Showing posts with label modern monetary theory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label modern monetary theory. Show all posts

Friday, May 27, 2022

Printing money to fund the deficit ain't the free lunch it seems

The new Treasurer, Dr Jim Chalmers, is saying a lot about the trillion-dollar debt he’s just inherited. He’s saying less about the tension between the new government’s plan to “invest” in improving the economy and all the pressure he’ll be under from mainstream economists to reduce the budget deficit and so reduce what Labor will be adding to that debt.

But whenever I write about debt and deficit, I know to expect puzzled or angry pushback from people who’ve read US Professor Stephanie Kelton’s bestseller, The Deficit Myth, or studied “modern monetary theory” (MMT) at university.

Why all this fuss about budget deficits? Who said the shortfall between what a government spends and what it raises in taxes must be covered by borrowing from the public? That’s just a rule someone made up.

Surely the government can avoid ticking up all that debt – with all the interest payments on it – simply by telling the central bank to “create” – some still say “print” – the money the government needs.

After all, all currencies are “fiat” currencies. When a government prints a $50 note, it becomes “legal tender” worth $50 merely because the government says it is. By government decree or fiat.

So why all the fuss about debt and deficit? Just create all the extra money the government needs with the stroke of the central bank’s computer program.

There’s a lot of truth in what the MMT people say. But if you think it all sounds a bit too good to be true, it is. So what’s the problem?

The “monetarists” of the 1970s taught that every time the government adds to the supply of money in circulation it adds to inflation. Not true. We value money because of what we can buy with it. Economists say what you’re buying is “command over real resources” – that is, raw materials, physical capital equipment and labour, often embodied in goods and services, or physical assets, including buildings and land.

Inflation is caused when the demand for real (that is, tangible) resources runs ahead of the supply of real resources, thereby causing prices to rise.

So, even though people spending the money you’ve created will add to the demand for real resources, this won’t cause inflation provided you do it when demand is weak. Only when you reach the point where demand catches up and overtakes supply will you have a problem with inflation.

That’s the purely pragmatic reason most economists disapprove of MMT. Once politicians had the idea they could keep spending without worrying about debt and deficit, how would you get them to stop adding to inflation by continuing to create money rather switching back to borrowing and having to pay interest?

How would you get them to do what Chalmers is doing as we speak: looking at all the spending plans of his Liberal predecessors that aren’t sensible and stopping them, so as to make room for Labor’s own spending plans?

Even so, as the econocrats would prefer me not to point out, the MMT brigade has had a qualified win. As part of the Reserve Bank’s resort to “unconventional” monetary policy during the pandemic – aka “quantitative easing” – it has bought more than $350 billion-worth of second-hand government bonds.

Bonds it paid for merely by crediting the “exchange-settlement accounts” that each of the banks it bought the bonds from has with the central bank.

So indirectly, the Reserve has done what the MMT people say it should have done: covered about $350 billion of budget deficits by creating money.

This means $350 billion of the government’s $1 trillion debt – and the related interest payments - is owed to the Reserve Bank, which just happens to be owned by the government. Roughly a third of the government’s debt is owed to, and must eventually be repaid to, itself.

So, the government’s liability is cancelled out by its subsidiary’s asset. That’s what I wrote a few weeks’ ago, and it’s true. But, as some fossilised central banker explained to me, it’s not the whole truth.

When you trace through all the double-entry bookkeeping, you see that the created money the Reserve paid into the banks’ exchange-settlement accounts in return for the bonds it bought is still sitting there. It’s still a liability on the Reserve’s balance sheet, and an asset on the banks’ balance sheets.

That money is part of what monetary economists call “base money”. Base money consists of all the “currency” – notes and coins – issued by the central bank, plus all the money the banks are holding in their exchange-settlement accounts at the central bank.

And the trick to base money is that its quantity can be changed only by a transaction with either the government or the central bank on the other end of it. That is, nothing anything any person or business or even a bank can do of their own volition can change the quantity of base money.

It’s true that bank A and bank B can do a deal that reduces the balance of bank A’s account – but only by increasing bank B’s balance by the same amount. That is, the banks can move base money around between themselves, but they can’t change the quantity of base money held by the banks as a whole.

OK, but why is this a problem? Because the banks have money they own stuck in bank accounts with the central bank, on which it pays little or no interest. They’d like to lend it to someone else at a much higher interest rate.

So they’re tempted to enter highly contrived, highly risky arbitrage arrangements which involve borrowing short-term and lending long-term. The Yanks call this “picking up dimes in front of a steamroller”.

It’s fine until there’s a financial crisis, which brings down banks and does huge damage to the rest of the economy, as we saw with the global financial crisis of 2008. Yet another case of there being no free lunches.


Monday, February 7, 2022

Interest rate rises will be a good thing - provided they're not too soon

Sometimes I think you can divide the nation’s economy-watchers into those desperate to see the Reserve Bank start raising interest rates and those desperately hoping it won’t. As usual, the sensible position is somewhere between them.

To some, interest rate rises are always a bad thing. They’re either speaking from self-interest or they’re victims of a media that unfailingly assumes all its customers are borrowers and none are savers. Tell that to your grandma.

What gets missed in all the angst is that the need to raise rates is always a good sign. A sign the economy’s growing strongly – perhaps too strongly. Trust the media to see the glass as always half empty.

In the present debate, however, the financial-market urgers fear we have a burgeoning problem with inflation, which must be stamped out quickly if it’s not to become a raging bushfire.

On the other side, the econocrats and others not wanting to start raising rates any earlier than necessary see how close we are to achieving a “historic milestone” in getting the rate of unemployment below 4 per cent for the first time in 50 years.

They’re determined to see that goal achieved and put new meaning into the words “full employment” because they see it as key to avoiding a return to the low-growth trap in which we were caught before the pandemic.

And they want to ensure the return to low unemployment is more than fleeting by making sure we play our monetary policy (interest rates) and fiscal policy (the budget) cards right. As Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe said last week, “low unemployment brings with it very real economic and social benefits”.

In a way, we’re back to the great monetarists-versus-Keynesians debate of the mid-1970s: which is more important, low inflation or low unemployment? But, to use a phrase of Scott Morrison’s, it’s not binary choice. We need both; the trick is to pursue them in the right order.

Right now, the risk is that, by conning central banks into anti-inflation overkill, the markets will weaken the recovery from the pandemic, sending the rich economies back to the slow-growth trap.

But the debate about whether or when our Reserve should start raising interest rates has overshadowed an important development last week: its decision to end QE – quantitative easing; the Reserve buying second-hand government bonds with money it has created with a few computer key-strokes – by ceasing to buy $4 billion worth of bonds each week.

Lowe announced that, in total, the various elements of the Reserve’s QE program involved buying more than $350 billion in bonds. (He didn’t say that this means the Reserve has, in effect, financed more that all the government’s pandemic stimulus spending with created money. It’s all a book entry between the government and the central bank it owns.)

Among the various benefits of the QE program claimed by Lowe was that it led to Australia having “a lower exchange rate than would otherwise have been the case”. He noted, too, that the US Federal Reserve and other central banks were ending their QE programs.

And there you have the real reason why, with us having avoided QE after the global financial crisis, Lowe felt he had little choice but to join in the second, pandemic-related round.

The least doubted “benefit” of QE is that it puts downward pressure on the country’s exchange rate, at the expense of its trading partners’ price competitiveness.

So, when the mighty Fed indulges in QE, most other central banks feel they have to defend their own exchange rates by joining in. Any country that doesn’t join the game becomes the bunny whose exports suffer.

Lowe reminded us that ending the bond-buying program doesn’t constitute a tightening of monetary policy, but rather a cessation of further easing. True. The tightening – quantitative tightening, or QT – will come if, when the bonds it has bought reach maturity, the Reserve decides not to replace them with new bonds. It hasn’t yet decided what it will do.

The financial markets, the media and ordinary citizens are far more interested in what happens to interest rates than in the arcania of unconventional monetary policy. But this ending of QE is a reminder that it would hardly make sense to keep boring on with QE with one hand while putting up interest rates with the other.

It’s important to ensure we don’t risk cutting off our return to a sustained recovery by lifting interest rates too soon – that is, before our business people have been forced to abandon their perverse notion that it’s best to keep wage rates low forever – or raise interest rates too high.

We do want to emerge from the pandemic with more than just a once-only bounce-back from the lockdowns. We need ongoing growth, which requires a return to real growth in wages.

But remember this: the present “stance” monetary policy is highly stimulatory. That can’t go on for ever. With no sign whatever of wage growth becoming excessive, it’s obvious we don’t need to flip to the opposite extreme of interest rates so high they’re contractionary. We’re not trying to put the clamps on demand.

No, the next move, when it comes, will be from a stimulatory stance simply towards a neutral stance – one that’s neither stimulatory nor contractionary. That time will come when we’re confident the economy’s growth will be sustained. That’s when getting interest rates back to more normal levels will be a good sign, a sign of success.

And remember this: thanks to the world’s dubious experiment with unconventional monetary policy for more than a decade – with almost all the rich world’s central banks printing money like it’s going out of style – the monetary side of the world economy (including ours) is way out of whack.

For too long, borrowers have been paying interest rates that, after allowing for inflation, are negative, with savers receiving little or nothing to compensate them for their money’s lost purchasing power, let alone reward them for letting others use their money.

This is perverse. It’s the opposite of the way the economy’s supposed to work. It’s neither fair nor sensible. It’s the way to encourage investment that’s not genuinely productive. We won’t be back to anything like normal until, ultimately, interest rates are much higher.

Don’t forget that. Your grandma hasn’t.


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.”