This Time Is Different: Wray on Modern Monetary Theory

Michael Stephens | February 4, 2019

Public interest in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is undergoing a new growth spurt, and progressive politicians are playing a key role in the current phase. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez recently referenced the heterodox framework to push back against the assumption that her ambitious policy proposals must, as a matter of financial necessity, be made budget-neutral (an assumption, as Brendan Greeley of the Financial Times pointed out, that is informatively selective:  “When Washington wants something … it appropriates. And so arguments about balancing budgets aren’t actually about constraints. They’re about priorities. Important programs get appropriations, full stop. Unimportant programs need to be paid for with taxes.”)

The growing interest in the MMT view of fiscal constraints does seem to be part of a broader softening of attitudes toward public debt and deficits in our policy discourse. Ken Rogoff, for example, managed to write the following in The Times yesterday:  “To be frank, it has never been remotely obvious to me why the UK should be worrying about reducing its debt–GDP burden, given modest growth, high inequality and the steady (and largely unexpected) decline in global real interest rates.” This time is, indeed, different.

L. Randall Wray recently presented in Berlin at an event marking the release of the German translation of his book Understanding Modern Money. The presentation (in English) may be seen below, including responses by Doris Neuberger and Dirk Ehnts.

Wray begins with a brief history of the development of MMT and his role in that development. He then lays out his version of the central points that constitute MMT (at 27:24).

And for those who have been following the reactions in popular media, in which the conversation has shifted to the dangers of inflation, a segment that begins at 35:05 will be of interest. Here Wray discusses his view, following his reading of Minsky, that the job guarantee is crucial for achieving full employment without generating inflationary pressures or financial instability.



Bad Faith and the US Census

Michael Stephens | January 18, 2019

A federal judge has ruled that the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the next (2020) decennial census is illegal. The administration has already begun the process of appealing the ruling.

One way to understand the broader context behind this proposed change is to see it as part of ongoing attempts to influence the outcome of the democratic process (efforts which include gerrymandering, voter registration purges, and so on). In this case, the addition of the citizenship question would lower response rates (that is, lead to an undercount of the population) in areas with higher proportions of immigrants — documented and undocumented. These lower response rates, in turn, could affect the apportionment of congressional seats — that is, reduce the number of seats representing those areas of the country (the undercount would also reduce the level of federal funding directed to such areas).

And as the one-pager below by Senior Scholar Joel Perlmann makes clear, the ostensible justification for this change — to obtain citizenship data in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act — is weak, when weighed against the aforementioned “side effects.”  As Perlmann points out, there are ways to obtain this data that do not undermine the integrity of the full census count. Unfortunately, the latter is most likely the entire point of this endeavor.


A Citizenship Question on the US Census: What’s New? (pdf)

by Joel Perlmann

By now most readers will know that the Trump administration and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in particular have been pressing for a “reinstatement” of a question on citizenship status to the US census that will be conducted in 2020 (Commerce oversees the Census Bureau). There has been a good deal of pushback. Opponents have cogently argued that asking the question today will encourage immigrants to fear that filling out the census form will endanger their residence in the United States. This reaction is easy to understand for the undocumented, but it also applies to immigrants who have arrived through the legal processes for immigration. Many in this latter group will be unsure of how the question will be used against them and decide that the safer course is to ignore the census. Reduced census counts for immigrants, in turn, will reduce both federal aid to local areas and (especially) the number of congressional seats allocated to states with larger immigrant populations. Alone, this reduced count may not mean too much. But like other shady mechanisms for skewing representation or pruning the numbers of eligible voters, every little bit has an impact.

Still, if the citizenship question was asked in the past, why not reinstate it now? The answer turns on historical insights: the characteristics of immigration and of the census itself have changed radically in the meantime. continue reading…


A Better Way to Think about the “Twin Deficits”

L. Randall Wray | November 13, 2018

(These remarks will be delivered today at the UBS European Conference in London.)

Q: These questions about deficits are usually cast as problems to be solved. You come from a different way of framing the issue, often referred to as MMT, which—at the risk of oversimplifying—says that we worry far too much about debt issuance. Can you help us understand where fears may be misplaced?

Wray: First let me say that I think the twin deficits argument is based on flawed logic.

It runs something like this: the government decides to spend too much, causing a budget deficit that competes with private borrowers, driving interest rates up. That appreciates the currency and causes a trade deficit.

The budget and trade deficits are unsustainable as both the private sector and the government sector rely on the supply of dollars lent by foreigners. At some point the Chinese and others will demand payment and/or sell out of dollars causing US rates to rise and the dollar to crash.

While that’s a simplified summary, I think it captures the main arguments.

Here’s the way I see it:

  1. Overnight rates are set by the central bank; deficits raise them only if the central bank reacts to deficits by raising them.
  2. Budget deficits result in net credits to bank reserves and hence put downward (not upward) pressure on overnight rates that is relieved by bond sales by the Fed and Treasury—or by paying interest on reserves. In other words, there’s no crowding out effect on rates. (Inaction lets rates fall.)
  3. Budget deficits result from the nongovernment sector’s desire to net save government liabilities. So long as the nongovernment sector wants to net save government debt, the deficit is sustainable.
  4. Current account deficits result from the rest of the world’s (ROW’s) desire to net save US dollar assets. So long as the ROW wants to accumulate dollars, the US trade deficit is sustainable. So there is a symmetry to the two deficits, but not the one usually supposed.
  5. The US government does not borrow dollars from China. China’s net exports lead to accumulation of dollar reserves that are exchanged for higher earning Treasuries. If China did not run current account surpluses, she would not accumulate many Treasuries. All the dollars China has came from the US.
  6. If the US did not run current account deficits, the Chinese and other foreigners would not accumulate many Treasuries. This shows that accumulation of Treasuries abroad has more to do with the trade deficit than with Uncle Sam’s borrowing. (Compare the US with Japan—where virtually all the Treasuries are held domestically.)
  7. A sovereign government cannot run out of its own liabilities. All modern governments make and receive payments through their central banks. Government spending takes the form of a credit by the central bank to a private bank’s reserves, and a credit by the receiving bank to the account of the recipient. You cannot run out of balance sheet entries.
  8. Affordability is not the question. The problem with too much government spending is that it diverts too many of the nation’s resources to the public sector—which causes inflation and leaves the private sector with too few resources.
  9. So, no, I don’t worry about sovereign government debt if it is issued in domestic currency—although I do worry about inflation, and about excessive private sector debt as well as non-sovereign government debt.
  10. To conclude: We’ve reversed the twin deficit logic and emphasized quantity adjustments. The twin deficits are the residuals that accommodate the desired net saving of the domestic private sector and the ROW, respectively.
  11. Usually the domestic nongovernment sectors want to accumulate dollars so the only sector left to inject dollars is the US government. This means Uncle Sam runs a deficit because others want to accumulate dollars. The government also accommodates the portfolio desires of the nongovernment by swapping dollar reserves and bonds on demand.
  12. Finally, if the ROW does not want dollars anymore, it can buy goods and services in the US. That will reduce the external deficit, stimulate domestic demand, and thereby reduce the fiscal deficit.


On Modern Monetary Theory and Some Odd Twists and Turns in the Evolution of Macroeconomics

Jörg Bibow | October 16, 2018

Mainstream neoclassical economics is hooked on the idea of individual worker-savers as prime movers in capitalist market economies. As workers, individuals choose how much to work, determining the economy’s output; as savers, they determine how much of that output takes the shape of the economy’s capital investment. With banks as conduits channeling saving flows into investment, firms churn inputs into outputs that match worker-savers’ tastes. In this way, the neoclassical world gets shaped by what rational intertemporal utility-maximizing worker-savers wish it to be.

In its most fanciful version – erected on supposedly sound micro foundations and known as “real business cycle theory” (RBC) – the neoclassical fantasy world of intertemporally optimizing worker-savers is subject to exogenous shocks to tastes and technology. Random technology shocks may be either positive or negative, and as Edward Prescott—acclaimed RBC founding father, together with Fynn Kydland—famously explained, negative technology shocks arise whenever there is a traffic jam on some bridge (see Romer 2016). That’s truly creative: Imagine a couple of dancers receiving the Nobel prize in medicine for wildly hopping around a coconut tree while peeing on a rotten banana and screaming voodoo until they are blue in the face. Unlikely to happen in medicine, you might say, but in economics voodoo routines and hallucinations of this kind can still earn you a pseudo-Nobel prize properly known as “The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.”

There also exists a “New Keynesian” variety of mainstream neoclassical economics that accepts the RBC framework as its core but adds some “frictions” to the modeled worker-saver paradise that hinder continuous and smooth full-employment equilibrium. Both camps share a common modeling technique (or speak the same language) known as “Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium” (DSGE) methodology. The only thing “Keynesian” about the New Keynesian variety is that it provides a rationale for government stabilization policies.

Hardcore (“New Classical”) RBC proponents interpret the Great Depression as a worker-saver mass movement into the world of leisure. By contrast, New Keynesians offer an apology for why market economies might take their time in returning to full employment. Regaining full employment may then be accelerated by government intervention, preferably to be enacted by an independent central bank – with central bank independence being re-interpreted as “rules rather than discretion” in another extraordinarily muddled piece of obscurantism by said RBC-duo Kydland and Prescott (1977) (see Bibow 2001).

Needless to say, and obvious to any serious economist, the worker-saver fantasy world depicted in DSGE models has little in common with capitalism as we know it on this planet. In fact, modern mainstream macroeconomics has completely unlearned the “Keynesian revolution” and essentially turned macroeconomics into an especially shoddy version of microeconomics.

Keynes identified two key flaws in the mainstream neoclassical economics of his time. continue reading…


Modern Money Theory: How I Came to MMT and What I Include in MMT

L. Randall Wray | October 1, 2018

My remarks for the 2018 MMT Conference, September 28-30, NYC.

I was asked to give a short presentation at the MMT conference. What follows is the text version of my remarks, some of which I had to skip over in the interests of time. Many readers might want to skip to the bullet points near the end, which summarize what I include in MMT.


As an undergraduate I studied psychology and social sciences—but no economics, which probably gave me an advantage when I finally did come to economics. I began my economics career in my late twenties, studying mostly Institutionalist and Marxist approaches while working for the local government in Sacramento. However, I did carefully read Keynes’s General Theory at Sacramento State and one of my professors—John Henry—pushed me to go to St. Louis to study with Hyman Minsky, the greatest Post Keynesian economist.

I wrote my dissertation in Bologna under Minsky’s direction, focusing on private banking and the rise of what we called “nonbank banks” and “off-balance-sheet operations” (now called shadow banking). While in Bologna, I met Otto Steiger—who had an alternative to the barter story of money that was based on his theory of property. I found it intriguing because it was consistent with some of Keynes’s Treatise on Money that I was reading at the time. Also, I had found Knapp’s State Theory of Money—cited in both Steiger and Keynes—so I speculated on money’s origins (in spite of Minsky’s warning that he didn’t want me to write Genesis) and the role of the state in my dissertation that became a book in 1990—Money and Credit in Capitalist Economies—that helped to develop the Post Keynesian endogenous money approach.

What was lacking in that literature was an adequate treatment of the role of the state—which played a passive role—supplying reserves as demanded by private bankers—that is the Post Keynesian accommodationist or Horizontalist approach. There was no discussion of the relation of money to fiscal policy at that time. As I continued to read about the history of money, I became more convinced that we need to put the state at the center. Fortunately, I ran into two people that helped me to see how to do it. continue reading…


Register for the 2019 Hyman P. Minsky Summer Seminar

Michael Stephens | September 24, 2018

We are accepting applications for the 2019 Hyman P. Minsky Summer Seminar, held here at the Levy Institute and the wider Bard College campus June 16–22:

The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College is pleased to announce the tenth Minsky Summer Seminar will be held from June 16–22, 2019. The Seminar will provide a rigorous discussion of both the theoretical and applied aspects of Minsky’s economics, with an examination of meaningful prescriptive policies relevant to the current economic and financial outlook. It will also provide an introduction to Wynne Godley’s stock-flow consistent modeling methods via hands-on workshops.

The Summer Seminar will be of particular interest to graduate students, recent graduates, and those at the beginning of their academic or professional careers. The teaching staff will include well-known economists working in the theory and policy tradition of Hyman Minsky and Wynne Godley.

Applications may be made to Kathleen Mullaly at the Levy Institute (, and should include a letter of application and current curriculum vitae. Admission to the Summer Seminar will include provision of room and board on the Bard College campus. The registration fee for the Seminar will be $350.

Due to limited space availability, the Seminar will be limited to 30 participants; applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis starting in January 2019.


Minskyan Reflections on the Ides of September

Jan Kregel | September 14, 2018

The 10th anniversary of the September collapse of the US financial system has led to a number of commentaries on the causes of the Lehman bankruptcy and cures for its aftermath. Most tend to focus on identifying the proximate causes of the crisis in an attempt to assess the adequacy of the regulations put in place after the crisis to prevent a repetition. It is interesting that while Hy Minsky’s work became a touchstone of attempts to analyze the crisis as it was occurring, his work is notably absent in the current discussions.

While it is impossible to discern how Minsky might have answered these questions, his work does provide an indication of his likely response. Those familiar with Minsky’s work would recall his emphasis on the endogenous generation of fragility in the financial system, a process building up over time as borrowers and lenders use positive outcomes to increase their confidence in expectations of future success. The result is a slow erosion of the buffers available to cushion disappointment in those overconfident expectations. And disappointed these expectations must be, for, as Minsky argued, the confirmation of expectations of future results depends on decisions that will only be taken in the future. Since these decisions cannot be known with certainty, today’s expectations are extremely unlikely to be fully validated by future events. In a capitalist economy financial commitments are financed by incurring debt, so the disappointment of expectations will produce a failure to validate debt, leading to the inexorable transformation of financial positions from what Minsky called “hedge” to “speculative” to “Ponzi” financing structures. These structures refer to the ability of current cash flows to meet these commitments.

Thus, for Minsky, the crisis that broke out ten years ago would have been considered as the culmination of a process that started much earlier, sometime in the 1980s. An important aspect was the attack on the role of government and support for more restrictive fiscal policies that followed Reagan’s pronouncement “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” producing more procyclical budget policy that removed the “Big Government” floor under incomes during a recession. For Minsky, the sign of the budget was not important, but its role as an automatic stabilizer was crucial to financial stability. At the same time, the rise of monetarist monetary policies meant the “Big Bank” was no longer assured of placing a floor under asset prices by acting as a lender of last resort. By the early 1990s, Minsky had thus reversed his belief that a repetition of the Great Depression was unlikely because of the role of the “Big Government” and the “Big Bank.” Both had been diminished to the extent that they were no longer able to counter the inevitable translation of fragility into instability. By the 1990s, he clearly believed it could happen again. continue reading…


Wray Guest Lectures, Brazil and Italy (Video)

Michael Stephens | September 13, 2018

L. Randall Wray, Professor of Economics at Bard and Senior Scholar at the Levy Economics Institute, was a visiting professor at the University of Bolzano (Italy) and the University of Bergamo (Italy) in May-June and at the University of Campinas (Brazil) in August. In Campinas, he gave a series of lectures for a course on Modern Money Theory. In Bolzano he gave a talk titled “Secular Stagnation: Is It Inevitable?”

Wray also delivered a series of lectures in Trento for a course on Modern Money Theory and participated on a panel on the Job Guarantee: La rivoluzione dei Piani di Lavoro Garantito. Video of the latter presentations can be viewed here and here.


The Second International Modern Monetary Theory Conference

Michael Stephens | September 10, 2018

The Levy Institute is a cosponsor of the Second International Modern Monetary Theory Conference, which will take place September 28–30 at the New School and will feature Institute scholars L. Randall Wray, Pavlina Tcherneva, Stephanie Kelton, and Mathew Forstater:

Like the first conference, this year will feature contributions from fields as diverse as macroeconomics, law, history, public policy, and corporate finance, with the goal of creating a community of scholars working within the MMT paradigm. This year’s theme, “Public Money, Public Purpose, Public Power,” signals the MMT community’s efforts to build bridges between social justice movements, inspire broad-based participation, and more deeply discuss how our ideas may be concretized politically.

The conference runs from Friday, September 28 through Sunday, September 30. Friday will feature roundtable discussions and keynote addresses from MMT luminaries on the origins of MMT, the process of making MMT “mainstream,” and the relationship between MMT and progressive advocacy for the job guarantee. Saturday will feature workshops facilitated by a range of community leaders and experts seeking to develop and deepen connections between MMT and other fields. Sunday begins with two “town hall” meetings, exploring MMT’s capacity as both a domestic and an international movement. The proceedings will conclude with a plenary session on the strategic and institutional goals of the movement going forward.

To learn more about the Second International MMT Conference or to register, visit their website at or email

Learn more about MMT in these Levy Institute publications: continue reading…


Tcherneva and Wray on the Public Service Employment (PSE) Program

Michael Stephens | August 15, 2018

The job guarantee proposal fleshed out and analyzed by L. Randall Wray, Flavia Dantas, Scott Fullwiler, Pavlina Tcherneva, and Stephanie Kelton — dubbed the Public Service Employment (PSE) program — garnered a considerable amount of media attention as support for some version of a job guarantee began appearing on the agendas of various 2020 Democratic hopefuls. This panel discussion at the Levy Institute’s 27th Annual Hyman P. Minsky Conference, featuring Tcherneva and Wray along with critical engagement from John Henry, provides more background on the rationale behind the PSE proposal as well as its potential economic impact:


Video from all the panels at the Minsky Conference can be found here.