So S&P has downgraded Brazil’s rating on long-term foreign currency debt to junk and lowered its long-term local currency sovereign credit rating to ‘BBB-‘ from ‘BBB+’.
First, what are sovereign debt ratings? Standard & Poor’s sovereign rating is defined as follows:
A current opinion of the creditworthiness of a sovereign government, where creditworthiness encompasses likelihood of default and credit stability (and in some cases recovery).
So the ratings are related to “a sovereign’s ability and willingness to service financial obligations to nonofficial (commercial) creditors.”
What does this tell us? To begin with, credit rating agencies have repeatedly been wrong. The same agencies that rated Enron investment grade just weeks before it went bust, the same people that assigned triple-A rating to toxic subprime mortgage-backed securities are now downgrading Brazil’s sovereign debt. As the FCIC report pointed out, “The three credit rating agencies were key enablers of the financial meltdown. The mortgage-related securities at the heart of the crisis could not have been marketed and sold without their seal of approval.” (FCIC 2011)
After all, should you take the credit rating agencies seriously? The answer is no. Brazil is a net external creditor, that is, though the federal government has debt denominated in foreign currency, it holds more foreign currency assets (figure 1) than it owes in foreign currency debt (figure 2). Brazil’s public sector can pay all of its long-term financial obligations denominated in foreign currency. Moreover, Brazil’s federal government can never become insolvent on obligations denominated in its own currency (note that since 1999 Brazil maintains a floating exchange rate regime, which increases domestic policy space). continue reading…
The second edition of L. Randall Wray’s Modern Money Theory: A Primer on Macroeconomics for Sovereign Monetary Systems, an updated and expanded version with new chapters on tax policy and inflation, is now available for order and will be released September 23rd:
“This book synthesizes the key principles of Modern Money Theory, exploring macro accounting, monetary and fiscal policy, currency regimes and exchange rates in developed and developing nations. Randall Wray addresses the pressing issue of how misunderstandings about the nature of money have caused the current global financial meltdown, and provides fresh ideas about how policymakers around the world should address the continued weaknesses in their economies.”
S&P has issued a negative outlook regarding Brazilian sovereign debt. The S&P’s announcement stated that
Over the coming year, failure to advance with (on- and off-budget) fiscal and other policy adjustments could result in a greater-than-expected erosion of Brazil’s financial profile and further erosion of confidence and growth prospects, which could lead to a downgrade. The ratings could stabilize if Brazil’s political certainties and conditions for consistent policy execution–across branches of government to staunch fiscal deterioration–improved. It is our view that these improvements would support a quicker turnaround and could help Brazil exit from the current recession, facilitating improved fiscal out-turn and provide more room to maneuver in the face of economic shocks consistent with a low-investment-grade rating.
This warning has been echoed by other credit rating agencies threatening to downgrade Brazilian sovereign debt to junk. But, should anyone trust credit rating agencies? Once more, credit rating agencies are clueless in their assessments. They have specialized in making the wrong assessments regarding sovereign governments’ capacity to pay local-currency debts. They have downgraded sovereign governments like the US, UK, Japan, and now Brazil. Paradoxically, credit rating agencies, which have a track record ranging from arbitrary and imprecise to clueless (here, here, here, here), can still dictate the outcomes of the fiscal policies of sovereign governments.
Recent downgrade warnings by CRAs and market pundits have triggered discussions inside the Brazilian government to implement austerity measures, including welfare programmes and public investment initiatives.
President Dilma Rousseff won’t change course. She has reiterated that “[It] will last as long as necessary to rebalance our economy.” She has invoked the government-as-household analogy, stating that: “You who are a housewife or the father of a family know what this is … Sometimes we have to rein in expenses to keep our budget from going out of control … to ensure our future.” Rousseff is under pressure to impose a fiscal austerity agenda to avoid a downgrade by credit agencies.
The current direction of Rousseff’s policies has exposed its contradictory tendencies in combining austerity policies while trying to maintain or reclaim the pre-crisis progress. This combination leads to incoherent policy formulations and more drift, rather than embracing a demand-led strategy. continue reading…
The “negotiations” that surrounded the latest Greek deal do not reflect well on the system (such as it is) of EMU governance. And there are no silver linings to be found in the outcome of this process. It is a testament to how far we are from “normal” that even the best-case scenario would have left little room for optimism. Even if Greece had received a sensible package — one involving debt restructuring and a pause in austerity — this would still have meant an intolerably long period of high unemployment. (“Even if the Greek economy were to miraculously bounce back to its precrisis growth rate, it would take almost a decade and a half to return to precrisis employment levels.” p. 3 [pdf])
Moreover, the particulars of the Greek situation aside, it is important to recall how far we are from a resolution of the broader eurozone crisis, which will arguably not end until the fundamentally flawed euro setup — of which the Greek crisis is a symptom — is addressed. In this vein, Pavlina Tcherneva recently spoke to Richard Aldous of The American Interest about the latest Greek deal and the “stateless currency” that is the euro (listen to the podcast here).
Tcherneva also touched on an aspect of this broader theme in her recent RT interview. In the clip below she links the “deflationary environment” in the eurozone to the absence of a central fiscal authority:
(See here for a proposal for Greece that aims to [temporarily] relieve the constraints rooted in the divorce of fiscal policy from monetary sovereignty: by funding a direct job creation program through the creation of a parallel currency.)
National animosities and idiosyncratic personalities aside, the blame for the underlying crisis ultimately falls on the very structure of the EMU. This is why it was possible for figures like Wynne Godley to have seen this coming decades ago.
Don’t miss this post by Scott Fullwiler at New Economic Perspectives.
Fullwiler is reacting to Clive Crook’s Bloomberg column advocating “helicopter drops” (having the Fed simply send checks to households). Helicopter drops or “helicopter money” proposals are widely cast as monetary policy operations (Crook describes helicopter money as a monetary-fiscal “hybrid”) and defended as either preferable to fiscal stimulus or as the only remaining option in light of political obstacles to increasing government spending (to wit, the GOP Congress/Dem White House combination).
For Fullwiler, this way of framing helicopter money is problematic — and relies on a skewed understanding of our policy options:
I find it completely counterproductive to have a theory of macroeconomics in which we define fiscal policy and monetary policy based on who is acting. If the US Congress and Treasury choose to send $1 trillion to households without raising taxes, it’s called fiscal policy. But if the Fed does the exact same thing, it’s apparently called monetary policy. I think this only confuses our understanding of the macroeconomic policy mix and makes it more difficult to have an economics profession that can give good policy advice.
It seems much clearer to simply say that (a) the act of creating a deficit—raising the net financial wealth of the non-government sector—is fiscal policy, and (b) the act of announcing and then supporting an interest rate target with security sales (or purchases, or interest on reserves)—which has no effect on the net financial wealth of the non-government sector—is monetary policy. In the case of (a), whether the Treasury or the Fed cuts the checks, it’s fiscal policy, and with (b), whether the Treasury or the Fed sells securities, it’s monetary policy.
In other words, fiscal policy is about managing the net financial assets of the non-government sector relative to the state of the economy, and monetary policy is about managing interest rates (and through it, to the best of its abilities, bank lending and deposit creation) relative to the state of the economy. This is in fact how Randy Wray explained both in his 1998 book; it’s also how Warren Mosler explained them in his 1996 paper. That is, from the beginning, MMT has labeled monetary and fiscal policies by their functions, not by who was doing what.
I think this is a much more useful taxonomy because it makes clear from the start that (1) the currency-issuing government isn’t constrained while (2) the interest rate on the national debt is a policy variable. All kinds of human suffering the past 6+ years may have been avoided if those two basic points were widely understood.
Can a bull market founded largely on credit survive? A forthcoming Levy Institute working paper I wrote with Tai Young-Taft of Bard College at Simon’s Rock (link for those interested) represents an attempt to deal with the role of financial instability—along with other sources of economic fluctuations—in the dynamics of the economy. Here, I’ll focus mostly on the role of margin loans that are used by many investors and traders to leverage positions in stock. The model developed in the paper includes a role for several policy tools that might be used in attempts to stabilize the economy: a fiscal-policy rule with public production and unemployment rate targets, along with public-sector R&D, financial supervision and regulation, and a target for the inflation-adjusted interest rate on government debt.
Now, for the current situation. The figure above highlights one potential threat to stability designed to arise spontaneously in runs of the model: surges in the use of margin debt to finance investments in stock. The chart shows that the amount of such debt outstanding in the US relative to GDP rose sharply during the tech bubble and the period leading up to the financial crisis and recession of 2007–09, achieving a new peak each time. Subsequent financial market collapses led to cyclical declines in the use of this form of leverage. On average, for the first quarter of 2015, this ratio stood at more than .028, suggesting that the stock market’s vigor again rests to a great extent on heavy borrowing (see figure). (Moreover, some different but closely related uses of credit, such as bond issues that wind up financing stock buybacks, have also contributed to the post-recession bull market.) This column from the New York Times’s Floyd Norris from a couple of years back discussed evidence that margin-credit cycles helped fuel cyclical movements in stock prices and the economy. His column displayed a longer but now outdated margin loan series.
While in Spain for the launch of my Modern Money Primer in Spanish, I gave a long interview for Public Television. Parts of that interview are interspersed in this segment on public banking. My interview is in English (with Spanish subtitles), while the rest is in Spanish. Other portions of my interview will be broadcast later.
The Boom Bust Boom movie on Minsky will be released next month. Watch for it. I do not know how widely it will be distributed, but it is well worth seeing. Here’s a nice piece from The Guardian:
To Move Beyond Boom and Bust, We Need a New Theory of Capitalism
By Paul Mason, The Guardian UK
23 March 15
his is the year that economics might, if we are lucky, turn a corner. There’s a deluge of calls for change in the way it is taught in universities. There’s a global conference at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, where the giants of radical economics – including Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis – will get their biggest ever mainstream platform. And there’s a film where a star of Monty Python talks to a puppet of Hyman Minsky.
Terry Jones’s documentary film Boom Bust Boom hits the cinemas this month. Using puppetry and talking heads (including mine), Jones is trying to popularise the work of Minsky, a US economist who died in 1996 but whose name has become for ever associated with the Lehman Brothers crash. Terrified analysts labelled it the “Minsky moment”.
Minsky’s genius was to show that financially complex capitalism is inherently unstable. Under conditions of stability, firms, banks and households will, over time, move from a position where their income pays off their debt, to one where it can only meet the interest payments on it. Finally, as instability rises, and central banks respond by expanding the supply of money, people end up borrowing just to pay back interest. The price of shares, homes and commodities rockets. Bust becomes inevitable.
This logical and coherent prediction was laughed at until it came true. Mainstream economics had convinced itself that capitalism tends towards equilibrium; and that any shocks must be external. It did so by reducing economic thought to the construction of abstract models, which perfectly describe the system 95% of the time, but break down during critical events.
In the aftermath of the crisis – which threatens some countries with a phase of stagnation lasting decades – Minsky’s insight has been acknowledged. But his supporters face a problem. The mainstream has a model; the radicals do not. The mainstream theory is “good enough” to run a business, a finance ministry or a central bank – as long as you are prepared, in practice, to ignore that theory when faced with crises.
Alberto and his brother, Eduardo, are well-versed in MMT. He emphasized that the barrier to full employment is not technical but political. If the political will exists, full employment can be achieved and sustained. MMT shows the way to understanding the policy options that are available to sovereign government.
The newspaper article summarized some of the points I made, arguing that we should no longer see the finances of a government as similar to those of a household:
Por su parte, Randall Wray, que ha estado presente en la presentación de la propuesta, ha rechazado las teorías que equiparan el funcionamiento del Estado con el de una familia, ya que el primero puede emitir su propia moneda y no puede quedarse sin dinero, por lo que sus opciones de gasto e inversión son diferentes y la austeridad no es la única salida posible.
Esto hace plausible el trabajo garantizado, que ya se aplicó de alguna manera en los años 30 del siglo XX en Estados Unidos con el ‘New Deal’ de Franklin D. Roosevelt, pero también en Argentina y, más recientemente, en la India, que incluso ha “incluido en su Constitución el derecho al trabajo”, que la Declaración Universal de los Derechos Humanos de la ONU también recoge.
La diferencia con este tipo de propuestas aplicadas hasta la fecha en otros países –”Casi todos los que tienen un paro inferior al 2%”, según el profesor estadounidense– es que la ambición de IU es que sea “universal y permanente”, y que no se desactive una vez superada la crisis.
Levy Research Associate Éric Tymoigne contributed to a debate in the Wall Street Journal over the viability of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Here’s Éric:
Bitcoins are an odd sort of commodity. They are not financial instruments. The value fluctuates widely, in line with changing views regarding the overall usefulness of the bitcoin payment system and the speculative manias surrounding such views. There is no financial logic behind bitcoins’ face value. In other words, if you like to gamble, this is a perfect asset. If you are looking for an alternative monetary instrument, look elsewhere.
The bitcoin system has two components: the means of payment themselves, and an online ledger, called the block chain, which is a record of all bitcoins that have been created and who holds them. The ledger is the main innovation. It provides an open, decentralized, fast, cheap and supposedly secure means of completing transactions.
But as an alleged alternative currency, bitcoin is unacceptable. Its volatility and lack of liquidity pose risks far beyond most traditional currencies.