“America First” and Financial Stability: 26th Minsky Conference

Michael Stephens | February 16, 2017

REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN:

April 18–19, 2017

Levy Economics Institute of Bard College
Blithewood
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York 12504

The 2017 Minsky Conference will address the implications of the new administration’s “America First” policies, focusing on the outlook for trade, taxation, fiscal, and financial regulation measures to generate domestic investments capable of moving the growth rate beyond the “new normal” established in the aftermath of the Great Recession, without jeopardizing financial stability. It will also seek to assess the impact of different financing schemes on both infrastructure investment and the return of central bank monetary policies to more neutral interest rates. Since these new policy proposals will have a global impact, the conference will focus on their implication for the performance of European and Latin American economies.

Register here.

The preliminary program and list of participants is below the fold: continue reading…

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L. Randall Wray on MMT and Positive Money

Michael Stephens |

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Xmas Cheer: The Debt Is Not Our Biggest Problem

Michael Stephens | December 31, 2016

Why do so many pundits and politicians, including the future director of the Office of Management and Budget, beat the debt drum so loudly and so often? It’s one of the most effective, and most abused, wedge issues in American politics.

by Kerry Pechter

The nomination of Mick Mulvaney—deficit hawk, three-term Republican congressman from South Carolina and founding member of the House “Freedom Caucus”—to the cabinet-level directorship of the Office of Management and Budget is not good news for the financial system.

Mulvaney has said (and perhaps even believes) that one of the “greatest dangers” we face as Americans is the annual budget deficit and the $20 trillion national debt. This notion is an effective political weapon, but it’s dangerously untrue. If it were true, the country would have failed long ago.

Debunking this canard should be a priority for anybody who cares about retirement security. As long as we believe in the debt bogeyman, we can’t productively solve the Social Security and Medicare funding problems, defend the tax expenditure for retirement savings, or even create a non-deflationary annual federal budget. Everything will look unaffordable.

Hamilton, the Broadway star

If you don’t believe me, believe Alexander Hamilton. In 1790, the new nation was awash in government IOUs but had little cash or coinage for daily commerce. Hamilton, the impetuous future Broadway subject, resolved the crisis with a simple argument. He reminded his fellow founders that debts are also assets, and that the most secure assets are those that yield a guaranteed income stream from a sovereign government with the power to tax.

At the time, according to Hamilton’s “First Report on the Public Credit,” the U.S. debt in 1790 stood at $54.1 million and change. In that document, the first Treasury Secretary laid out his plan—over the protests of deficit hawks—to restore the debt’s face value, secure the new nation’s credit rating, and put new money into circulation through interest payments on the debt, with revenue from taxes on imports.

The plan worked. With its par value established, U.S. debt became—and still is—the basis of the nation’s money supply. “In countries in which the national debt is properly funded, and an object of established confidence, it answers most of the purposes of money,” Hamilton wrote. “Transfers of stock or public debt are there equivalent to payments in specie; or, in other words, stock, in the principal transactions of business, passes current as specie.”

Not a burden on our backs

Since then, during times of doubt, others have re-explained all this. In 1984, many people were panicking that the federal budget deficit had reached $185 billion. That July, economic historian Robert Heilbroner, author of The Worldly Philosophers, explained in a New Yorker essay that their fear was based on a misconception.

“The public’s concerns about the debt and the deficit arises from our tendency to picture both in terms of a household’s finances,” Heilbroner wrote. “We see the government as a very large family and we all feel that the direction in which these deficits are driving us is one of household bankruptcy on a globe-shaking scale.”

That’s not so, he explained. The government is more like a bank, which lends by creating brand new liabilities. (You can also think of it as the cashier at a casino, who has an infinite number of chips at her disposal.) “As part of its function in the economy, the government usually runs deficits—not like a household experiencing a pinch but as a kind of national banking operation that adds to the flow of income that government siphons into households and businesses,” he wrote.

Robert Heilbroner

“The debt is not a vast burden borne on the backs of our citizenry but a varied portfolio of Treasury and other federal obligations, most of them held by American households and institutions, which consider them the safest and surest of their investments.”

‘Heterdox’ economic view

Over the past 30 years, however, as the national debt has become a political football, this common-sense explanation of it has been suppressed. You hardly ever hear it articulated. It is kept alive mainly by “heterodox economists” like Stephanie Kelton and L. Randall Wray.

In the 2015 edition of his book, Modern Money Theory: A Primer on Macroeconomics for Sovereign Monetary Systems, Wray explained the flaw in the idea that the deficit, the debt or the interest on the debt will eventually overwhelm us. It’s the kind of straight-line forecasting, he wrote, that ignores self-limiting factors or feedback mechanisms.

“If we are dealing with sovereign budget deficits we must first understand WHAT is not sustainable, and what is,” Wray wrote. “That requires that we need to do sensible exercises. The one that the deficit hysterians propose is not sensible.” He uses the analogy of Morgan Spurlock, the maker of the 2004 documentary Supersize Me, to illustrate his point.

In the movie, Spurlock wanted to discover the effects of consuming 5,000 calories worth of food at McDonald’s every day. Wray pointed out that, if you ignored certain facts about human metabolism, the 200-lb Spurlock would inevitably weigh 565 pounds after a year, 36,700 pounds after 100 years and 36.7 million pounds after 100,000 years. Of course, that can’t happen.

Randall Wray

“The trick used by deficit warriors is similar but with the inputs and outputs reversed,” according to Wray. “Rather than caloric inputs, we have GDP growth as the input; rather than burning calories, we pay interest; and rather than weight gain as the output we have budget deficits accumulating to government debt outstanding.

“To rig the little model to ensure it is not sustainable, all we have to do is to set the interest rate higher than the growth rate – just as we had Morgan’s caloric input at 5,000 calories and his burn rate at only 2,000 – and this will ensure that the debt ratio grows unsustainably (just as we ensured that Morgan’s waistline grew without limit).”

Fooling the people

Like any other threat, the debt’s scariness factor depends on how you frame it. The 2016 budget deficit was $587 billion, which sounds terrible. But that was just 3.3% of Gross Domestic Product. The U.S. debt reached $19.9 trillion in 2016, which also sounds terrible. But that is the amount accumulated since 1790. Our annual GDP is almost $18 trillion.

To enlarge the frame, we should include the whole “financial position” of the United States. According to Wikipedia, it “includes assets of at least $269.6 trillion and debts of $145.8 trillion. The current net worth of the U.S. in the first quarter of 2014 was an estimated $123.8 trillion.” In that context, neither the deficit nor the debt seem like terrible threats.

If you’re bent on making the math look scary, you can easily do it. As Wray noted above, “If the interest rate [i.e., costs] is above the growth rate [i.e., revenues], we get a rising debt ratio. If we carry this through eternity, that ratio gets big. Really big. OK, that sounds bad. And it is. Remember, that is a big part of the reason that the global financial crisis (GFC) hit: an over-indebted private sector whose income did not grow fast enough to keep up with interest payments.”

But the government doesn’t face the same constraints as the private sector (which is why it could bail out the private sector in 2008-2010). Once you recognize that U.S. assets are huge, that U.S. debts are also private wealth, and that the debt needs to be serviced but never zeroed out, then today’s debt shrinks into the manageable problem that it is and not a source of panic. (Paying down the national debt—in effect, deleveraging the government—would be disastrously deflationary; that’s a topic for another article.)

So why do so many pundits and politicians, including the future director of the Office of Management and Budget, beat the debt drum so loudly and so often? The answer is obvious. It provides an evergreen reason to delegitimize any and every type of government spending, regulation and taxation. It’s one of the most effective, and most abused, wedge issues in American politics.

Kerry Pechter is the founder and editor of the Retirement Income Journal. Reprinted with permission.

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“Stimulus” Isn’t the Best Reason to Support (or Oppose) Infrastructure Spending

Michael Stephens | December 15, 2016

A little while back, Pavlina Tcherneva appeared with Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal to talk about the potential infrastructure policy of president-elect Donald Trump. She noted that, contrary to initial assumptions, the upcoming administration may not end up pushing public-debt-financed infrastructure spending, and that if the program simply amounts to tax incentives and public-private partnerships, it won’t be nearly as effective. But Tcherneva added another important dimension to this debate. (You can watch the interview here):

Tcherneva’s point is that infrastructure investment should be determined primarily by the state of dilapidation or obsolescence of our roads, bridges, etc., and not so much by the moment we occupy in the business cycle.

There are some who would argue that the time for a large fiscal stimulus has passed, with unemployment at 4.6 percent and growth continuing apace. There’s a good argument to be made that we’re not at “full employment” even at this moment, and that there’s no need to back off on stimulus (though there’s still the question as to whether the Federal Reserve would attempt to depress economic activity by raising interest rates in response to any substantial fiscal expansion — and, additionally, whether the Fed would succeed in those circumstances). But the point is, where you stand on this debate regarding the business cycle and the meaning of full employment shouldn’t be the driving factor behind infrastructure policy — we shouldn’t necessarily pursue or avoid infrastructure repairs and improvements for those reasons.

Moreover, if you’re looking for a job creation program, which Tcherneva would argue ought to be the point of “stimulus,” there are more effective options. In particular, she advocates a job guarantee that would provide paid employment at a minimally decent wage to all who are willing and able to work. Among other reasons, Tcherneva notes that such a program, which automatically expands during economic downturns and contracts in better times, is more effective as a countercyclical stabilizer, as compared to spending on infrastructure projects (read the tweet-storm version of the argument here).

And given that infrastructure seems to have become the go-to spending-side stimulus policy, we might also want to think about the distributive implications. continue reading…

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Call for Papers: Gender and Macro Workshop in NYC

Michael Stephens | November 30, 2016

New York City
September 13–15, 2017

A workshop organized by the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College with the generous support of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

The goal of this workshop is to advance the current framework that integrates gender and unpaid work into macroeconomic analysis and enables the development of gender-aware and equitable economic policies. We are interested in contributions that address the gender implications of macroeconomic processes and policies and examine mechanisms that link gender inequalities to macroeconomic outcomes. These may include but are not limited to:

  • Incorporation of the realm of unpaid productive activities into economy-wide models (e.g., SAM, CGE).
  • Analysis of the links that connect economic structure (e.g., sectoral composition of economy, degree of openness) and growth regimes (e.g., wage-led versus investment-led growth) with women and men’s economic outcomes and gender inequalities.
  • Assessment of the channels through which macroeconomic policies influence women’s and men’s economic outcomes and gender inequalities. These include fiscal policies and monetary policies related to interest rates, exchange rates, and financial markets.
  • Evaluation of the mechanisms whereby gender inequalities influence macroeconomic outcomes, such as aggregate output and employment and their sectoral composition, inflation, budget deficits, and current account balance.
  • Aspects of interconnections between unequal international economic relations (trade and finance) and gender inequalities.

The types of gender inequalities to be modeled may potentially encompass inequalities in care and unpaid work, labor force participation, employment composition (by sector and/or type of employment, such as formal or informal), education, and access to and utilization of social and financial services.

We invite theoretical contributions that utilize existing and novel macroeconomic modeling approaches as well as empirical studies, in particular those focusing on the dimensions of gender inequalities relevant to the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and other low-income economies. We are also interested in papers that provide a comprehensive picture of the state of the art, identify gaps, and indicate directions for future research.

Accommodation and travel-related expenses will be covered by the workshop organizers. Please submit your abstract using the form found here.

If you have any questions, please contact Ajit Zacharias at zacharia@levy.org.

Important dates:
500-word abstract due January 25, 2017
Acceptance notifications e-mailed March 1, 2017
Final paper due July 31, 2017

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Can Financial Regulatory Changes Help Jumpstart Long-Term Investment?

Michael Stephens | November 15, 2016

In a presentation here at the Levy Institute, Emilios Avgouleas argued that financial regulatory changes since the crisis have become so complex they represent a source of financial instability, and that new liquidity and capital requirements have contributed to the problem of “short-termism” in finance.

Avgouleas proposed regulatory simplification and a reorientation that would create greater relative incentives for funding long-term investment projects (e.g., infrastructure), including a lower regulatory and tax burden on long-term instruments. Empowering issuers of long-term instruments like project bonds with intellectual property rights could, he suggested, help control the quality of these financial products by preventing “slicing and dicing” in derivatives markets, on pain of losing prescribed privileges.

You can watch the presentation below: “The Financial Regulation Conundrum: Why We Should Discriminate in Favor of Long-Term Finance”

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Apply Now for the 2017 Minsky Summer Seminar

Michael Stephens | October 24, 2016

If you’re a grad student or just starting out your career and want to learn more about the work of Hyman Minsky and Wynne Godley, and wouldn’t mind doing so in a turn-of-the-century manor on the banks of the Hudson, you’re in luck.

The Levy Institute’s annual Minsky Summer Seminar is now accepting applications for the June 2017 session:

minsky-summer-2016_group

The Levy Economics Institute is pleased to announce that it will hold the eighth Minsky Summer Seminar June 10–16, 2017. 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 tradition of Minsky.

To apply, send a letter of application and current curriculum vitae to Kathleen Mullaly at the Levy Institute (mullaly@levy.org). Admission to the Summer Seminar includes room and board on the Bard College campus. A registration fee of $250 is required upon acceptance.

Due to space constraints, the Seminar will be limited to 30 participants. Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis beginning in January 2017.

The 2017 Summer Seminar program will be organized by Jan Kregel, Dimitri B. Papadimitriou, and L. Randall Wray.

levy-garden_summer-sem

Below the fold is a copy of the 2016 program, to give a sense of the sort of topics and speakers featured at the Seminar (note the guest speakers do change from one year to the next): continue reading…

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New Book on Fiscal Policy and Macro in India

Michael Stephens |

Fiscal Consolidation, Budget Deficits and the Macro Economy, by Research Associate Lekha Chakraborty, deals with debates about the macroeconomic effects of budget deficits in the context of examining fiscal policy in India over the period 1980/81–2012/13.

From the Introduction:

In India, efforts were … made to contain the fiscal deficit by both the central and state governments. The Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act was enacted by the Government of India in 2000 with the aim to … reduce the fiscal deficit to three per cent of GDP by 2008-09. All the states in India also have introduced FRBM legislation. The rationale behind the reduction in fiscal deficits emanated from the theoretical paradigms of macroeconomics which argued that excessive fiscal deficits often trigger inflationary pressures in the economy, increase the rate of interest and crowd out private capital formation, create balance of payments crises and in turn debt spiraling. However, considerable ambiguity exists about the link between fiscal deficit and macroeconomic activity.

For more, visit Sage:

lekha-chakraborty_new-book_sage

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The Problem with “Gender-Blind” Economics

Michael Stephens | October 7, 2016

Pavlina Tcherneva joins Laura Flanders to discuss the need for a more gender-aware economics:

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Levy M.S. Now Accepting Applications for Fall 2017

Michael Stephens | October 5, 2016

levy-ms-banner

Designed as a terminal degree with a professional focus, the Levy Economics Institute Master of Science in Economic Theory and Policy offers students an alternative to mainstream graduate programs in economics and finance. This innovative two-year program combines a rigorous course of study with exceptional opportunity to participate in advanced economics research, with direct access to the Institute’s global network of researchers.

Application deadlines are November 15 for Early Decision and January 15 for Regular Decision. Scholarships are available. Visit bard.edu/levyms for more information. Click here to apply.

Learn about the Levy M.S. by joining one of our online information sessions hosted by Institute scholars:

Wednesday, October 5, 3:00 p.m. EDT, with Research Scholar Michalis Nikiforos
Tuesday, October 11, 11:00 a.m. EDT, with Ajit Zacharias, Senior Scholar and Distribution of Income and Wealth Program Director
Tuesday, October 18, 10:00 a.m. EDT, with Senior Scholar and Bard College Professor of Economics L. Randall Wray

The program application fee will be waived for all prospective students who attend. Click here for details.

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