Archive for April, 2016

Dear Time Magazine Readers, the United States Is Not Insolvent

Michael Stephens | April 25, 2016

This is apparently the latest cover of Time magazine:

Zombie Time Magazine Cover

The idea that the US government or the nation as a whole is “insolvent” has an undying appeal. The fear of (or yearning for) some manner of budget crisis has waned somewhat over the last couple of years (one hopes this is due to the fact that most people alive today have never lived through a period in which the deficit has shrunk so rapidly), but stories like this will never go away.

The 25th Minsky conference wrapped up recently (video of all the speakers is posted here), and in one of the sessions Stephanie Kelton delivered a presentation in which she argued that, in contrast to almost any other area of policy, there is one issue on which Democrats and Republicans agree: a public debt crisis is looming. In addition to some disagreement over when the crisis will strike (hawks: yesterday; doves: in a decade or so), they differ merely on the question of how to solve this perceived problem: by cutting spending or raising revenue. This broader moment of bipartisan consensus, Kelton argued, is tarnished only by being wrong.

Among her efforts to dispel the appeal of the debt crisis narrative, Kelton pointed out that US government deficits are the mirror image of non-government surpluses (domestic private sector surpluses plus current account deficits), with a nod to what Goldman Sachs’ Jan Hatzius once described as “the world’s most important chart.” The upshot, she argued, is that calling for a reduction of public sector deficits in the presence of persistent current account deficits should be understood as calling for a reduction of the private sector’s surpluses. Kelton put together the following chart, which flips the script on the Simpson-Bowles-era discussions of how rapidly we should bring down the budget deficit:

Kelton_Flip the Script_Minsky Conference

“Ask the same question now. Now the graph doesn’t show the path of projected government deficits, but instead the path of projected non-government surpluses. So the question becomes how rapidly would you like to reduce the non-government surplus? You want to do it really quickly, follow the blue line; just bring surpluses down very sharply. Would you like to reduce the surpluses in the non-government sector more slowly, a more gradual approach. Or would you like to rethink this exercise all together because you think it’s madness that a policy objective is to reduce non-government surpluses? […]

In other words, their red ink is our black ink. And setting out to reduce budget deficits by $4.1 trillion over the next ten years is the same as saying my goal is to reduce the non-government surplus by 4.1 trillion over the next ten years. One might sound reasonable and the other sounds like madness, but it’s the same thing said two different ways.”

Watch her presentation (slides here):

Two other speakers at the conference mentioned a different, perfectly orthodox reason to stop worrying about a US public debt crisis. Even if you’re convinced that a debt ratio of the size predicted by the Congressional Budget Office’s long-run budget forecast represents a threat, there are reasons to doubt that we’re destined to reach that level. continue reading…


The Crisis in Brazil and the “Narrow Path” for Economic Policy

Michael Stephens | April 22, 2016

The big political story in Brazil is the potential impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff (Brazil’s lower house of congress voted in favor of impeachment; the motion now moves to the senate for consideration). To get an idea of how messy this situation is, note that the man leading the impeachment attempt, Speaker of the House Eduardo Cunha, is facing 184 years in prison for his role in the Petrobras corruption scandal. (In the NYTimes‘ Room for Debate series, Laura Carvalho describes the impeachment process as a parliamentary coup. See also Felipe Rezende’s critical take on the charges for which Rousseff is ostensibly being impeached: violation of the Fiscal Responsibility Law.)

All of this is happening against the backdrop of a multi-faceted economic crisis. Here’s Fernando Cardim de Carvalho’s summary of the situation from his latest policy note:

Brazilian real GDP is estimated to have contracted 3.8 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, annual inflation reached 10.7 percent in 2015 … The overnight cost of bank reserves in the interbank market (SELIC) is currently 14.25 percent. The exchange rate to the US dollar is around R$4, a 50 percent increase over a year ago. Fiscal space for implementing recovery policies is practically nonexistent, with fiscal deficits reaching 10.3 percent of GDP … Unemployment has been growing rapidly and the outlook for 2016 is not promising, to say the least, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF 2016) projecting a further contraction in GDP of 3.5 percent. Concerns about the solvency of large firms that have sharply increased their foreign indebtedness in recent years intensified with the steep devaluation of the real in 2015.

Cardim de Carvalho recently presented his analysis of Brazil’s political and economic challenges at the 25th Minsky Conference. He observed that for once the balance of payments has not played a key role in this economic crisis; nor are there any easily identifiable “external villains” this time around: “this … is an entirely domestically generated crisis.” (Here are the slides from his presentation; video is embedded below the fold.)

As he points out in the policy note (pdf), even a fully functioning, stable government would have a hard time addressing this mix of economic problems, but as it stands, it isn’t even clear who will be running the country in the near future. Cardim de Carvalho pins Brazil’s hopes[1] partially on maintaining the devaluation of the Brazilian real and advocates a change up in fiscal policy. But even here, there’s not much room for policy maneuvering: “For all practical political purposes, Brazil is stuck with fiscal austerity,” he laments.

Under the circumstances, policymakers might be able to do less damage by turning to what Cardim de Carvalho calls “smarter austerity”:  “an increase in public investment paired with less damaging spending cuts and revenue increases, could limit the negative impact on aggregate demand.” The problem, as he explains, is that implementing this kind of budgetary shift would require managing some complicated political trade-offs. Reading the headlines this week, it’s hard to imagine the political system pulling this off, no matter who ends up running the country until the 2018 elections. He’s not optimistic:

Only skillful negotiation led by a trusted political leadership could obtain current sacrifices from participants with a view to achieving better results in the future. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be the slightest possibility that such a negotiation could happen in the near future. The government does not seem capable of doing it. All initiative was lost when avoiding or beating an impeachment process became its first and practically only priority. On the other hand, no legitimate organized opposition exists to present demands and lead a negotiation on behalf of the people. The country has no “elders” to appeal to, no statesmen of recognized stature who deserve the trust of the nation.

Under such circumstances, until Brazil gets closer to the presidential elections scheduled for 2018, there seems to be no plausible alternative to the continuation of the recession and political uncertainty.

You can read the policy note here. See also Cardim de Carvalho’s working paper for more detailed data on how the Brazilian economy got to this point.

[1] “Hope” being the operative word: “While the extent to which the recent devaluation will help to engineer a sustained recovery is unclear, there is little doubt that a return to the overvaluation characteristic of the post-1994 period would kill any such possibility.” He expresses concern that Brazil’s deindustrialization may limit any potential expansionary effect from devaluation.

continue reading…


Listen in on the Minsky Conference

Michael Stephens | April 11, 2016

Audio from the 25th Annual Minsky Conference will be broadcast live. Listen here beginning tomorrow at 9am.

Tuesday, April 12

9:00−9:15 a.m. Welcome and Introduction
Dimitri B. Papadimitriou, President, Levy Institute
MODERATOR: Theo Francis, Special Writer, The Wall Street Journal
SPEAKER: Jan Kregel, Director of Research, Levy Institute; Professor, Tallinn University of Technology
Fernando J. Cardim de Carvalho, Senior Scholar, Levy Institute; Emeritus Professor of Economics, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro
10:30 a.m. − 12:30 p.m. Session 2. COMMODITIES AND DERIVATIVES REGULATION
MODERATOR: Izabella Kaminska, Journalist, Financial Times
SPEAKERS: Robert A. Johnson, President, Institute for New Economic Thinking; Senior Fellow and Director, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute
Michael Masters, Founder and Chairman of the Board, Better Markets
12:30−2:15 p.m. Lunch
SPEAKER: Robert J. Barbera, Codirector, Center for Financial Economics, The Johns Hopkins University
“Six Degrees of Separation: Why the Fed’s Strategy of Precautionary Unemployment Is Nutty”
MODERATOR: Jesse Eisinger, Senior Reporter, ProPublica
SPEAKERS: Henry Kaufman, President, Henry Kaufman & Company, Inc.
Richard Berner, Director, Office of Financial Research, US Department of the Treasury
Martin L. Leibowitz, Managing Director, Morgan Stanley
Albert M. Wojnilower, Economic Consultant, Craig Drill Capital
MODERATOR: Jan Kregel, Director of Research, Levy Institute; Professor, Tallinn University of Technology
SPEAKERS: Viral V. Acharya, C. V. Starr Professor of Economics, New York University Stern School of Business
Scott Fullwiler, Professor of Economics and James A. Leach Chair in Banking and Monetary Economics, Wartburg College
Stephanie A. Kelton, Research Associate, Levy Institute; Chief Economist, US Senate Budget Committee; Professor, University of Missouri—Kansas City

Wednesday, April 13

continue reading…


Is There a Solution to Brazil’s Crises?

Michael Stephens | April 5, 2016

This is the first of a series of blog posts on the Brazilian crisis by Felipe Rezende.


There are two major crises Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is facing: one is a political crisis and the other is Brazil’s sharpest recession in 25 years.

Brazil’s Political Crisis

The political crisis has two main pillars: a) a vast corruption scandal (with evidence of a kickback scheme funneling billions of dollars from state-run firms and, more recently, in a massive data leak over possible tax evasion, Brazilian politicians linked to offshore companies in the Panama Papers); and b) impeachment proceedings to move forward against President Dilma Rousseff.

The Federal Court of Accounts (TCU) announced in 2015 that it had rejected the accounts of Rousseff’s administration for the year 2014. In a unanimous vote, the TCU ruled Dilma Rousseff’s government manipulated its accounts in 2014 to “disguise fiscal deficits” as she campaigned for re-election. The allegation is that Ms. Rousseff manipulated Brazil’s account books to hide a growing fiscal deficit.

The argument is that the federal government borrowed money from public banks (which is forbidden by the Fiscal Responsibility Law) to pay for social programs. So, they argued she allegedly committed an administrative crime.

Once we understand how the government spends and what bonds are for, then we can analyze TCU’s decision. The Treasury has an account—known as Treasury Single Account—with the central bank. When the Treasury spends, its account with the central bank is debited and the bank’s account with the central bank is credited. This is followed by a credit to the beneficiary’s bank account. That is, the public bank then makes payments to the social program beneficiary by issuing deposits (Case 1).

Case 1. The Treasury spends using its account with the central bank

Case 1_Rezende_Brazil

The issue at hand is that the federal government made payments for social programs using its public banks but it delayed payment to the same banks. That is, the federal government did not use its account at the central bank to credit the public banks’ account with the central bank while public banks made those social benefits payments. So, public banks made the payment (by creating demand deposits) and on the asset side there was an increase in credits (“loans”) to the Treasury (Case 2), which is forbidden by the fiscal responsibility law. In a “normal” transaction banks’ reserve balances (that is, government IOUs) with the central bank would go up, but because the Treasury delayed payments to banks there was in increase in balances owed by the Treasury to the public banks. This led the TCU to conclude that this was a “financing” operation. continue reading…


Tcherneva on the “Growth Lobby” and the Sanders Plan

Michael Stephens | April 4, 2016