Tag Archives: Bank of England

We need to balance the Budget over the Business cycle as Keynes suggested, right?

(This article first appeared in Liberal Democrat Voice)

Firstly, we do need to ask if Keynes did suggest that. There are arguments either way on this point.  Keynes’ view unfolded and developed starting in the bleak 1920’s in Britain. There was no “roaring twenties” for the UK economy as the government deflated the economy to try to fit the Pound back on to its pre war Gold  Standard. Keynes then did argue that governments should run deficits if private spending declined and reduce those deficits when future growth was strong enough. This has been interpreted by many that his intent was that the budget was to be more or less balanced over the business cycle. If anyone is keen to research into his thinking they might like to start with his 1924 publication “A Tract on Monetary Reform”.

A better approach might be to try to understand why Keynes should made a break from tradition and start to advocate that budgets should at times be unbalanced. If we consider an economy which is neither a net exporter nor a net importer and in which everyone spends what they earn within the economy, Government spending and taxation must balance. This is true regardless of the level of taxation imposed (providing it is finite) and so regardless of the level of inflation within the economy. It has to, according to the principle of sectoral balances originally developed in the 60’s and 70’s by the late Prof Wynne Godley at Cambridge University.

If the participants of the economy don’t spend all they earn, ie when private spending declines,  we can have a tendency to recession. Keynesian economists would point out that prices and wages tend to be “sticky” and so don’t respond quickly to changing circumstances as more classically minded economists suggest they should. Therefore, Keynes was quite right to suggest that the Government should spend  more, or tax less,  to prevent recession from occurring. The government needs to borrow money from the savers and spend it on their behalf. Later, when the savers withdraw their money from the bank, or empty their piggy banks, and spend it, the Government needs to run a surplus in its budget to prevent the economy from overheating and inflation occurring. So the budget does indeed end up balanced over the cycle. It ends up being an approximately symmetrical pattern when expressed graphically.

This relatively simple model may have been adequate for the UK economy in the 1920s. However in recent times the extent of saving and desaving hasn’t been symmetrical over the business cycle. When times are good people may borrow and spend more but equally they may put more aside for their retirement. So if the spending/saving/borrowing pattern of the population isn’t symmetric over the business cycle, neither can we  expect the government to run a balanced budget over the business cycle. Instead of imports and exports balancing,  our economy has something like an annual  5% of GDP deficit in its current account. Our trading partners seem happy to supply more real things to us than we supply to them. They take our IOUs in the form of treasury bonds or gilts to make up the difference. In effect they are like a big net saver within the economy. As Keynes pointed out,  if people are saving more, and that includes our trading partners, the Government has to be spending more or taxing less.

The ‘balanced budget over the cycle’ is really just a special case which does not apply to our own 21st century economy. If we try to force the Government budget into balance, at the same time ignoring the trading position and the willingness or otherwise of the economy’s participants to net save then we are courting economic disaster. The budget will not balance, no matter how hard we try, and we will end up like a dog chasing its own tail as the economy spirals ever deeper into recession.

“We need deficits because people want to buy gilts” – Richard Murphy

Richard Murphy published an interesting  article “On budget surpluses and the economic illiteracy of the Fiscal Charter”  yesterday in which he made several important points such as “we need deficits because people want to buy gilts” and “if the government runs a surplus someone else has to run a deficit”.

Absolutely right and well said, Richard! I hope everyone who’s even the slightest bit worried about our deficit and so-called “national debt” reads this very important piece of what will be ‘news’ to them. Maybe John McDonnell has finally seen the light? There’s nothing wrong with a a change of mind when new evidence and new arguments compel that. Intelligent people change their views all the time as more information becomes avaialble.

The question to be resolved, and I must admit I’m not totally clear on the answer, is if we should sell gilts. Is the fact that people want to buy them a good enough reason to sell them? Why can’t we just allow people to put their money on deposit. Offer the a fixed interest rate, say 2%, and tell them “That’s it. Take it or leave it”.

Some would say 2% was way too high. We should pay 0%. So what will happen then? If we discourage people saving, deliberately creating enough inflation to make 0% , or even 2% very unattractive, we’ll theoretically have no deficits at all.

Because Government Deficit = Savings of the Non-Government

Is that what people really want? Is George Osborne aware that what he needs to do to achieve his surplus is create more inflation and stop selling gilts?

Want to reduce your deficit, Mr Osborne? Stop your boys burning those £50 notes* !

* Or at least ask them to tell you about it!

The Oxford University based Bullingdon club has attracted controversy of late, in large part  due to certain unsavoury practices  indulged in by its young, privileged, elitist but poorly behaved members. Their current initiation ceremony is reported to include the burning of a  £50 note in front of a beggar or homeless person.

.B

Former members of the club are now a well ensconced part of the UK political establishment. These include the current Prime Minister Mr David Cameron (In photo, second from the left standing) , the Chancellor of the Exchequer Mr George Osborne, and the Mayor of London Mr Boris Johnson (far right sitting)

A key source of worry for our worthy politicians is the UK’s government budget deficit which now runs at approximately 4% of GDP. This is the gap between what the government spends into the economy and what it receives back in taxation.  The budget deficit is often referenced in support of their argument that we are all “living beyond our means”,  that our “credit card is maxed out”, and that cutbacks in spending  and increases in taxes are unfortunately necessary to “cut our coat according to our cloth” etc etc.

So in this context, we might ask just what macroeconomic impact the burning of our currency might have? It is course illegal to deface or destroy currency. Why should that be?

It does have an effect. If these wealthy young men had chosen to give £50 to a homeless person that money would no doubt have been quickly spent. It would have been a stimulus to the economy.  The destruction of £50 has the opposite effect. It is exactly the same as if we had handed that £50 note over to the government in taxation, where the government routinely puts old notes through the shredder.  If Mr Osborne knows of specific instances where currency has been deliberately destroyed he is quite entitled to count that as voluntary taxation. His deficit would be reduced commensurately.

As he can’t know just what happens to our currency he has to assume it still exists and that it is just being saved somewhere. The net effect is still the same. To keep the economy functioning,  at full capacity,  any money which has been taken out of circulation either by its destruction or because it is being stored in a safe or bank account has to be respent back into the economy by government on our behalf. It’s neither here nor there  whether the budget is in deficit or in surplus.

We don’t need to know how much is being burnt and how much is just being stored. If any government overdoes the spending, relative to the levels of taxation, we’ll have too much inflation, but if it underdoes it , like now, we’ll have deflation and high levels of unemployment and underemployment.

Is Government Spending Already by PQE?

We can think that all spending by government is already by the creation of new money, which is the general understanding of PQE (otherwise known as  Overt Monetary Financing of Government), using the concept that money is an IOU of a sovereign currency issuing government.

So, just as you or I have no use for our own IOUs, we tear them up when we get them back, neither has government. All money collected  in the form of taxation or in bond sales is simply shredded. Destroyed -either physically or digitally. When govt spends, it does so by issuing new IOUs. ie Issuing new money.

So what is the point of taxation? It’s to prevent high inflation as has already been mentioned in previous posts.

And the point of selling gilts (bonds)? It is to set longer term interest rates. Generally speaking: The more that are sold by auction, the lower their price, and the higher their yield. The higher their yield the higher are longer term interest rates.

If Government wants lower interest rates in the longer term it should sell fewer gilts, yet still create as many new IOUs, as many new ££, as it needs for spending purposes. Its spending decisions have to be such that they won’t produce too much inflation, of course,  which would require the raising of taxes. The balance between spending and taxation remains the subject of political debate as always.

A better idea might be to stop selling gilts completely and allow savers, ie the hitherto bond purchasers, to put their money on account with the BoE ( which is best considered as part of Treasury) and set the interest rate payable just as a high street bank would set the interest to us on our longer term savings. Short term interest rates are already set this way so the concept, and practice, just needs to be extended to include all savings. The interest rate would probably be higher for a longer deposit period, again as we might expect from our own bank.

And what about the exchange rate?

If the government offers lower interest rates the £ might be expected to fall, and higher rates will probably cause it to rise. If we stay with the idea of selling gilts, and stick with the concept that PQE  is somehow different,  we can say there will be less need for the government to ‘borrow’  and therefore less need to pay out interest.

This will have the same effect on the exchange rate as directly reducing interest rates.  It is just looking at the process from a different perspective.

PQE, as is conventionally understood, could be part of the government’s exchange rate strategy. That is if it wants one, and that could be the subject of another discussion! If it wants a lower pound, it does more PQE. A higher £ means less PQE. It depends on what sort of trade deficit we want to run. If we are happy to run a high deficit, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t, we can keep the pound high, but if we want to reduce it we will need a lower £.

Goodbye to £5 and £10 notes?

The  Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane’s speech. caused some raised  eyebrows recently. It sounds like he knows we’re in for some tough economic times ahead. Things are so desperate that it  might require the abolition of cash in the economy!  People will be forced to hold money in banks and see its value dwindle.

As Andy Haldane has put it “A more radical proposal still would be to remove the ZLB (zero lower bound) constraint entirely by abolishing paper currency.”

We could perhaps begrudgingly say Andy Haldane has shown political and economic courage in saying this. If we are being charitable we could credit Mr Haldane for highlighting the intellectual bankruptcy of most mainstream modern economic thinking. If we wished to be less charitable we’d have to say the idea of abolishing cash is about as stupid as it gets!

I hope it is the former and that cash won’t be abolished. But this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this silly argument argument from monetarist economists and in particular from Kenneth Rogoff. See  here  and  here. That they feel the need to make it shows they still haven’t really grasped that interest rates can’t have the controlling  effect they think they have on the wider economy.

When intelligent men like Rogoff and Haldane have silly ideas, political ideology is usually to blame. The main argument for banning cash, other than to hinder criminals and tax-dodgers, which is no stronger an argument now than it has ever been, is to facilitate sharply negative interest rates. But if we want to stimulate the economy, as we do right now, there’s an obvious and much easier alternative: ie loosen fiscal policy. Increase government spending and reduce levels of taxation.

The only reason to suggest something as outlandish as banning printed currency is that you believe this alternative to be impossible. Or, rather impossible according to one’s own political ideology.

Monetarism all sounds fine – superficially. When times are good interest rates are increased to slow the economy down. When times are bad they are lowered to stimulate lending and get it moving again. There’s no need for government to be involved at all. They can concentrate on balancing the books like any good business should.

Except that every stimulus leads to the build up of private debt in the economy. This build up slows down economic activity, and so we later have to have another reduction in interest rates. Then another and yet another after that . If we get it all wrong then there can even be a giant crash in the economy when those who’ve taken on too much private debt go bust and cause their creditors to go bust too.

So, eventually we arrive at the situation, as we have now, where interest rates in much of the western world  are close to zero and they need to go negative according to the theory to stimulate the economy again. Economists with more intelligence are saying “Whoa! There must be something wrong with the theory”. Others with less insight are saying “But this is just the special case of the zero lower bound” and those with no insight at all, or are stupefied by their own political ideology, are ploughing on regardless and calling for the abolition of cash!

Leaving aside the argument that many of us quite like the convenience of using cash, it’s much quicker than messing about with credit cards at the petrol station for example, it is a genuinely bad idea to go down the road of negative interest rates which will lead to an ever increasing build up of private debt in the economy.

Mainstream (ie Neo -Classical and Monetarist in outlook) economists didn’t spot the onset of the GFC because they didn’t  know where to look for the warning signals. The role of private debt in leading to booms and busts was denied. Expanding the “money supply” was the only standard remedy for stimulating economic activity and the risk of creating asset bubbles was largely ignored with disastrous consequences.

I may come back to the question of private debt in the economy later but for now I’ll just reference Prof Steve Keen’s excellent blog on the perils of debt deflation.

What is People’s Quantitative Easing?

PQE,  sometimes known as Overt Monetary Financing, is the process of creating new money, issued by the central bank in exchange for government bonds. This is then directly spent into the economy to stimulate economic activity. Whereas conventional Quantitative Easing is primarily to provide liquidity to banks and other financial institutions – Some might say it is to give them money which can create asset price bubbles, and other price distortions! – PQE is much simpler and free of many complications.  PQE  can be part of powerful fiscal policy to remedy the  problems of recession and depression.

Mention PQE, however, a term coined I believe by Richard Murphy, and it won’t be long before Zimbabwe and the Weimar Republic will be used as examples of why it’s not a good idea! That’s OTT, but nevertheless the objection of possible inflation needs to be addressed.

PQE could possibly cause inflation. All government spending, as with all spending, deficit or otherwise, carries an inflationary potential .

Deficit spending is necessary to keep the economy functioning when users of the currency wish to save some of it. Those who doubt that might just like to consider the very simple economy of a baby sitting circle. If everyone in the circle readily spent a token and received a night’s baby sitting in equal measure to their willingness to do a night’s baby sitting to receive a token, there’d be no problem at all. But, say, for whatever reason, some of the sitters decided to accumulate tokens. Fairly quickly there would be a shortage and the system would cease to function. There would be a demand, from those without tokens, that the baby sitting council should issue extra ones. Those with a stockpile of tokens would object, saying the “printing” of new tokens would devalue their existing tokens.

If the hoarders lent the tokens back to the council they could be pacified with some reward. Just as lenders of pounds to the government are pacified with a reward of extra pounds. But if the hoarders of the tokens saved them in a piggy bank and refused to lend them back, all the council could do would be to create new tokens and inject them into the system. This would be the equivalent of PQE.

Is one method more or less inflationary than the other? There’s not much in it. Arguably PQE would be less inflationary because there are no extra rewards needed. If the issuing of new tokens, by either method, was just enough to restart the system, not too much and not too little, then neither method would be inflationary.

So who are the hoarders in the real economy? The central banks of the big exporters are the biggest. The big exporters don’t want to spend all they earn by selling goods and services into the British economy. So they buy Government bonds and so effectively lend back their surplus tokens, or ££. The wealthy are the other main ‘culprits’. They tend to accumulate more ££ than they need.

But what if not everyone recycled their extra tokens back through the banking system? Suppose they kept hoards of cash in safes or bank deposit boxes? The government can’t borrow those back. All it can do is create some new tokens. PQE in other words.

The government can’t know just how fast money is moving or if lots of it is being stored this way. What it can expect is the combination of low interest rates and low inflation will make it more attractive for many users of currency who may be engaging in illegal, or borderline, transactions and so wish to hide their finances, will  to store their cash this way.  However, Government can easily monitor inflation. If it is engaging in PQE and inflation starts to be a problem it needs to back off. Alternatively if it’s not a problem it can do a bit more. The government needs to be careful, but shouldn’t be so scared of the idea that it doesn’t even try it out.