There has been a lot of E-mail traffic coming in after my blog on The Greens the other day. At the heart of the matter is the fundamental difficulty people have in appreciating that there has been a fundamental shift since the 1970s in the way our monetary system operates. This shift redefines how we should think about macroeconomics and the role of a national government which issues its own currency. The defenders of The Greens economic policy clearly misunderstand this historical shift. To really get to the heart of how a modern monetary system functions you have to appreciate the difference between a convertible and non-convertible currency and a fixed versus a flexible exchange rate system. The economics that apply to convertible currency-fixed exchange rate systems bears no relation to that which applies to the fiat currency-flexible exchange rate systems that prevail in most economies today. So before you attack my macroeconomics, make sure you understand what a government can do in a modern monetary paradigm. Otherwise, you are a dinosaur and they became extinct.
Gold standard – convertibility and fixed exchange rates
When we talk about the gold standard we are referring to the system which regulated the value of currencies around the world in terms of a certain amount of gold. When the gold standard was in vogue (C19th into the C20th) it was the major way that countries adjusted their money supply.
How does it work?
First, a currency might be valued for its intrinsic value (so gold or silver coins). This is a pure commodity currency system. In the C18th, commodity money systems became problematic because there was a shortage of silver and this system steadily gave way to a system where paper money issued by a central bank was backed by gold. So the idea was that a currency’s value can be expressed in terms of a specified unit of gold. So we might say that a unit of paper currency (a dollar note) might be worth x grains of gold. To make this work there has to be convertibility which means that someone who possesses a paper dollar will be able to swap it (convert it) for the relevant amount of gold.
Britain adopted the gold standard in 1844 and it became the common system regulating domestic economies and trade between them up until World War I. In this period, the leading economies of the world ran a pure gold standard and expressed their exchange rates accordingly. As an example, say the Australian Pound was worth 30 grains of gold and the USD was worth 15 grains, then the 2 USDs would be required for every AUD in trading exchanges.
The monetary authority agreed to maintain the “mint price” of gold fixed by standing ready to buy or sell gold to meet any supply or demand imbalance. Further, the central bank (or equivalent in those days) had to maintain stores of gold sufficient to back the circulating currency (at the agreed convertibility rate).
Gold was also considered to be the principle method of making international payments. Accordingly, as trade unfolded, imbalances in trade (imports and exports) arose and this necessitated that gold be transferred between nations (in boats) to fund these imbalances. Trade deficit countries had to ship gold to trade surplus countries. For example, assume Australia was exporting more than it was importing from New Zealand. In net terms, the demand for AUD (to buy the our exports) would thus be higher relative to supply (to buy NZD to purchase imports from NZ) and this would necessitate New Zealand shipping gold to us to fund the trade imbalance (their deficit with Australia).
This inflow of gold would allow the Australian government to expand the money supply (issue more notes) because they had more gold to back the currency. This expansion was in strict proportion to the set value of the AUD in terms of grains of gold. The rising money supply would push against the inflation barrier (given no increase in the real capacity of the economy) which would ultimately render exports less attractive to foreigners and the external deficit would decline.
From the New Zealand perspective, the loss of gold reserves to Australia forced their Government to withdraw paper currency which was deflationary – rising unemployment and falling output and prices. The latter improved the competitiveness of their economy which also helped resolve the trade imbalance. But it remains that the deficit nations were forced to bear rising unemployment and vice versa as the trade imbalances resolved.
The proponents of the gold standard focus on the way it prevents the government from issuing paper currency as a means of stimulating their economies. Under the gold standard, the government could not expand base money if the economy was in trade deficit. It was considered that the gold standard acted as a means to control the money supply and generate price levels in different trading countries which were consistent with trade balance. The domestic economy however was forced to make the adjustments to the trade imbalances.
Monetary policy became captive to the amount of gold that a country possessed (principally derived from trade). Variations in the gold production levels also influenced the price levels of countries.
In practical terms, the adjustments to trade that were necessary to resolve imbalances were slow. In the meantime, deficit nations had to endure domestic recessions and entrenched unemployment. So a gold standard introduces a recessionary bias to economies with the burden always falling on countries with weaker currencies (typically as a consequence of trade deficits). This inflexibility prevented governments from introducing policies that generated the best outcomes for their domestic economies (high employment).
Ultimately the monetary authority would not be able to resist the demands of the population for higher employment.
The onset of World War I interrupted the operation of the gold standard and currencies were valued by whatever the specific government wanted to set it at. The ensuing 25 odd years saw significant instability with attempts to go back to the standard in some countries proving extremely damaging in terms of gold losses and rising unemployment. The UK abandoned the gold standard in 1931 as it was facing massive losses of gold. It had tried to maintain the value of the Pound in terms the pre-WW1 parity with gold but the war severely weakened its economy and so the pound was massively over-valued in this period and trade competitiveness undermined as a consequence.
After World War 2, the IMF was created to supercede the gold standard and the so-called gold exchange standard emerged. Convertibility to gold was abandoned and replaced by convertibility into the USD, reflecting the dominance of the US in world trade (and the fact that they won the war!). This new system was built on the agreement that the US government would convert a USD into gold at $USD35 per ounce of gold. This provided the nominal anchor for the exchange rate system.
The Bretton Woods System was introduced in 1946 and created the fixed exchange rates system. Governments could now sell gold to the United States treasury at the price of $USD35 per ounce. So now a country would build up USD reserves and if they were running a trade deficit they could swap their own currency for USD (drawing from their reserves) and then for their own currency and stimulate the economy (to increase imports and reduce the trade deficit).
The fixed exchange rate system however rendered fiscal policy relatively restricted because monetary policy had to target the exchange parity. If the exchange rate was under attack (perhaps because of a balance of payments deficit) which would manifest as an excess supply of the currency in the foreign exchange markets, then the central bank had to intervene and buy up the local currency with its reserves of foreign currency (principally $USDs).
This meant that the domestic economy would contract (as the money supply fell) and unemployment would rise. Further, the stock of $USD reserves held by any particular bank was finite and so countries with weak trading positions were always subject to a recessionary bias in order to defend the agreed exchange parities. The system was politically difficult to maintain because of the social instability arising from unemployment.
So if fiscal policy was used too aggressively to reduce unemployment, it would invoke a monetary contraction to defend the exchange rate as imports rose in response to the rising national income levels engendered by the fiscal expansion. Ultimately, the primacy of monetary policy ruled because countries were bound by the Bretton Woods agreement to maintain the exchange rate parities. They could revalue or devalue (once off realignments) but this was frowned upon and not common.
Whichever system we want to talk off – pure gold standard or USD-convertible system backed by gold – the constraints on government were obvious.
The gold standard as applied domestically meant that existing gold reserves controlled the domestic money supply. Given gold was in finite supply (and no new discoveries had been made for years), it was considered to provide a stable monetary system. But when the supply of gold changed (a new field discovered) then this would create inflation.
So gold reserves restricted the expansion of bank reserves and the supply of high powered money (Government currency). The central bank thus could not expand their liabilities beyond their gold reserves (although it is a bit more complex than that). In operational terms this means that once the threshold was reached, then the monetary authority could not buy any government debt or provide loans to its member banks.
As a consequence, bank reserves were limited and if the public wanted to hold more currency then the reserves would contract. This state defined the money supply threshold.
Some gymnastics could be done to adjust the quantity of gold that had to be held. But overall the restrictions were solid.
The concept of (and the term) monetisation comes from this period. When the government acquired new gold (say by purchasing some from a gold mining firm) they could create new money. The process was that the government would order some gold and sign a cheque for the delivery. This cheque is deposited by the miner in their bank. The bank then would exchange this cheque with the central bank in return for added reserves. The central bank then accounts for this by reducing the government account at the bank. So the government’s loss is the commercial banks reserve gain.
The other implication of this system is that the national government can only increase the money supply by acquiring more gold. Any other expenditure that the government makes would have to be “financed” by taxation or by debt issuance. The government cannot just credit a commercial bank account under this system to expand its net spending independent of its source of finance.
As a consequence, whenever the government spent it would require offsetting revenue in the form of taxes or borrowed funds.
Ultimately, Bretton Woods collapsed in 1971. It was under pressure in the 1960s with a series of “competitive devaluations” by the UK and other countries who were facing chronically high unemployment due to persistent trading problems. Ultimately, the system collapsed because Nixon’s prosecution of the Vietnam war forced him to suspend USD convertibility to allow him to net spend more. Here is an interesting historical video of Nixon abandoning the Bretton Woods system on August 15, 1971. This was the final break in the links between a commodity that had intrinsic value and the nominal currencies. From this point in, governments used fiat currency as the basis of the monetary system.
The move to fiat currencies fundamentally altered the way the monetary system operated even though the currency was still, say, the $AUD.
This system had two defining characteristics: (a) non-convertibility; and (b) flexible exchange rates. You need to recognise this major shift in history before you can understand why the economic policy ideas that prevailed in the previous monetary systems (based on convertibility) are no longer applicable. You cannot assume that the logic that applied in the fixed exchange rate-convertibility days translates over into the fiat currency era. The fact is that it doesn’t.
What I call neo-liberal macroeconomic reasoning is really the sort of reasoning that prevailed in the days prior to fiat currency. While there were debates about how to conduct macroeconomic policy in those days, there were some obvious key constraints that I have outlined above. This is irrespective of whether you want to call yourself a Keynesian or a Monetarist. The shift in history also renders most of the textbook economics outdated and wrong, in terms of how they depict the operations of the fiat monetary system.
When I talk about modern monetary theory I am referring to the fiat monetary system. I am recognising that a fundamental shift occurred in history when Bretton Woods collapsed and this has dramatically altered the opportunities available to sovereign governments.
First, under a fiat monetary system, “state money” has no intrinsic value. It is non-convertible which means that you can take a $AUD coin to the government and in return you will get a $AUD coin back. There is no responsibility to do more than this. So for this otherwise “worthless” currency to be acceptable in exchange (buying and selling things) some motivation has to be introduced. That motivation emerges because the sovereign government has the capacity to require its use to relinquish private tax obligations to the state. Under the gold standard and its derivatives money was always welcome as a means of exchange because it was convertible to gold which had a known and fixed value by agreement. This is a fundamental change.
Second, given the relationship between the commodity backing (gold) and the ability to spend is abandoned and that the Government is the monopoly issuer of the fiat currency in use (defined by the tax obligation) then the spending by this government is revenue independent. It can spend however much it likes subject to there being real goods and services available for sale. This is a dramatic change.
Irrespective of whether the government has been spending more than revenue (taxation and bond sales) or less, on any particular day the government has the same capacity to spend as it did yesterday. There is no such concept of the government being “out of money” or not being able to afford to fund a program. How much the national government spends is entirely of its own choosing. There are no financial restrictions on this capacity.
This is not to say there are no restrictions on government spending. There clearly are – the quantity of real goods and services available for sale including all the unemployed labour. Further, it is important to understand that while the national government issuing a fiat currency is not financially constrained its spending decisions (and taxation and borrowing decisions) impact on interest rates, economic growth, private investment, and price level movements.
We should never fall prey to the argument that the government has to get revenue from taxation or borrowing to “finance” its spending under a fiat currency system. It had to do this under a gold standard (or derivative system) but not under a fiat currency system. Most commentators fail to understand this difference and still apply the economics they learned at university which is fundamentally based on the gold standard/fixed exchange rate system.
Under a fiat currency system, if the government sets limits on its spending – for example, a rule restricting real growth of spending to be 2 per cent – then this is purely voluntary. It might be a sensible rule given the scale of nominal demand relative to real capacity but it is purely voluntary. These rules, however, usually arise from some mis-perception that the size of the budget deficit is a concern or the growth in public debt is a concern. Neither are particularly relevant to anything germane.
Third, in a fiat currency system the government does not need to finance spending in which case the issuing of debt by the monetary authority or the treasury has to serve other purposes.
On function of government debt is to allow the central bank to maintain its target interest rates by providing investors with an interest-bearing asset that drains the excess reserves in the banking system that result from deficit spending. If these reserves were not drained (that is, if the government did not borrow) then the spending would still occur but the overnight interest rate would plunge (due to competition by banks to rid themselves of the non-profitable reserves) and this may not be consistent with the stated intention of the central bank to maintain a particular target interest rate.
Importantly, the source of funds that investors use to buy the bonds is derived from the net government spending anyway (that is, spending above taxation). The private sector cannot buy bonds in the fiat currency unless the government has spent the same previously. This is a fundamental departure from the gold standard mechanisms where borrowing was necessary to fund government spending given the fixed money supply (fixed by gold stocks). Taxation and borrowing were intrinsically tied to the government’s management of its gold reserves.
So in a fiat currency system, government borrowing doesn’t fund its spending. But it has historically helped the central bank curtail interbank competition which allows the central bank to defend its target interest rate.
The flexible exchange rate system means that monetary policy is freed from defending some fixed parity and thus fiscal policy can solely target the spending gap to maintain high levels of employment. The foreign adjustment is then accomplished by the daily variations in the exchange rate.
The two monetary systems are very different. You cannot apply the economics of the gold standard (or USD convertibility) to the modern monetary system. Unfortunately, most commentators and professors and politicians continue to use the old logic when discussing the current policy options. It is a basic fallacy and prevents us from having a sensible discussion about what the government should be doing. All the fear mongering about the size of the deficit and the size of the borrowings (and the logic of borrowing in the first place) are all based on the old paradigm. They are totally inapplicable to the fiat monetary system.