In Part 1 of this mini-series – When relations within government were sensible – the US-Fed Accord – Part 1 – I examined the pre-1951 agreement between the US Treasury department and the US Federal Reserve Bank, which saw the bank effectively fund the US Treasury. The nature of that relationship, which began when the central bank was formed in 1913, changed in 1935 when the legislators voluntarily chose to change the capacity of the currency issuer to buy unlimited amounts of US Treasury debt directly to one of only being able to purchase the debt in the secondary markets once issued. But the effect was the same. The central bank could control the yields at any segment of the bond maturity curve at its will. The shift in 1935 was the result of conservative forces that were intent on derailing the government’s capacity to use the consolidated central bank/treasury to efficiently advance well-being. They wanted political constraints placed on the Treasury, such that it would have to issue debt to the non-government sector before it could spend, which they knew was an arrangement (similar to formal debt ceilings) that could be used to pressure the government towards austerity. By the time the Korean War ensued, these conservative forces were winning the political debate and big changes were to come, which would limit the fiscal capacity of the US government to this very day. The result has been an inefficient fiscal process prone to capture by conservatives and certainly not one that a progressive would consider to be sensible. I analyse that shift post-1942 in this blog, which is Part 2 in the series. In Part 3, we pull the story together and reveal what was really going on.
I have all that much time today to write this up and it is going to be one of those multi-part blogs given the depth of the historical literature I am digging into. So this is Part 1. The topic centres on an agreement between the US Federal Reserve System (the central bank federation in the US) and the US Treasury to peg the interest rate on government bonds in 1942. What the agreement demonstrated is that a central bank can always control yields on government bonds, which includes keeping them at zero (or even negative in the current case of Japan). What it demonstrates is that private bonds markets, no matter how much they might huff and puff about their own importance or at least the conservatives who are ‘fan boys’ of the bond markets), the government always rules because of its currency monopoly
There was a Bloomberg report yesterday (September 6, 2017) – Draghi’s Claim of QE Flexibility Is Attracting Doubters – that made me laugh. The sort of laugh that comes when you just realise there is parallel language spoken out there that makes no sense and reinforces stupidity with stupidity. Much like most of mainstream economics commentary. The journalist was trying to argue that times is up for the ECB’s Quantitative Easing strategy because they are running out of debt to buy. Whew! That sounds like a catastrophe. The point is that the elephant in the room is ignored. The ECB is already massively violating the Treaty of Lisbon constraints on funding government deficits. It is time they realised that without that ‘quasi fiscal support’ (given the ECB is effectively the only functioning federal fiscal authority by default in the Eurozone), the system will collapse under the weight of austerity. Leadership demands they take the next step and allow the ECB to openly fund deficits using Overt Monetary Financing (OMF). But the lack of leadership tells us they will not take this obvious step. The grinding nature of Eurozone economic history will continue as a result – and then the next crisis will hit.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City has just hosted its annual Economic Policy Symposium at Jackson Hole in Wyoming where central banks, treasury officials, financial market types and (mainstream) economists from the academy and business gather to discuss economic policy. As you might expect, the agenda is set by the mainstream view of the world and there is little diversity in the discussion. A Groupthink reinforcing session. One paper that was interesting was from two US Berkeley academics – Fiscal Stimulus and Fiscal Sustainability – which the news reports claimed suggested that governments should be increasing fiscal expansion even though they may be carrying high levels of public debt. The conclusion reached by the paper is correct but the methodology is mainstream and so progressives should not get carried away with the idea that there is signs that some give is emerging, which will lead to more progressive outcomes. A progressive solution will only come when the neo-liberal dominance of my profession is terminated and an entirely new macroeconomics paradigm based on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is established. There is still a long way to go though.
There was an article in the Financial Times last week (August 16, 2017) – Central banks hold a fifth of their governments’ debt – which seemed to think there was a “challenge” facing policymakers in “unwinding assets after decade of stimulus”. The article shows how central banks around the world have been buying huge quantities of government (and private) bonds and holding them on their balance sheets. Apparently, these asset holdings are likely to cause the banks headaches. I don’t see it that way. The central banks, in question, could write the debt off any time they chose with no significant consequence. Why they don’t is the question rather than whether they will become insolvent if the values crash (they won’t) or whether the yields will skyrocket if they sell them back into the non-government sector (they won’t). Last week (August 15, 2017), the US Department of Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board put out their updated data on Foreign Holders of US Treasury Securities. Other relevant data was also published which helps us trace the US Federal Reserve holdings of US government debt. Overall, the US government holds about 40 per cent of its own total outstanding debt – split between the intergovernmental agencies (27.6 per cent) and the US Federal Reserve Bank (12.4 per cent). In some quarters, the US central bank has been known to purchase nearly all the change in total debt. That folks, is what we might call Overt Monetary Financing and the sky hasn’t fallen in yet as a consequence.
“If we want to ensure more people are well-employed, central banks alone will certainly not suffice” is a quote I am happy to republish because I consider it to be 100 per cent accurate. The only problem is that the way I think about that statement and construct its implications is totally at odds with the intent of its author, who claimed it was “an important lesson of Friedman’s speech”, which “remains valid”. The quote appeared in a recent Bloomberg article (July 17, 2017) – What Milton Friedman Got Right, and Wrong, 50 Years Ago – written by journalist Ferdinando Giugliano. It celebrates the Presidential Speech that Friedman gave to the American Economic Association on December 29, 1967 at their annual conference in Washington D.C. In terms of the contest of paradigms, the speech is considered to be the starting point proper of the Monetarist era, even though it took at least another 5 or 6 years (with the onset of the OPEC oil crises) for the gospel espoused by Friedman to really gain ground. The problem is that Friedman was selling snake oil that became the popular litany of the faithful because it suited those who wanted to degrade the role of government in maintaining full employment. It was in step with the push by capital to derail the Post War social democratic consensus that had seen real wages growing in proportion with productivity, reduced income inequality, jobs for all who wanted to work and a strong sense of collective solidarity emerge in most advanced nations. This consensus was the anathema of the elites who saw it as squeezing their share of national income and giving too much power to workers to negotiate better terms and conditions in their work places. Friedman provided the smokescreen for hacking into that consensus and so began the neo-liberal era. We are still enduring its destructive consequences.
The latest inflation data from the Eurozone tells us once again how wrong mainstream monetary theory is. Eurostat released its latest estimates (June 30, 2017) – Euro area annual inflation down to 1.3% – which has according to the press confounded the ECB, who has been trying to push the inflation rate up to around 2 per cent (a soft target). Like many economic things that confound the pundits, if you are familiar with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) you won’t be surprised at all. All the baying at the moon that the ECB has been doing (courtesy of mainstream monetary textbook) won’t shift the inflation rate. Expanding bank reserves won’t shift the inflation rate. The real cause of the declining inflation rate is a lack of spending relative to productive capacity. And it is clear that the ECB has limited capacity to influence that gap. That is a matter for fiscal policy, which remains in austerity mode in the Eurozone as the leaders continue to talk about nothing.
There is a lot of talk among the economics journalists about the impending collapse of China, apparently drowning in mountains of unsustainable debt. Don’t hold your breath. The Chinese government fully understands its capacity as the monopoly issuer of its currency and demonstrated during the GFC how to effectively deploy that capacity. That doesn’t mean that the Chinese economy might record slower growth in the period ahead – but as Japan demonstrated in the 1990s after it experienced a massive property bubble burst – slower growth is not collapse. Appropriate use of fiscal policy can always prevent collapse if there is a will to do so. Further, Australia’s net foreign debt has risen significantly over the last few decades and now exceeds $A1 trillion. Most of it is non-government and the private banks have been at the forefront of the increase as they have been racking up loans from foreign wholesale funding markets. With China slowing, there is a possibility that the conditions for servicing these private loans may deteriorate. A chief of a credit rating agency (S&P) has been getting airplay in Australia the last few days claiming that this increased vulnerability arising from the foreign debt exposure requires the federal government to get into surplus as quickly as possible to provide it with the capacity to “absorb shocks” arising from a correction in the banking sector. His insights are nonsensical. Exactly the opposite is the case.
On one side of the Atlantic, it seems that central bankers understand the way the monetary system operates, while on the other side, central bankers are either not cognisant of how the system really works or choose to publish fake knowledge as a means to leverage political and/or ideological advantage. Yesterday, the Deutsche Bundesbank released their Monthly Report April 2017, which carried an article – Die Rolle von Banken, Nichtbanken und Zentralbank im Geldschöpfungsprozess (The Role of Banks, Non-banks and the central bank in the money-creation process). The article is only in German and provides an excellent overview of the way the system operates. We can compare that to coverage of the same topic by American central bankers, which choose to perpetuate the myths that students are taught in mainstream macroeconomic and monetary textbooks. Today’s blog will also help people who are struggling with the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) claim that a sovereign government is never revenue constrained because it is the monopoly issuer of the currency and the fact that private bank’s create money through loans. There is no contradiction. Remember that MMT prefers to concentrate on net financial assets in the currency of issue rather than ‘money’ because that focus allows the intrinsic nature of the currency monopoly to be understood.
How many times have to heard a politician claim they had to cut government spending and move the fiscal balance to surplus because they had to engender the confidence of the bond markets. Apparently, this narrative alleges that if bond markets are not ‘confident’ (whatever that means) then they will stop begging treasury departments for more debt issues and the government, in question, will run out of money and then pensions will stop being paid and the public service will be sacked and public trains and buses will stop running and before we know it the skies will blacken and collapse on us. The narrative ignores the usual statistics that bid-to-cover ratios are typically high (hence my ‘begging’ terminology) which are supplemented by well documented cases where the bond dealers (including banks etc) do actually beg central banks to stop driving yields down in maturity segments where these characters have pitched their “business model” (read: where they make the most profits). The facts are exactly the opposite to the neo-liberal pitch. Currency-issuing governments never need to worry about how bond markets ‘feel’. Essentially, the bond markets are irrelevant to the ability of such a government to design and implement its fiscal plans. And, the central bank always can counteract any tendencies that the bond markets might seek to impose where governments do actually issue debt.