...against fictions and other tall tales

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Old Keynesian themes in Modern Monetary Theory

Readers of this blog know I'm generally supportive of the views espoused by proponents of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The reasons are fairly simple. First, MMT considers unemployment to be an important problem that must be quickly and effectively addressed by the government authorities.  I agree with that.  Also, MMT makes a good case on the important role of fiscal policy in ensuring stable and equitable economic growth.  Again, I agree with that.

But there is another reason I'm generally in agreement with MMT on many issues.  This has to do with the fact that MMT builds on some pretty solid economic thinking, much of which was well understood and accepted by earlier generations of Keynesian economists.  As someone who has a lot of respect for and who finds much insight from this earlier Keynesian tradition, I'm quite pleased to see MMT, a more recent school of thought, disseminate these views.

I was reminded of some of these - let's call them - "Old Keynesian" tenets in a recent blog post by Paul Krugman, in which he discusses a trifecta of issues relating to (1) the benefits of monetary sovereignty (i.e., where a nation issues and uses its own currency), (2) the debate on the supposedly inflationary nature of deficit spending financed via money creation or bond issuance and (3) the recent controversy regarding the potentially expansionary consequences of a "loss of confidence" in US government bonds by international investors .

The first of these views concerns monetary sovereignty, a central MMT theme.  This was also a well understood concept by earlier Keynesian economists.  For instance, monetary sovereignty was a key aspect highlighted in the work of economist Robert Eisner, who brilliantly described in his book The Misunderstood Economy (1994:74) why the US greatly benefits from being a currency issuing nation:
[One] point that is widely misunderstood or unrecognized is that this debt, relatively small as it is, is all owed in its own currency, US dollars.  We pay interest and principal in US dollars.  And our Treasury and Federal Reserve can always create all the dollars we need.  One may object that such money creation or the monetization of the interest-bearing debt may have undesirable consequences, particularly greater inflationary pressure.  But it may also have the desirable effect of stimulating the US economy if that is in order. In any event, the fact that US debt held by foreigners is virtually all denominated in US dollars rules out the possibility of unvoluntary default on US government obligations.

We are not in the position of many third world or other debtor nations that sadly had obligations in foreign currencies, frequently the US dollars.  The only way they could service their debt was to obtain foreign currencies. [...]

The "world's greatest debtor nation" gave the American public visions of the US going bankrupt.  Since the debt was essentially in our currency, however, this made no sense.  We could "print" out own money to pay it off or, in more sophisticated fashion, have the Federal Reserve create the money. (1994:74)
Several other Keynesian economists also held similar views, including economist Lorie Tarshis who emphasized this point in Elements of Economics (1947), the first Keynesian textbook to be published in the US.

Secondly, concerning the ever-lasting debate on the supposedly inflationary nature of deficit spending financed via money creation or bond issuance, MMT considers that the latter should be viewed as more inflationary than the former since the interest payments paid by government on its debt results in a greater expansion in the money supply (in the long run) than if the deficit is financed by money creation.

On this point, it may be instructive to recall that economists Alan Blinder and Robert Solow demonstrated long ago that the "potency" of deficit spending via money creation or bond issuance is not strictly related to the manner of financing.  In fact, Blinder and Solow demonstrate in "Analytical Foundations of Public Finance" (1974) that deficit spending financed via issuance of bonds has under normal, steady-state equilibrium conditions a greater fiscal multiplier than deficit spending via monetary financing in the long run:
When we correct an oversight committed by almost all previous users of the government budget constraint, a still more odd result emerges.  The error has been to ignore the fact that interest payments on outstanding government bonds are another expenditure item in the budgetary accounts. [...]

Under a policy of strict monetary financing, [in a stable system, the long-run government expenditure multiplier is simply the reciprocal of the marginal propensity to tax].  But the issuance of new bonds means a greater multiplier in the long run. (1974:50). (original emphasis)
Finally, as for Krugman's contention that a loss of confidence in US government bonds by investors may have potentially expansionary consequences for the US economy, economist Bill Vickrey presented a similar argument in his article entitled "Fifteen Fatal Fallacies of Financial Fundamentalism" (1996).  On whether a sell-off of US government bonds by foreign investors would have a detrimental effect on the US economy, Vickrey suggested the following:
It is not intended that the domestic government debt should be held in any large quantity by foreigners.  But should foreigners wish to liquidate holdings of this debt or any other domestic assets, they can only do so as a whole by generating an export surplus, easing the domestic unemployment problem, releasing assets to supply the domestic demand, and making it possible to get along with smaller deficits and a less rapidly growing government debt.  The same thing happens if domestic investors turn to investing in foreign assets, thereby reducing their drain on the domestic asset supply.
All that to say that, in my opinion, both Paul Krugman and proponents of MMT stand on solid ground regarding these issues.


Blinder, Alan and Robert Solow, "Analytical Foundations of Fiscal Policy," in A. S. Blinder, et. al., The Economics of Public Finance, The Brookings Institution, 1974, pp. 3-115.

Eisner, Robert, The Misunderstood Economy: What counts and how to count it, Boston: HBSP, 1994.

Tarshis, Lorie, The Elements of Economics, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1947.

Vickrey, William. "Fifteen fallacies of financial fundamentalism: A disquisition on demand-side economies", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 95, No. 3, February 1998, pp. 1340-1347.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Federal Reserve staff on the evolution of US household net worth and related financial flows during the last decade

The Federal Reserve released an informative discussion paper this week that presents background on the Integrated Macroeconomics Accounts (IMAs) of the US.  The IMAs is a long-term interagency project between the Fed and the Bureau of Economic Analysis aimed at linking saving, capital accumulation, investment in financial assets and balance sheet data within an integrated framework using consistent definitions, classifications, and accounting conventions.

In the IMAs, each of the sectors of the economy is depicted according to a consistent set of statistical accounts: the current account (production and distribution of income accounts), and the accumulation accounts (capital, financial, other volume changes, and revaluation accounts).  These accounts allow one to trace the factors leading to changes in the net worth position on the balance sheet of each sector.

The paper contains lots of useful information for those interested in the analysis of national income and flow of funds accounts.

As a way to help demonstrate the usefulness of the IMAs, the authors of the paper have included a section describing the evolution of household net worth and its components during the last decade, thus enabling the reader to understand some of the underlying causes and subsequent effects of the recent financial crisis. 

As you read the excerpt below, keep in mind the following basic rule of thumb: a key indicator of the demand generated by any sector of the economy is its net borrowing (i.e., the difference between its total spending and income).
Uses of the IMAs
The recent financial crisis has vividly shown that analyzing the change in net worth and its composition is critical to understanding the health, risks, and prospects of an economic sector.  Net worth is a broad measure of the wealth of a sector, often used in conjunction with other variables, such as income and interest rates, to study variables such as consumption and saving.
The IMAs enable one to analyze net worth and its composition, clarifying how the current balance sheet position came about by distinguishing between saving, borrowing, holding gains or losses, and other changes in volume.  As an example, we can look at the IMAs for the household and [Non-Profit Institutions Serving Households] sector.  In the first half of the last decade, the household sector shifted from being a major lending sector to a major borrowing sector, rivaled only as a borrower by the federal government sector. It was at this same time that the rest of the world sector became the predominant lending sector.

At the same time, household net worth surged rapidly and the ratio of household net worth to disposable personal income reached record levels (chart 1 -- click on chart to expand).  This surge was caused not by elevated savings, but by sizable capital gains both on housing wealth and on stock-market wealth (chart 2).
Chart 1

Chart 2
Indeed, the ratio of both housing wealth and stock market wealth to disposable personal income surged to historically unprecedented levels (chart 3).  Not surprisingly, household debt also ballooned.  The ratio of household debt to disposable personal income surged from around 90 percent at the beginning of the decade to an all-time high of around 130 percent in the middle of 2007 (chart 4).
Chart 3

Chart 4
This ratio dropped to 111 percent by the end of 2011 as consumers borrowed less and as a significant amount of mortgage debt was written off. [...] [T]he household sector shifted back to being a major net lender in 2008.
Net borrowing by the federal government, on the other hand, ballooned to over $1.3 trillion in both 2009 and 2010. In 2009, the rest of the world sector was a significant lender, along with the financial business sector. The nonfinancial corporate business sector, traditionally a net borrower, became a net lender in 2009, as capital expenditures remained relatively low and retained earnings elevated (Cagetti et al, 2012:6-8).


Cagetti, M., Elizabeth Ball Holmquist, Lisa Lynn, Susan Hume, McIntosh and David Wasshausen, The Integrated Macroeconomic Accounts of the United States, 2012-81, Finance and Economics Discussion Series Divisions of Research & Statistics and Monetary Affairs Federal Reserve Board, Washington, D.C.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Bernanke on the Fed's policy of paying interest on reserves

Chairman Bernanke gave a good speech yesterday in which he indicated being encouraged by recent improvements in the US housing sector. Specifically, Bernanke explained that residential investment "will be a source of economic growth and new jobs during the next couple of years". However, he expressed concern regarding both the fiscal drag that will result from the phasing out of some federal stimulus spending and the risks that the situation in Europe pose to the US economy.

From a policy standpoint, another interesting statement by Bernanke came during the Q&As that followed his speech when Bernanke indicated that reducing the rate of interest paid on reserves by the Fed would have little stimulative effect on bank lending. (For more details, see Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider)

In the Q&A he hit on other interesting points, such as the issue of the Fed paying interest on excess reserves (IOER), a payment that's commonly said to be an inducement for the banks to do nothing, and just leave money at the bank. Bernanke's angle is that eliminating IOER to zero would barely stimulate any lending, but that having zero rates could cause mechanical issues in the market, and that keeping IOER allows for an easily tool to tighten policy in the future, simply by raising it.

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/ben-bernanke-the-economic-recovery-and-economic-policy-2012-11#ixzz2CzcOFAUA
Bernanke's angle is that eliminating IOER to zero would barely stimulate any lending, but that having zero rates could cause mechanical issues in the market, and that keeping IOER allows for an easily tool to tighten policy in the future, simply by raising it.

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/ben-bernanke-the-economic-recovery-and-economic-policy-2012-11#ixzz2CzciBTjO
This is actually significant seeing as Bernanke suggested in the past that one of the options that the Fed has to entice banks to lend is to reduce the rate of interest paid on reserves. Here is an excerpt from his testimony before Congress in July of last year:
...we have a number of ways in which we could act to ease financial conditions further. [...] The Federal Reserve could also reduce the 25 basis point rate of interest it pays to banks on their reserves, thereby putting downward pressure on short-term rates more generally.
Recall that since December 2008 when the Fed started paying interest on reserves, the Fed's instrument has been effectively its asset portfolio. The policy of paying interest on reserves is a policy tool used to support the active use of this instrument. 

next year the drag from federal fiscal policy on GDP growth will outweigh the positive effects on growth from fiscal expansion at the state and local level.

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/ben-bernanke-the-economic-recovery-and-economic-policy-2012-11#ixzz2Cuiiae2u
next year the drag from federal fiscal policy on GDP growth will outweigh the positive effects on growth from fiscal expansion at the state and local level.

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/ben-bernanke-the-economic-recovery-and-economic-policy-2012-11#ixzz2Cuiiae2u