Today, the Australian Treasurer is out in force telling us that the fiscal situation is dire and that they have to start making cutbacks. Meanwhile in the real world, the unemployment rate continues to rise, businesses continue to fail, and the lowest paid workers, are being forced to continue working in dangerous health situations because they cannot ‘afford’ to stay at home like the better paid workers and protect their health. Its doesn’t bear scrutiny. My research centre released an updated report this week that also bears on the situation. The current fiscal stimulus is probably, at least $A100 billion short of where it should be, yet the government is announcing cuts. It will not turn out well. Meanwhile, across town, the Reserve Bank governor has been trying to deny the RBA has the currency capacity to allow the Treasury to keep spending without issuing debt. Already, the Labor party are making political points out of the rising public debt, which just makes them unelectable really, rather than savvy. The RBA governor’s intervention also just proved he is prepared to deny history and evidence to make political points, which had the other consequence of demonstrating how lacking in ‘independence’ the central bank is from the political process. And so it goes on.
Last week (July 14, 2020), a former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), Stephen Grenville wrote an article – Modern Monetary Theory and mainstream economics converging. The title suggests a gathering of minds between two paradigms – the degenerative mainstream macroeconomics and the emerging Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). I wouldn’t represent what is happening in that way. Convergence implies a harmonious process. The reality is that some of the mainstream economists have realised that their approach is deeply flawed and events over many years have demonstrated those flaws, while ratifying the empirical content of central MMT propositions. Our position has been consistent over 25 years. Now, the mainstream is fracturing and economists are trying to save face and remain relevant by suggesting, in various ways, that they knew all of the MMT insights all along, or variants on that theme. They didn’t. They were deeply opposed and hostile to key MMT insights that are now becoming widely acknowledged as correct. In trying to maintain this image of convergence, Stephen Grenville’s article, while quite insightful in many ways, misleads his readership and mispresents key MMT elements.
Today’s blog post is a draft for another deadline I have this week, this time writing for a European publication on the state of affairs in the Eurozone. I have four major pieces of work to finalise this week so, as in yesterday, I am using this time to progress those goals. For many regular readers it will be nothing new. But, putting the arguments together in this way might just provide some different angles for people who haven’t thought about things in this way before. Regular transmission will resume on Thursday (probably).
This is a draft I am working on for a leading US publication. For many regular readers it will be nothing new. But while there are several things I am probing at the moment which I would normally use my blog space to tease out, time is short this week (really) and so I have to combine things. In other words, the blog space and time today is being used to fulfill commitments with very tight deadlines. But, putting the arguments together in this way might just provide some different angles for people who haven’t thought about things in this way before.
Things are obviously getting desperate out there in financial media commentary land. If one could express written text in graphical terms then there are a number of financial journalists out there that look – like a rabbit caught in the headlights – that is in a state “of paralyzing surprise, fear, or bewilderment.” A good example of this increasingly observed syndrome is an article in The Australian newspaper today (June 30, 2020) by Adam Creighton – Never forget that governments have no money – it is always ours (subscription required). This sort of journalism is becoming an almost daily occurrence as it becomes obvious that capitalism is now on state life support systems and the extremities of government intervention are demonstrating very clearly what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists have been saying – and the only ones that have been saying it – for 25 years or so. I often note that Japan has already pushed the fiscal and monetary policy parameters beyond the limits most countries have explored in peacetime and mainstream economists have systematically predicted various scales of disaster and have always been wrong. Now all countries are at extremes and still no fiscal disaster. But the mainstream mouthpieces – these financial journalists who seem to think the stuff they read in first-year text books from mainstream economics programs are in same way the basis for expertise and knowledge – are in advanced states of dissonance. Drivel follows.
Insolvency is a corporate term which refers to a situation where a company is unable to pay contractual liabilities when they become due. From a balance sheet perspective, it means that the assets are valued below the liabilities. The term cannot be applied to a national government that does not issue liabilities in foreign currencies. Such a government can always meet its nominal liabilities irrespective of institutional arrangements it might have put in place to create contingent flows of numbers from one ‘box’ (account) to another ‘box’. Those arrangements do not override the intrinsic capacity of the legislator. So when the British press went crazy the other day reporting comments made by the Bank of England governor that the British government was on the cusp of insolvency, they did the British public a disservice. Donald Trump would have been finally justified in accusing the media of pushing out ‘fake’ news.
Governments save economies. Never let a mainstream economist tell you that government intervention is undesirable and that the ‘market’ will sort things out. Never let them tell you that large-scale government bond purchases by central banks lead to inflation. Never let them tell you that the government, when properly run, can run out of money. There is unlimited amounts of public purchasing capacity. The art is when to apply it and how much to release. That can only be determined by the behaviour of the non-government spending and saving and the state of idle capacity. It can never be determined by some arbitrary public debt threshold or deficit size. And the central bank can always buy however much debt they choose. At present the ECB is buying heaps and keeping the Member States solvent. That is not its state role but given there is no other institution in the Eurozone that can serve the fiscal function effectively and ‘safely’, it has to do that. Otherwise, the monetary union would quickly dissolve. I would take their bond buying programs further and write off all the debt they purchase. Immediately. Go on. Just type some zeros where they have recorded large positive Member State debt holdings. That would be something good to do in a terrible situation.
This is Part 2 of the two-part series which focuses on the question: If governments are not financially constrained in their spending why do they issue debt? Part 1 focused on the historical transition of the monetary system from gold standards to the modern fiat currency systems and we learned that the necessity to issue public debt disappeared as fixed exchange rates and convertibility was abandoned in the early 1970s. However, there are many justifications for continuing to issue debt that circulate. In this Part, I consider those justifications and conclude that the on-going practice of government’s issuing debt to the non-government sector is primarily an exercise in corporate welfare and should not be part of a progressive policy set.
One question that continually comes up when I do interviews is this: If governments are not financially constrained in their spending why do they issue debt? Usually, the question is expressed in an incredulous tone, meaning that the person asking the question considers this to be the gotcha moment, when they pierce the impeccable logic of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and show it for what it is – a sham. One problem is that there is a tendency to confuse motivation with function and many people sympathetic to MMT reduce it to simple statements that belie the reality. One such statement, relevant to this topic, is that government’s issue debt to allow the central bank to maintain a specific short-term interest rate target. Central banks have traditionally used government debt as an interest-rate maintenance tool. But that is a function of the debt rather than being the motivation for issuing the debt in the first place. So we explore those differences today as a means of clarifying the questions and confusions around this issue. This is Part 1 of a two-part series, which I will finish tomorrow.
I haven’t had time yet to fully work through the decision by the European Commission yesterday to provide grants and loans to struggling Eurozone countries. I will comment on that when I have had time to understand the implications and be in a position to provide fair comment. It seems to be a vastly inadequately response in quantum, on top of an existing lack of fiscal support. But more on that another day. Today, I am investigating the latest data from the ECB. On May 26, 2020, the ECB released its bi-annual – Financial Stability Review, May 2020 – which seemed to excite some journalists to advance narratives that ‘sovereign debt’ investors (although none of the Eurozone nations are sovereign) will soon become spooked by the sharp rise in public debt levels in Europe, which will “threaten to undermine private-sector spending” and stall any growth prospects. The quote is from a Financial Times article (May 26, 2020) – ECB warns of challenge for eurozone from soaring public debt – which followed the release of the ECB’s Review. The elephant is, of course, the ECB assets and its ability to control all yields on public debt at will.