Archive for the ‘Modern Monetary Theory’ Category

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.

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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…

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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.

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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…

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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 mmtconference.org or email conference@mmtconference.org.

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

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L. Randall Wray on MMT and Positive Money

Michael Stephens | February 16, 2017

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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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L. Randall Wray on the Radical Imagination

Michael Stephens | September 1, 2016

Jim Vrettos, a sociologist at John Jay College and host of “The Radical Imagination”, interviewed the Levy Institute’s Randy Wray on how the discipline of economics has gone astray. Wray’s story begins in the late 1960s, with what he describes as a reaction against “New Deal economics.”

The interview ends with a discussion of the ongoing US presidential election.

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Wray on Revenue, Redemption, and When Austerity Is Justified

Michael Stephens | July 12, 2016

L. Randall Wray has an essay in the recent issue of the World Economic Review. Wray’s target is the belief that “government needs tax revenue to pay for most (or even all) of its spending.” According to Wray, a version of this belief distorts our understanding of what are the limits of, say, the US federal government’s ability to spend. (In terms of the sense of “limits” here, Wray wants to distinguish between the constraints imposed by the particularities of US law and broader financial/economic constraints.)

With the aid of references to the history of American colonial paper currency, Wray presents a competing conception of tax revenues as “redemption,” according to which taxes support the value of the notes that have been issued, rather than being the means by which the government raises its “income” and a precondition of its ability to spend.

What’s the upshot of this “taxes as redemption” story?

While affordability is not in question, inflation is a danger. To be sure, inflation can occur even at low levels of aggregate demand (witness the stagflation of the 1970s in the USA), but if government spending should drive the economy beyond full employment, then inflation will result. Government spending can also be inflationary before full employment if it is directed to sectors with a low elasticity of output (where additional demand causes prices to rise without increasing output much). One could envision additional ways in which misdirected spending and poor policy could cause inflation. The point is, however, that the danger is not affordability but rather inflation.

Currency depreciation is also a possibility for floating exchange rate systems […]

Hence, “more austerity” can be the right answer, but only in specific circumstances. If government is spending so much that prices are rising faster than desired, or if the currency is depreciating more than desired, then the answer could be to reduce spending or raise taxes. The difference here is not subtle. In these cases, it is not affordability but rather inflation or currency depreciation that is the problem. Policy makers ought to be able to see the difference: austerity is needed not because government is running out of its own currency but rather because prices are rising or currency is depreciating more rapidly than desired.

You can read the essay here: (pdf) “Taxes are for Redemption, Not Spending

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Donald Trump’s Printing Press Sends the Media to the Fainting Couch

Michael Stephens | May 18, 2016

Donald Trump generated some breathless commentary last week (perhaps, for once, unjustified) for suggesting, in response in part to those who have pointed out that some of the policies he has pseudo-proposed would enlarge the deficit, that the US government can always pay its bills: “This is the United States government. First of all, you never have to default because you print the money, I hate to tell you, OK?” (He had also suggested that the government might buy back government debt at a discount if interest rates rise. Dean Baker argues this would be pointless, not disastrous.) Among the responses to these comments were claims that this “money printing” business would, ipso facto, be (hyper)inflationary.

L. Randall Wray spoke to Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal about the issue. Wray emphasized that the government always spends by “printing money,” or more accurately, by crediting bank accounts through computer keystrokes. With respect to whether Trump’s purported policies would or would not be inflationary then, the central question for Wray is not whether Trump would or would not have the government “printing money,” but whether the economy would be at full employment. At that point, a government deficit of sufficient size could be inflationary (in other words: “So, yes, deficits do matter, but not for solvency“).

Watch the interview here at Bloomberg:

Weisenthal Wray Interview

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Bloomberg: Modern Money Theory Gaining Converts

Michael Stephens | March 14, 2016

Bloomberg just published an article focused on the rise of Modern Money Theory (MMT), featuring comments by Senior Scholar Randall Wray:

The 20-something-year-old doctrine, on the fringes of economic thought, is getting a hearing with an unconventional take on government spending in nations with their own currency.

Such countries, the MMTers argue, face no risk of fiscal crisis. They may owe debts in, say, dollars or yen — but they’re also the monopoly creators of dollars or yen, so can always meet their obligations. For the same reason, they don’t need to finance spending by collecting taxes, or even selling bonds. […]

No one’s saying there are no limits. Real resources can be a constraint — how much labor is available to build that road? Taxes are an essential tool, to ensure demand for the currency and cool the economy if it overheats. But the MMTers argue there’s plenty of room to spend without triggering inflation.

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