Whatever the outcome of efforts to resolve severe economic difficulties in Europe and elsewhere, it is becoming increasingly clear that the next big economic crisis may not hinge on interest rates at all. One reason is that the world’s central banks, many of them following something like a Robinsonian “cheap money policy,” have managed to keep interest rates reasonably low in many countries. For example, it seems clear that yields on Spanish and Italian bonds are under control for now, after statements last month by Mario Draghi, the president of the ECB, that he was “ready to do whatever it takes,” to keep interest rates down. As made clear in this interesting and enlightening 2003 book edited by Bell and Nell (Stephanie Bell Kelton and Edward Nell), the theoretical argument for the Eurozone was badly flawed from the beginning. (Indeed, many in the world of heterodox economics saw these flaws from the beginning.) But, returning in this post to a key theme in Joan Robinson’s writings on the interest rate, I will offer some of the thoughts of John Maynard Keynes himself, who wrote in 1945 that:
The monetary authorities can have any rate of interest they like.… They can make both the short and long-term [rate] whatever they like, or rather whatever they feel to be right. … Historically the authorities have always determined the rate at their own sweet will and have been influenced almost entirely by balance of trade reasons [Collected Writings*, xxvii, 390–92, quoted from L.–P. Rochon, Credit, Money and Production, page 163 (publisher book link)].
Here in the United States, the Fed has shown its ability as a liquidity provider to keep interest rates on relatively safe investments very low across the maturity spectrum, despite spending much more than it received in tax payments in calendar years 2009–2011, and presumably the current year. Keynes’s statement, much like the quote from Robinson mentioned above and the one in this earlier post, foretells this outcome.
Hence, recent US experience supports the view that calls for cuts in government spending and/or tax increases cannot be justified by fears that high deficits cause high interest rates at the national or global level.
* Note: The complete set of Keynes’s works is out of print in hardback and will be reissued as a 30-volume set of paperbacks later this fall, according the Cambridge University Press website. – G.H., September 3
When the European Monetary Union was set up, member-states adopted what was essentially a foreign currency (the euro) but were left in charge of their own fiscal policy. Dimitri Papadimitriou and Randall Wray explain in a new Policy Note (“Euroland’s Original Sin“) why this basic structural defect was always bound to tear the eurozone apart. The solvency crises and the bank runs afflicting Spain, Greece, and Italy were entirely foreseeable (and as Papadimitriou and Wray point out, entirely foreseen). Unless something is done to remedy this design flaw, the EMU will continue to crumble.
The banking crises laid bare what happens when you try to separate fiscal policy from a sovereign currency: “banks were freed to run up massive debts that would ultimately need to be carried by governments that, because they had abandoned currency sovereignty, were in no position to bear the burden,” say Papadimitriou and Wray. Inasmuch as they are users rather than issuers of a currency, EMU nations are essentially in the same position as US states—but the difference is that US states can rely on the currency-issuing firepower of the federal government (when Texas was hit with the S&L crisis in the 1980s, the federal government picked up the tab; a tab that was about one quarter the size of Texas’ entire GDP). And the problem is not just the size of the debts member-states took on, but that they took them on without the benefit of controlling their own currency—which makes all the difference in the world. The US and Japan can borrow at very low rates while countries like Spain (whose debt ratios are much, much smaller than those of Japan) are caught in a vicious cycle of rising borrowing costs.
Papadimitriou and Wray explain how all of this was compounded by the TARGET system, which made possible the massive bank runs in Spain, Greece, and Italy. They argue that EMU-wide deposit insurance backed by the creation of a strong EU-level treasury is necessary. There was some initial enthusiasm (as there always is, initially) when the latest “solution” emerged from the June 29 summit. But it is becoming clear that the EMU is not moving towards a true banking union* anytime soon.
Read the whole Policy Note here.
* The term “banking union” is being thrown around a lot, but there’s a difference between giving the ECB extra supervisory powers over the banking system and moving to unlimited deposit insurance, which, as of yet, does not appear to be on the horizon. A similar confusion can arise with the term “fiscal union”: rather than the creation of a strong European federal treasury, the term is commonly used to refer merely to the new fiscal accord in which member-states will face stiffer penalties when they violate the Maastricht criteria limits on deficits and debt. The only “union” that will remedy the structural error built into the EMU is one that addresses the doomed separation between fiscal policy and currency sovereignty.
In a good blog post for the Financial Times that did get money (mostly) right, Martin Wolf promised a Part II on the topic of appropriate monetary and fiscal policy in a “liquidity trap,” which he has provided here. Wolf also indicated he would write a piece on Modern Money Theory, an approach he does not address in either of these two articles. I look forward to that.
Meanwhile, let me say that I do not disagree with the substantive points made in his Part II—which examines an article by Brad DeLong and Larry Summers. The main argument is this: when there is substantial excess capacity and unemployed labor, fiscal expansion is a “free lunch”. There really should be no surprise about that—it was a major conclusion of J.M. Keynes’s 1936 General Theory, and indeed already had some respectability even before his book. Expansionary fiscal policy can put otherwise unemployed resources to work, so we can enjoy more output.
So what DeLong and Summers do is to show that given assumptions about the size of the government spending multiplier as well as a link between income growth and tax revenues (so that economic growth increases revenues from income taxes and sales taxes, for example) then it is entirely possible for a fiscal expansion to “pay for itself” in the sense that tax revenue will rise. If the “real” interest rate is low, then one can show that the “debt burden” of servicing additional government debt due to an increase of budget deficits does not rise. Hence “the fiscal expansion is self-financing.” (I have problems with all the terms in quotation marks, but will deal with only the first of these here, the notion that expansion can “pay for itself”.)
Let me skip to Wolf’s summary conclusion, with which I wholeheartedly agree: “Policy-makers have allowed a huge financial crisis to impose a permanent blight on economies, with devastating social effects. It makes one wonder why the Obama administration, in which prof Summers was an influential adviser, did not do more, or at least argue for more, as many outsiders argued. The private sector needs to deleverage. The government can help by holding up the economy. It should do so. People who reject free lunches are fools.”
But….. well, you knew there had to be a catch. continue reading…
From a February 2012 presentation delivered by Research Associate Michael Hudson:
Suppose you were alive back in 1945 and were told about all the new technology that would be invented between then and now: the computers and internet, mobile phones and other consumer electronics, faster and cheaper air travel, super trains and even outer space exploration, higher gas mileage on the ground, plastics, medical breakthroughs and science in general. You would have imagined what nearly all futurists expected: that we would be living in a life of leisure society by this time. Rising productivity would raise wages and living standards, enabling people to work shorter hours under more relaxed and less pressured workplace conditions.
Why hasn’t this occurred in recent years? In light of the enormous productivity gains since the end of World War II – and especially since 1980 – why isn’t everyone rich and enjoying the leisure economy that was promised? If the 99% is not getting the fruits of higher productivity, who is? Where has it gone?
Read the rest here at Naked Capitalism.
Last week I explained why Minsky matters, outlining his main contributions. This was, in part, a response to a blog post by Paul Krugman that appeared to dismiss the importance of trying to find out “what Minsky really meant.” But, more importantly, it was a response to his defense of a simple model of debt deflation dynamics that left banks out of the picture. In Krugman’s view, banks are not very important since all they do is to intermediate between savers and investors, taking in deposits and packaging them into loans.
In my post last week I promised to go into more detail on Minsky’s approach to banking. And right on cue, Krugman expanded on his views in this post.
Now, I know that Krugman’s own specialty is not money and banking, so one would not expect him to have a deep understanding of all the technical details. However, he is an important columnist and textbook writer, so if he is going to expound upon “what banks do,” he should at least have the basics more-or-less correct. But he doesn’t. Indeed, his views are outdated by at least a century, or more. Can one imagine a science writer at the NYTimes presenting Newtonian physics as state-of-the-art?
If there is any banking “mysticism,” it is what Krugman is presenting—not what Minsky’s followers are arguing. Yes, we need Minsky—whose views even from the 1950s are far more relevant to today’s real world banks than are Krugman’s.
I mean no disrespect here. Like the rest of Krugman’s followers, I think he’s one of the best columnists at the NYTimes–and he covers a great range of topics with flair and good insight. But he cannot be trusted when it comes to money—he just doesn’t get it. What he is presenting is a strange combination of early twentieth century theory plus a throwback to a particular nineteenth century view that was based on an even older “goldsmith” story. Let me explain. continue reading…
Philip Pilkington and Warren Mosler have teamed up to present a financial innovation that they believe could settle the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis: a special type of “tax-backed bond” that contains a clause stating that if (and only if) the country issuing the bond defaults, the bond can be used to make tax payments in that country. “If an investor holds an Irish government bond, for example, worth 1,000 euros,” they write, “and the Irish government misses a payment of interest or principal, the investor can simply use the bond to make tax payments to the Irish government in the amount of 1,000 euros.”
Pilkington and Mosler call attention to the fact that countries like Japan that issue their own currency are not facing unbearably heavy interest costs on their debt; with the reason being that such countries can always make payments when due. Investors know that Japan can always create enough yen to meet its obligations. Eurozone member-states, however, are users, not issuers of the euro, and as a result, while many countries in the periphery have debt-to-GDP ratios that are smaller than Japan’s, they nevertheless face higher and higher debt servicing costs.
The idea behind the tax-backed bond, which draws inspiration from Modern Monetary Theory, is to provide a way of securing investor confidence in peripheral debt (the bonds are guaranteed to be “money good,” since they’re acceptable for the payment of taxes in the event of default) and thereby keep interest payments under control, without requiring a eurozone exit; to provide a way of endowing peripheral debt with an aura of safety comparable to that of the debt of a currency-issuing nation—but without requiring a country like Greece to actually leave the euro and revert to the drachma.
And as Pilkington and Mosler argue, if this plan works, the bonds would never actually be used for tax payments: “since this tax backing would set an absolute floor below which the value of the asset could not fall, and because the bonds pay a fair rate of interest, there would be no risk of actual loss and no reason to part with them—and, hence, the bonds might never be used to repay taxes.”
You can read their proposal here.
The Nation notes that austerity policies in Europe have proved to be very damaging to economic growth in the region, and points out that after adhering to IMF and EU austerity programs since last May, Portugal is “even deeper in the hole. The austerity has only increased its debt, as it has spread more suffering.”
The editorial goes on to point out that the euro countries have also been hindered by their unified currency system. This system currently makes it difficult for member governments to see to it that there is a market for their bonds and other securities—namely, their central banks. Taking exception to Republican fears of a “Greek-type collapse,” the Nation emphasizes that the “sovereign currency” possessed by the American government has always allowed it to avoid difficulties making payments on its debt. (A web version of the editorial is here. A similar Washington Post opinion piece is posted here.) Compare this with the current financial problems experienced by many state and local governments, as documented by recent articles in the New York Times (“Deficits Push New York Cities and Counties to Desperation”) and the Wall Street Journal (“States Keep Axes Sharpened”).
Many things can go wrong in an economy, even one with a smoothly running monetary system. But the Nation’s argument remains crucial for the U.S.—first, that deficit-financed stimulus programs have helped keep our economy going; and second, that a government with its own currency is almost unable to default.
Quick note: In an interesting op-ed piece, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times notes that U.S. budget deficits have allowed the private sector to deleverage a bit: “If the public sector does not sustain spending as the private sector cuts back, the latter will go too far, causing unnecessarily deep damage to the economy.” He contrasts the U.S. situation with the crisis in the United Kingdom and Spain, where deleveraging has not gone as far. He points out that Spain’s lack of a sovereign currency has prevented its government from helping along the private-sector deleveraging process.
Philip Pilkington shares a discussion he had with Dean Baker about, among other things, the Post-Keynesian take on the limitations of some conventional economic models (of the “LM” part of IS-LM, in particular. And if that just looks like an arbitrary string of letters to you, Pilkington has an accessible explanation at the beginning of his post). His description of the “self-justifying” dynamics of the IS-LM view of money and central banking is worth quoting:
By assuming an upward-sloping LM-curve – that is, a fixed supply of funds – there is an implicit assumption that actions on the part of the central bank are somehow neutral. ISLM enthusiasts implicitly assume that the central bank is simply responding to some otherwise ‘equilibrating’ market conditions and adjusting its rates in line with this. …
… [The standard ISLM model] buries the fact that the central bank is actually taking a specific stance on policy and then tries to pass off this stance as a sort of quasi-market response (i.e. as if there were a market for a fixed supply of funds). But the central bank’s policy stance is nothing of the sort. Instead it is a sort of a simulation of what a market response is thought to be. Thought to be by whom? By economists that adhere to models similar to the ISLM, of course!
In a related vein, Greg Hannsgen points me to the latest volume of essays published in honor of Wynne Godley, “Contributions to Stock-Flow Modeling,” in which Marc Lavoie highlights this Godley quotation on the fixed stock of funds assumption in IS-LM:
Godley was always puzzled by the standard neoclassical assumption, found in both the IS/LM model and among monetarists, of an exogenous or fixed stock of money, the worse example of which is Friedman’s money helicopter drop. As Godley says, ‘governments can no more control stocks of either bank money or cash than a gardener can control the direction of a hosepipe by grabbing at the water jet’.
Randall Wray has been engaged in a back-and-forth with John Carney of CNBC. Their latest exchange touched on the question of the “real” economic burdens of Social Security (distinct from issues of affordability). Wray responds:
“John Carney agrees with me that supporting our elderly is not an ‘affordability’ problem, but he claims that I fail to see the ‘real’ burden—the dependency ratios and all that. Actually I’ve been writing about that since the early 1990s. The ‘real’ burden is the only thing that matters.
Here’s just a short list of easily accessible things I’ve written at www.levy.org:
The Case Against Intergenerational Accounting: The Accounting Campaign Against Social Security and Medicare 
Global Demographic Trends and Provisioning for the Future 
The Burden of Aging 
Social Security’s 70th Anniversary 
Killing Social Security Softly with Faux Kindness 
More Pain, No Gain 
Does Social Security Need Saving? 
… There are two important issues here. continue reading…
Dylan Matthews had a piece on Modern Monetary Theory in the Washington Post yesterday that featured Levy Institute scholars James Galbraith and Randall Wray. WaPo also put together a “family tree” that displays some Post Keynesian and New Keynesian lineages.
The piece has been bouncing around the internet, first with some supportive comments by Jared Bernstein (he critiques the political viability of being able to control inflation through tax increases and insists on the long-term challenge we face due to rising health care costs). Both Dean Baker and Kevin Drum ask what’s so special about MMT, with Drum suggesting a focus on views about inflation. According to Drum, this is the central question:
So should we focus instead on a genuine target of 4% unemployment, reining in budget deficits only when we fall well below that? That depends a lot on what you think the productive capacity of the country really is, and the mainstream estimate of NAIRU, the highest unemployment rate consistent with stable inflation, is around 5.5% right now. If that’s the right estimate, then you could argue that we’ve been doing OK for the past few decades. But if full employment is really more consistent with an unemployment rate of 4%, then we’ve been wasting an awful lot of productive capacity for nothing.
… Of course, you might also want to consider MPT, or Modern Petro-Monetary Theory. Rather than asking what level of economic growth kicks off unacceptable inflation, it asks what level of economic growth kicks off an oil price spike that produces a recession and higher unemployment. I have to admit that I increasingly think of the economy in those terms these days.
In comments at Mother Jones, Galbraith engages with Drum’s “MPT” point: continue reading…