when full employment must be achieved in ways consistent with a free society.

In peace-time the responsibility of Commonwealth and State Governments is to provide the general framework of a full employment economy, within which the operations of individuals and businesses can be carried on.

Improved nutrition, rural amenities and social services, more houses, factories and other capital equipment and higher standards of living generally are objectives on which we can all agree. Governments can promote the achievement of these objectives to the limit set by available resources.

(Emphasis mine.) As expressed by MMT, currency-issuing governments are not fiscally constrained. The only limits on public policy are real resource limits. During the last UK election campaign, Theresa May was vehemently insisting "there is no magic money tree". But in fact there is: it's called the Bank of England (we have the Reserve Bank of Australia), and Her Majesty's Treasury has an unlimited line of credit there. Whenever the government wants to spend, the Bank of England just credits the accounts of commercial banks. I was delighted when while campaigning May was confronted by a furious protester wanting to know "Where's the magic doctor tree? Where's the magic teacher tree?" The policy limits we should be worried about are real resources (including people), not money.

Nevertheless, mainstream economists and politicians believe, in some vague way, that (as Stephanie Kelton puts it) "money grows on rich people". So it's not surprising to read already on the discussion boards here that Keynesianism is all very desirable, but how will the federal government pay for it? This is a meaningless question. The government will pay for it like it pays for anything: by spending the money into existence. That's where all money comes from, net of private sector credit creation. Logically, it can't come from anywhere else. If the government were to try to achieve fiscal (or, conflating governments and firms again, "budget") surpluses over the long term by taxing more than they spend, as neoclassicals, including New Keynesians, recommend, they would merely be draining savings from the private sector for no good reason. State-issued money is an IOU, a tax credit. When the credit is redeemed it ceases to exist. The government doesn't have to tax in order to spend. It has to spend in order to tax. Think about it: where else would the first dollar ever taxed come from?

Now you might be thinking, hang on: what about the most fiscally responsible government we've ever had (Howard/Costello) and their record run of "budget" surpluses? The economy was going gangbusters! Okay, here's the fiscal balance for that period:

As with every currency-issuing sovereign state in history, deficits are the rule, not the exception. Here's what happened to private sector debt over the same period:

(Data from the Bank of International Settlements and OECD.) As soon as the government started taxing more than it spent, private sector debt took off, and subsequent fiscal deficits were insufficient to reverse the damage. Notably, at the same time household debt overtook corporate debt, as credit was used to sustain consumer demand, not to mention standards of living, rather than for investment in productive capacity. Australia "Nimbled it, and moved on", and to hell with the consequences.

Australia recently passed two milestones of note: total private sector debt (the blue line above) exceeded 200% of GDP — at roughly the level that Japan's private debt was at in the early 90s when its real estate bubble burst — and bank equity in residential real estate passed 50%. That's 50% of the total residential real estate stock, not just houses built in the last x years. Minsky describes the path to financial collapse as progressing through the stages of "hedge finance", then "speculative finance", and finally "Ponzi finance". When you see phenomena like interest-only mortgages — where the principal is never repaid, on the assumption that housing prices only ever go up, and the debt will be settled whenever you sell the property, presumably pocketing a tidy and lightly-taxed capital gain at the same time — you know which stage you're in.

So why does nobody in mainstream politics or economics know anything about this? To put it succinctly, because neoliberalism. On the left, the "balancing the books" rhetoric serves a useful purpose: it gives you a disingenuous pretext to do what you want to do anyway that is compatible with the dominant paradigm. As Randy Wray said at a recent MMT conference:

"[Progressives] link the good policies they want to 'we'll tax the rich to pay for it'. So when you point out we don't need to tax the rich to pay for it, they're just crestfallen because they want to tax the rich. So I say 'Of course we should tax the rich. Why? They're too rich.' You don't need any other argument than that."

Taxes drive demand for the currency. If you know you have to pay taxes, you will work to get the money to pay for it. It's a coercive way for the government to mobilise labour to achieve its policy objectives, but assuming policy is arrived at democratically, it's relatively fair and vastly preferable to the autocratic alternative of having a gun put to your head. Taxes are also a fiscal instrument that can be used to discourage certain kinds of behaviour, and harmful social phenomena (like income inequality).

In the neoliberal era, that's why Australia has a retrospective tax on education called HECS-HELP, which in turn is why SCU has no school of history, or philosophy, or in fact any of the traditional academic disciplines. Students know that their education will be retrospectively taxed, so they can't afford to choose disciplines unlikely to offset that tax with increased earnings. There are twice as many universities as there were in 1988, but the new ones are glorified vocational colleges with next to no permanent academic staff. Australian post-Keynesian economist Steve Keen, who correctly predicted — and more importantly, explained — the GFC, subsequently lost his job at the University of Western Sydney when they closed down their economics department. Who needs academic economics when you have business studies courses, after all? He ended up at Kingston University in London, another young neoliberal institution, where last year he was given an ultimatum to spend more hours teaching or take a significant pay cut. He's ended up having to put his hat out for donations from the public in order to continue his work as a public intellectual.

Why would public policy function like this? Why would policy makers want a population uneducated about how the world actually works, and instead merely trained in how to work in it? Why is the conventional wisdom so full of assertions that are demonstrably untrue, and profoundly damaging to society? Paul Samuelson, author of the macroeconomics textbook that gave generations of undergraduates a completely misleading interpretation of Keynes' work explained this in an interview:

I think there is an element of truth in the view that the superstition that the budget must be balanced at all times [is necessary]. Once it is debunked [that] takes away one of the bulwarks that every society must have against expenditure out of control. There must be discipline in the allocation of resources or you will have anarchistic chaos and inefficiency. And one of the functions of old fashioned religion was to scare people by sometimes what might be regarded as myths into behaving in a way that the long-run civilized life requires. We have taken away a belief in the intrinsic necessity of balancing the budget if not in every year, [then] in every short period of time. If Prime Minister Gladstone came back to life he would say "uh, oh what you have done" and James Buchanan argues in those terms. I have to say that I see merit in that view.

So basically, belief in myths must be maintained among the general population wherever doing so provides support for the elite political preference for small government, i.e. for control over the economy to be exercised by private finance rather than public fiscal policy. This is what neoliberalism fundamentally is, an Orwellian fiction imposed on a deliberately dumbed-down populous, with access to the truth as much the reserve of a select educated elite as ever. "Long-run civilised life" has been restored, thanks to neoliberalism's making of the 21st century by its un-making of the 20th.

I could go on forever (evidently) but others explain all this better than I:

If you have read this far, I admire your tenacity.

'Straya: Basically, she's rooted mate

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 06/07/2017 - 10:58am in

Charts! Nobody asked for them, but I have them anyway! Over the last few years the Bank for International Settlements have been publishing a fab set of statistics that are not usually brought to bear in the tea leaf reading of mainstream economists. This is a shame, as they are exactly the sort of statistics which would indicate the risk of imminent financial crisis. Last month the BIS updated the data to the end of (calendar year) 2016. Here's an illustration (courtesy of LibreOffice) of where Australia is, relative to some comparable and/or interesting countries (click to embiggen):

As the BIS explains, the Debt Service Ratio (DSR):

"reflects the share of income used to service debt and has been found to provide important information about financial-real interactions. For one, the DSR is a reliable early warning indicator for systemic banking crises. Furthermore, a high DSR has a strong negative impact on consumption and investment."

So as a measure of Australia's ability to pay at least the interest on our private sector debts, if not pay down the principal, you might think this is not a bad result. We clearly substantially delevered after the GFC, thanks in large part to the Rudd stimulus pouring public money into the private sector, then levered up a bit since, but we've ended up between Canada and Sweden, which is a pretty congenial neighbourhood. But this is total private sector debt; what happens when we take business out of the equation and just look at households (and non-profit institutions serving households - NPISHs)?

Woah! Suddenly we're in a league of our own. Canada's flatlined here since the GFC, meaning the subsequent increase in their total private debt burden has largely come from investment in business capital. In such a case, provided this investment is directed at increasing productive capacity, and is accompanied by public sector spending to proportionally increase demand, this is sustainable debt. Australia has been doing the opposite.

Here's another way of looking at the coming Australian debt crisis, private sector credit to GDP:

This ratio will rise whether the level of debt rises, GDP falls, or both, so it's another good indicator of unsustainable debt levels. The current total level (in blue) of over 200% is at about the ratio Japan was at when its real estate bubble burst in the early 1990s. Breaking this down again into household and corporate sectors, we see that over the mid-1990s Australia switched the majority of its private sector borrowing from business investment to sustaining households. What happened in the mid-90s? Data here from the OECD:

 

From the mid-1990s to 2007 Australia experienced the celebrated run of Howard/Costello government fiscal (or "budget") surpluses. We all know, or should know, thanks to Godley's sectoral balances framework, what happens when the public sector runs a surplus: the private sector must run a corresponding deficit, equal to the last penny. There is nowhere else, net of private sector bank credit creation (which zeroes out because every financial asset created in the private sector has a corresponding private sector liability), for money to come from. When the government taxes more than it spends, it is withdrawing money from the private sector. Mainstream economics calls this "sustainable", and "sound finance", meaning of course it is nothing of the sort.

How did the private sector, and the household sector in particular, continue to spend from that point onward, behaving as though losing money (not to mention public infrastructure and services) down the fiscal plughole was not merely benign but quite wonderful? It chose to Nimble it and move on, going on a massive credit binge. The banks were happy to provide all the credit demanded, because the bulk of the lending was ulitimately secured by residential real estate prices, and these were clearly going to keep rising without limit (thank heavens, because if they were to fall like they did in the US in 2007…).

The Global Financial Crisis put a dent in the demand for credit, but as subsequent government fiscal policy has tightened, under the rubric of "budget repair", it is rising again. We are already in a state of debt deflation: Australia's household debt service ratio (as above), at between 15 and 20 percent of household income for over a decade, has dampened domestic demand, leading to rising unemployment and underemployment, leading to more easy credit as a quick fix for income shortfalls ("debtfare"). More of what income remains is redirected to debt servicing rather than consumption, and so we spiral downwards, our incomes purchasing less and less with each turn. [I will post more about some of the social and microeconomic consequences in (over-)due course.]

The Australian government needs to spend much, much more - and quickly. Modern Monetary Theory, drawing on an understanding of the nature of money that goes back a century, shows us that government spending (contrary to conventional wisdom) is not revenue-constrained; a currency-issuing government can always buy anything available for sale in the currency it issues. There is nothing about our collective "budget" that needs repairing before we can do so. The same data from the OECD shows that most currency-issuing governments with advanced industrial economies run fiscal deficits almost all the time:

In fact, under all but exceptional conditions, government fiscal surpluses (i.e. private sector fiscal deficits) are a recipe for recession or depression. The greater the surplus, the greater the subsequent government spending required to lift the private sector out of crisis, as can be seen above in the wild swings in neoliberal governments' fiscal position from the mid-90s on. The fiscal balance over any given period is nothing more than a measurement of the flow of public investment into the private sector. What guarantees meaningful sustainability is a government's effective use of functional finance to manage the real (as opposed to financial) economy in pursuit of public policy objectives. Refusing to mobilise idle resources (including, crucially, labour) for needed public goods and services is not "sound finance"; it is the very definition of economic mismanagement, as was once widely recognised:

"It is true that war-time full employment has been accompanied by efforts and sacrifices and a curtailment of individual liberties which only the supreme emergency of war could justify; but it has shown up the wastes of unemployment in pre-war years, and it has taught us valuable lessons which we can apply to the problems of peace-time, when full employment must be achieved in ways consistent with a free society.

"In peace-time the responsibility of Commonwealth and State Governments is to provide the general framework of a full employment economy, within which the operations of individuals and businesses can be carried on.

"Improved nutrition, rural amenities and social services, more houses, factories and other capital equipment and higher standards of living generally are objectives on which we can all agree. Governments can promote the achievement of these objectives to the limit set by available resources.

"The policy outlined in this paper is that governments should accept the responsibility for stimulating spending on goods and services to the extent necessary to sustain full employment. To prevent the waste of resources which results from [un]employment is the first and greatest step to higher living standards."

Australian Government, 1945, White Paper on Full Employment

We chose to forget all this from the 1980s onward. We can choose to remember it at any time.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017 - 5:22pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 15/02/2017 - 5:34pm in

I'm ranting altogether too much over local "journalism", and this comment introduces nothing new to what I've posted many times before, but since the Advocate won't publish it:

Again I have to wonder why drivel produced by the seething hive mind of News Corp is being syndicated by my local newspaper. This opinion comes from somebody who appears to be innumerate (eight taxpayers out of ten doesn't necessarily - or even very likely - equal eight dollars out of every ten) economically illiterate, and empirically wrong.

Tax dollars do not fund welfare, or any other function of the federal government. Currency issuing governments create money when they spend and destroy money when they tax. "Will there be enough money?" is a nonsensical question when applied to the federal government. As Warren Mosler puts it, the government neither has nor does not have money. If you work for a living, it is in your interest that the government provides money for those who otherwise wouldn't have any, because they spend it - and quickly. Income support for the unemployed becomes income for the employed pretty much instantly. Cutting back on welfare payments means cutting back on business revenues.

And the claim that the "problem" of welfare is increasing in scale is just wrong. Last year's Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) report shows dependence on welfare payments by people of working age declining pretty consistently since the turn of the century. This opinion piece is pure class war propaganda. None of us can conceivably benefit in any way from pushing people into destitution in the moralistic belief that they must somehow deserve it.

The Joy of Economic Irresponsibility: or how I learned to stop worrying and love the public debt

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 19/05/2016 - 2:50pm in

If there's one thing I've learned in the last year that I think is so important it's worth shouting from the rooftops, it's that simultaneously studying economics and the psychology of stress while also being personally stressed about money is a very, very bad idea.

If there are two important things I've learned in the last year, I'd say that the more generally applicable one to the citizen in the street is that a government which issues it's own money can never run out of it.

Such a government can of course pretend, or at least behave like, it can run out of money. In fact, many have done so for the last thirty years or so, and the results have been disastrous. You don't have to take my word for it. Here are some graphs, mostly from the RBA Chart Pack, except where otherwise indicated. Here's the Australian government fiscal balance, misleadingly labelled "budget balance" as per the conventional misunderstanding of reality.

Things took a dip from 2007/8, but deficits are improving, and we were in surplus for most of the preceeding decade. And that's good, isn't it? Surpluses mean we have more money, don't they?

Generally, yes. A "budget surplus" for a business or household means more money at hand to spend later. However, for an economy with a sovereign-currency-issuing government, public fiscal surpluses mean we have less money.

How is this possible? To understand this, you have to understand that accountancy—specifically double-entry bookkeeping and balance sheets—is the foundation of economics; at least economics of a realistic kind. All money is credit money. You make money—literally—by being in debt to somebody, and by denominating this debt in the country's transferrable unit of account. Spending is the simultaneous creation of a debt on the buyer's side of the ledger, and a corresponding credit on the seller's side. However, if you happen to hold enough credits that have already been generated as the flipside of a debt in your favour, you can use these credits to immediately cancel the debt of the current transaction. One way most of us do this on a daily basis is by using cash. Cash is a transferrable token of public sector debt and private sector credit.

Three percent of the immediately-spendable money in the private sector is in the form of cash. The other 97% is just numbers stored on computers in the commercial banking sector. Most of this is money that originated as commercial bank loans, and will disappear from the bank's balance sheets as those loans are repaid (though of course in the meantime more loans will have been made). However, a significant amount of money originates as loans the government makes to itself (technically the central bank lends to the treasury), eventually ending up in the private sector as cash, or (through a mindbending process I will mercifully omit from this account) as commercial bank deposits. A currency-issuing government can always lend more money to itself in order to spend, and never has to pay it back. It follows that such a government does not need to tax in order to spend, and only ever taxes for other reasons. Economics textbooks, and economic commentators, routinely get this utterly and comprehensively wrong. Consider this textbook description of economic "automatic stabilisers":

"During recessions, tax revenues fall and welfare payments increase thereby creating a budget deficit. In times of economic boom, tax revenues rise and welfare payments fall creating a budget surplus."

Budget deficits are not an eventual consequence of government spending; the spending and the creation of a debt are the same operation. Tax revenues merely redeem a part of the already-accrued debt; the money issued by public spending  is a public IOU that effectively disappears when private parties use it settle their tax debt owed to the public. Tax revenues therefore cannot be used to fund public spending; in order to spend, new public debt must be issued. The automatic stabilisers are real (assuming a somewhat sensible tax system), but the important part of their function is on the private side: injecting new money to stimulate demand when needed, or putting the brakes on dangerous speculative activity in a boom. The government's fiscal position from one year to the next is an inconsequential side-effect.

Taxation is the elimination of money, and hence of the demand for goods, services, and assets that drives the private sector economy. Don't believe me? Lets take a wider focus on the fiscal balance numbers above:


[Source]

Generally, and especially prior to the neoliberal period, public fiscal surpluses are the exception, not the rule. And for a good reason; it's generally not a good idea to drain demand out of the economy. So what happens when you toss good sense aside, and insist on surpluses for their own sake? Here's what happened to public sector debt:

I'm presuming (the ABS Chart Pack doesn't specify) that this is debt owed to private sector banks in the form of loans and government securities. I should stress that, as with taxation, these operations are not required to finance spending, and are only ever done for other reasons (such as hitting interest rate targets). Also, because they don't issue currency themselves (though this is possible, and has worked elsewhere), lower levels of government do have to rely in part on revenue-raising to fund spending, though grants from the federal government also play a big part in determining their fiscal position.

Still—phew!—we got that scary public sector debt under control until the GFC, and we can do it again! But hang on, if that's taking money out of the private sector, where does the private sector get the money to sustain demand? Here's the private sector debt over the same period:

Note that this is one and a half times GDP, compared to the one third of GDP outstanding to the public sector, at the height of its alleged fiscal irresponsibility. When government self-imposes limits on its ability to spend, private sector credit creation takes up the slack. Who do you want controlling how much money is created, who gets it, and what it gets spent on? A mix of the commercial finance sector and a (somewhat) democratically-accountable government? Or just the bankers?

Most of private-sector money creation is commercial bank loans, and as economist Michael Hudson notes, in the US, UK, and Australia, 70 percent of bank loans are mortgages. That's a hell of a lot of money (what's 70 percent of one and a half times GDP?) dependant for its existence on the soundness of pricing for a single class of asset. If real estate prices suddenly crash, and mortgagees start to default on their loans, poof! The corresponding credits on the other side of the ledger are gone too, and the real estate sector takes the whole economy down with it. You can't argue with balance sheets.

Still, I expect we'll be fine as long as we stay the fiscal responsibility course, and don't let the government "spend more than it earns". Real estate prices only ever go up, don't they? And it's not like bankers would ever be led by their own short-term interests to make a huge amount of risky loans and inflate an enormous real estate price bubble…

Thursday, 11 February 2016 - 1:39pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 11/02/2016 - 1:39pm in

I'm reluctant to contribute to the Piketty backlash, as it seems to me to be mostly motivated by the unrealistic expectation that his book should have provided a comprehensive theory of everything. However this blog post from Alexander Douglas provides such a pithy account of the workings of public fiscal balances that it's worth recirculating. In response to the claim that "there are two main ways for a government to finance its expenses: taxes and debt," he writes:

Government spending isn’t financed by anything. The government pays for everything by crediting the non-government sector (employees, companies, foreign governments, etc.) with financial claims. Some of these claims are returned to the government in order to settle liabilities to the government (for instance in tax payments); others remain as financial holdings for the non-government sector. At any given moment the claims remaining as financial holdings constitute the whole of the ‘public debt’.

Tax revenue largely depends on the volume of spending. Decisions to spend rather than save are largely at the discretion of non-government agents. It is therefore very misleading to speak, as Piketty does, as if the government chooses to ‘finance its spending’ through taxation or debt. The amount of government spending that remains as ‘debt’ is largely up to the discretion of non-government agents choosing whether to hold onto financial claims or pass them on so that they can eventually find their way back to the government.

It therefore makes no sense to panic about government "budget" deficits, if you're not also going to bemoan private savings. Ironically, as it happens, private savings currently is a big problem, as corporations hand out mattress stuffing — in the form of dividends and share buybacks — rather than investing. Yet more ironically, the appropriate response is for the government to make up the investment shortfall through large fiscal deficits. Otherwise the economic stagnation rolls on until (sorry, I can't resist it) r>g.

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