Monday, March 1, 2021

Funding the budget by printing money is closer than you think

Many people are alarmed by “modern monetary theory”, the seemingly radical idea that the government should cover its budget deficit simply by creating money. But in his new book, Reset, Professor Ross Garnaut, one of our most respected economists, has joined the young turks.

And that’s not all. Last Monday I wrote about the things Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe doesn’t feel he can say out loud in this era of unconventional “monetary policy” (the manipulation of interest rates). Something else he doesn’t want to say is that the Reserve is funding the budget deficit already.

(By the way, what follows ignores the present flurry in bond markets, where some players have leapt to the conclusion that inflation’s about to take off. I wish. Don’t worry, the market will return to reality soon enough.)

Until Garnaut’s intervention, this issue has seemed divided between two groups. One is younger economics graduates who think of this revolutionary new idea that the federal government shouldn’t bother borrowing to finance its budget deficits but simply print all the money it needs – thus avoiding all that debt and interest payments – as a breakthrough that would transform the management of our economy and hasten our return to full employment.

The rival group is older, more experienced economists – and a lot of ordinary citizens – who see it as a dangerous, even crazy, idea that would surely end in disaster. It would be the primrose path of indiscipline that led to ever-rising inflation, maybe even hyper-inflation – a dollar that was worth next-to-nothing – and unemployment that was worse, not better.

Ostensibly, the opponents of modern monetary theory (MMT) are led by Lowe, as boss of our central bank. At his appearance before a parliamentary committee last month, he replied to a question from Greens leader Adam Bandt that he would “push back” against any assertion the Reserve was “financing the government”. (Note the curious wording: not that it should, but that it already was.)

Debate between the two sides has established that MMT is neither as modern and revolutionary as its proponents imagine, nor as crackpot as many of its critics imagine. The fact is, until as recently as the mid-1980s, it was common practice for national governments (including ours) to cover their budget deficits partly by borrowing from the public and partly by “borrowing” from the central bank – which would create the money the government wanted.

This was when the developed economies were struggling with high inflation, and Milton Friedman’s “monetarists” were telling people that adding to the supply of money would inevitably lead to inflation.

So all the governments (including the Hawke-Keating government) decided to fund their deficits solely by selling government bonds to the public. Ironically, this meant the banking system (not an individual bank, but the system as a whole) could and did continue creating money, but the government – despite being the issuer and backer of the currency – couldn’t.

The monetarist dogma that creating money inevitably leads to inflation turned out to be wrong. It’s inflationary only if it causes the demand for the “real resources” – land, labour and physical capital – used to produce goods and services to exceed the supply of real resources. Until you reach that point, the creation of more money – whether by the banking system or the government – should give you stronger demand and more jobs without causing problems.

So the real reason for worry about MMT isn’t the theory, but the practice. If you give a bunch of vote-buying politicians a licence to spend as much as they like up to a certain point, how could you be sure they’d stop, and revert to borrowing, when they reached that point?

It’s this that Lowe is really on about, though he doesn’t want to say so.

Since last year he’s had little choice but to join the other, bigger economies in resorting to “quantitative easing” (QE) – the central bank buying second-hand government bonds, so as to lower the “yields” (interest rates) on such bonds, but paying for them merely by crediting the bond sellers’ bank accounts.

In particular, since March last year the Reserve has guaranteed that it would buy sufficient bonds to stop the yield on three-year Australian government bonds rising above 0.25 per cent (later lowered to 0.1 per cent). In practice, because the market believed the Reserve would honour its promise, it hasn’t had to actually buy all that many bonds – until last week.

Then, last November, the Reserve went further into QE, announcing it would buy $100 billion worth of second-hand federal and state government bonds with maturities of five to 10 years so as to force their yields down, too. The Reserve estimates that these purchases have lowered yields by about 0.3 percentage points.

Last month it decided to buy another $100 billion worth. Under questioning by Labor’s Dr Andrew Leigh at the parliamentary committee, Lowe and his deputy, Dr Guy Debelle, revealed that $80 billion of the first $100 billion had gone on federal (as opposed to state) government bonds, which represented about 10 per cent of the feds’ entire stock of bonds outstanding.

The further $100 billion would take the Reserve’s holding of the feds’ total debt to 20 per cent. If there was yet another $100 billion purchase after the second, that would take its holding to 30 per cent. With the Reserve buying second-hand bonds at the steady rate of $5 billion a week, it was buying more than the new bonds the government was issuing to fund its huge budget deficit, Debelle revealed.

In his opening statement to the committee, Lowe insisted that “the RBA does not, and will not, directly finance governments. The bonds we own will have to be repaid in the same way as if they were owned by others.

“We are lowering the cost of finance for governments – as we are for all borrowers – but we are not providing direct finance. There remains a strong separation between monetary and fiscal [budgetary] policy,” he said.

That last sentence is the key to why Lowe is drawing such fine distinctions. Fiscal policy is controlled by the politicians, whereas monetary policy is controlled by the Reserve, which is independent of the elected government.

The Reserve is buying all these second-hand bonds of its own volition, and doing so because it believes QE is part of monetary policy’s best contribution to getting people back in jobs. It’s not acting under any directive from the government to fund its deficit directly. So the problem of the pollies continuing to spend beyond the point where this becomes inflationary doesn’t arise.

All true. But Lowe can’t suspend the truth that money is “fungible” – all dollars are interchangeable. Funding the deficit indirectly rather than directly may be important from the perspective of good governance, but from the perspective of the economic effect, they’re the same.

Back to the views of Professor Garnaut: “The fiscal deficits should be mainly funded directly or indirectly by the Reserve Bank, at least until full employment is in sight.”