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.
In the wake of the $A60 billion bungle, the Australian government has turned its attention to creating smokescreens. Yesterday (May 25, 2020), the Treasurer released a statement - Temporary changes to continuous disclosure provisions for companies and officers - which…
On Friday, we had the extraordinary admission from our Federal government that they had overestimated the injection required to fund their wage subsidy JobKeeper program by some $A60 billion. When the overall program was announced the Treasury allocated $A133 billion to it. So now they are admitting to a 45 per cent forecasting error, which sort of dwarfs the worst errors that the IMF makes, and they sure make some bad mistakes in their projections. Whatever the reason for the mistake, the way the Treasurer has defended it is quite repugnant – claiming virtue out of the incompetence. And while all the Labor Party economists are talking about seeing the error from space, none of them picked it up or had the nous to realise that the figures didn’t add up when the Government originally released them. I am the only economist who wrote that the figures published by the Government didn’t make sense. I did that on April 29, 2020. I also wrote to the Treasury and the Treasurer requesting answers to questions that reflected my concern. They didn’t bother replying. Now everyone is wise after the fact. Anyway, the $A60 billion is a nice round figure. And I outline a plan in this blog post on exactly how the Treasurer can spend it and improve the well-being of more than a million Australians with a stroke of the pen.
Remember back just a few months ago. We are in Britain. All the Remainers are jumping up and down about Brexit. We hardly see anything about it now as the UK moves towards a no deal with the EU. Times have overtaken all that non-event stuff. Now the developments are confounding the mainstream economists – again. There will be all sorts of reinventing history and ad hoc reasoning going on, but the latest data demonstrates quite clearly that what students are taught in mainstream macroeconomics provides no basis for an understanding of how the monetary system operates. All the predictions that a mainstream program would generate about the likely effects of current treasury and central bank behaviour would be wrong. Only MMT provides the body of knowledge that is requisite for understanding these trends.
It is getting to the stage that one gets bored reading critiques of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) by leading mainstream economists. As the critiques have escalated over the last few years, I can safely say that not one has really said anything: (a) that the core body of work we have developed hasn’t already considered and dealt with – about 20 years ago!; (b) which means, none of the long line of the would be demolition team has achieved their aim. And when they write Op Ed articles that basically just say – oh, MMT economists ignore “the demand for money” and “MMT falls flat on its face” when inflation emerges as part of the emergence out of this crisis, I get bored. Really, is that the best they can come up with. The latest entreaty in the boring stakes comes from Willem Buiter, who seems to have left the commercial banking sector and gone back into academic life. His latest Op Ed – The Problem With MMT (May 4, 2020) – is not his best work. Boring is the best descriptor. Why did he bother? Did he think he had to establish his relevance. He would have been better concentrating on the archaic mess that his mainstream framework is in. Anyway, sorry to end the week like this.