Tag Archives: Chartalism

A High Pound, a Healthy Economy, Low Deficits: Pick Any Two from Three!

We all might like to have: 1) A high pound 2) Close to full employment with a healthy growing economy 3) Low government and trade deficits or even surpluses. But, are all three even possible simultaneously? If we have to choose just two which one should we leave out? For most people, there is no simple answer but if we better understand the way our economy works we will at least know what the options are from all political perspectives. Including the second option, of a healthy economy, should be a “no-brainer” for politicians right across the political spectrum. Businesses need a buoyant economy to make profits just as workers need a buoyant economy to find decent and well paid jobs. But is it? The quest for a balanced government budget seems as distant a goal as ever, but the connection to that other largely forgotten deficit, in trade, is rarely made.

Previous generations understood, what we seem to have forgotten, that if any particular country, as a whole, has a net deficit trading position with the rest of the world then either the government of that country, or the inhabitants of that country, has to fund it by borrowing. In other words, the internal deficits run by governments, and the extent of the private sector debts which can accumulate in the economy, are directly related to the external deficits caused by a trade imbalance. We can see that countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Denmark which run large trading surpluses do not have any of the public or private sector debt problems* which we see in the UK or USA which run large trading deficits. Unfortunately, though, the solution to world debt problems cannot be for everyone to run a trading surplus!

If we do wish to ensure the third option, of low deficits, is included in our choice we need to understand that both government and trade deficits have to be kept low. Transferring the burden of debt, as seems to be the wish of George Osborne, necessary to sustain the current UK trading imbalance, from government to the private sector is going to do less than nothing to solve the economic problems of the country. If he wants to reduce his government’s deficit, without crashing the economy by imposing an unrealistic debt burden on everyone else, he has to acknowledge that this can only be done by reducing the trade deficit too. He has to start to tackle the problem from both ends by nudging down the value of the pound. Including the low deficit option means we have to then choose between having a high pound and a healthy economy.

We can see for ourselves what happens when a country like Greece is stuck with a currency which is too high to suit its economic capabilities and yet it is forced to attempt to balance its books. The economy crashes! Or, we can choose a high pound, a healthy economy and have a more relaxed attitude to the twin deficits. There are many economists who present a good case for selling as much debt (government gilts) as is possible and recycling the proceeds back into the economy with increased deficit spending. Some debt can also be sold to the central bank in what has come to be known as People’s Quantitative Easing. Providing inflation is kept under reasonable control there should be little or no problem.

We can also have a more relaxed attitude to the build up of private debt (if we know what we are doing!), but we should appreciate the difference. Government debt, unless it is in some foreign currency, doesn’t have to be repaid in the same way. The accumulation of too much private debt, though, can lead to economic busts to follow the initial boom created by the increase in bank lending. Tory chancellors starting with Tony Barber and later Nigel Lawson were fond of shifting the debt ‘burden’ from government to everyone else this way. We had the Barber boom, then the Lawson boom. The recession of the early 90’s should have been termed the Lawson bust. Later the supposedly more socialist Gordon Brown boasted of his economic prowess by delivering a government surplus around the turn of the millennium. Simply created by allowing too much private sector borrowing, unfortunately!

Most of this posting, so far, is entirely apolitical in nature. The same economic constraints apply whatever the political complexion of the society or economy involved. It is natural we might have different ideas and opinions over the ideal size of government. It is fair enough to argue for a more socialist approach to the distribution of available wealth and income or a more conservative approach. What is not fair enough, though, is for the political right or neoliberals (who are unfortunately not confined to the Tory Party) to wreck public services like our NHS, and our economy, for some nefarious purpose, or in some misguided attempt to reduce the government’s deficit, by cutting government spending and raising taxation without taking into account everything else that changes when they do that. All they’ll do is crash the economy – again! Judging by the economic storm that is brewing, the powers-that-be haven’t learned from past mistakes and it looks very likely we are seeing the start of yet another very severe financial crisis.

* A country with a large trading surplus is unlikely to have its Private Domestic Sector in overall net deficit. Although this is theoretically possible if Government insists on running an even larger surplus. But the net position can still hide localised high debt problems within the PDS.

Footnote: Some MMT supporters might argue that the tone of this article is more Keynesian than MMT. I accept that criticism but I originally wrote this with the promise from the editor of LabourList, Peter Edwards, that ‘sensible’ articles on economics would be accepted. He’s not explained why but he’s still managed to reject it! So I do accept that I attempted to temper the tone slightly!

Nevertheless I’m posting this up here as the start in a series of articles which are aimed at those who might be immediately turned off by a more strident MMT view  (such as the Govt can never run out of pounds etc) , but at the same time ensuring that the arguments are technically correct.

 

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Positive Money : A Fallacy Built on a Little Known Truth. (Part 4)

The proponents of a theory called Positive Money often get their knickers in something of a twist over the ways the banks , as they see it, create money. As the well known economist Minsky said “Anyone can create money. The problem is getting it accepted”.

If I ( or a bank or anyone else)  issue a loan in $ ( or £ ) I’m creating assets for someone denominated in $. But I also have a liability in $ which I have to be able to guarantee by providing $ on demand. Or lose my credibility. So am I (or the bank or anyone else) really creating $ ? In a way yes.

If I (or a bank or anyone else) issue a loan in ounces of gold, I’m creating assets for someone denominated in ounces of gold. But I also have a liability in ounces of gold which I have to be able to guarantee by providing ounces of gold on demand. Or lose my credibility.So am I (or the bank or anyone else) really creating ounces of gold ? In a way yes.

But we wouldn’t have discovered the secret of alchemy any more than we’d discovered a way to create dollars in the way Positive Money suggest is possible!

Is the Chinese Economy a Giant Ponzi Scheme?

There has been quite of lot of justified concern among economics pundits about the Chinese economy with some, like Will Hutton,  likening the problems there to a Ponzi scheme. A Ponzi scheme operates rather like a chain letter where the  earlier entrants into a savings scheme are paid directly from the contributions of later entrants. It is a simple fraud.  It has to break down sooner or later. Whatever the shortcomings of Chinese economic regulation may be we don’t have the evidence to accuse the authorities there of allowing these schemes.

The China situation is better described as one of debt-deflation. Money is created  and then spent in the private sector when banks make loans. This spending stimulates the market: shares and asset prices prices rise, growth spurts, but the newly created money dwindles in the economy as it is spent and respent with the Govt taking its tax cut on every transaction. But the debts remain and accumulate – slowing down the economy. So more bank lending is needed to keep it going and the same thing happens again. Steve Keen has shown that everything looks OK providing the rate of bank lending is accelerating. But as it can’t do that forever, the effect of the bank lending starts to have a net negative effect and then we can have a slump if the level of private sector debt becomes too high.

The immediate fix is for government to  spend, large amounts of cash usually called liquidity, to keep the economy going. Mosler’s Law states that this should always be possible but any crash or   slump is still very disruptive.  A better solution in the longer term is to rely on monetary policy (ie the variation of interest rates and the ease of bank lending) only to a very limited extent in the regulation of the economy.

 

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.

The Job Guarantee. Problems from a Left Perspective.

There’s no doubt that a JG program along the lines we might imagine it to be, and along the lines advocated by the leading names of MMT: Warren Mosler, Bill Mitchell and  others would be highly desirable.

We could have an economy run to ensure almost full employment except for a  JG rate of about 2%. Then maybe there would be another 2% who were in receipt of unemployment pay due to their being temporarily between jobs. We could allow a reasonable period of time for that to occur -say about 3 months. The JG could have a part to play in young people’s apprenticeship schemes too. There could be some relaxation in the principle of “public purpose” if job training was combined with education. The JG could pay a living wage meaning that the wage was more than just enough to stay alive but it was enough to enjoy life too.

The problem, for me, and I suspect others on the left, is that we fear it won’t turn out quite like that. There’s no guarantee, or even likelihood,  that the JG will end poverty. It would depend on the wage the JG pays relative to the cost of living in the locality. If you’re living in London and depending on the rental property market you’d need an income much higher than anything I’ve seen proposed for the JG to be above any reasonable definition of the poverty line.

Incidentally, this posting was prompted by a discussion between Neil Wilson and others (including myself) on his very good blog:

http://www.3spoken.co.uk/2015/11/job-guarantee-jobs-for-people.html

“Very good” doesn’t mean we always agree, BTW,  as this exchange shows.

PM: “We don’t want to get into the situation, for example, where we’re threatening young mothers with loss of benefits for not taking up the JG or getting into disputes with the mentally ill as to their capability for work.”

NW: “I’m afraid that isn’t your choice. That is the choice of the society you live in and how they perceive those individuals”.

Which is a fair enough comment of course, but if it looks, from a left perspective that there are too many devils-in-the-JG-detail for comfort why would the left want to aggressively pursue the concept of a JG? Why not just leave it ” to the society (we) live in ” to come around to the idea ? That’s not likely to happen for a very long time, though. Either the JG is pushed by the left or it just won’t happen at all. Another problem, again at least for me, is the language used to promote the idea of a JG and it being a “buffer stock”. We are real people. Yes we want to work and make a contribution but we don’t want to be a “buffer stock” in the same way as we can have a buffer stock of bales of wool or kilos of butter.

While MMT and concepts like the JG are useful they only go so far. MMT doesn’t say anything about how wealth and incomes should be shared out. If we don’t address that question, and keep on addressing it then we’ll end up with just as much poverty in the future even though society as a whole could well be richer.

There could well be very much higher rates of JG work as the not-so-innocent fraudsters in Government deliberately shift essential work into the JG sector. The JG would be a very powerful weapon and used in the hands of the fraudsters to reduce wages. We could, for example, have a JG now in parts of the EU which paid say €7 ph or whatever was just slightly higher than social benefits. So in Greece we’d have 25% on a JG instead of 25% unemployed.

There’s no way any of us with a leftist perspective would support that. If anyone is contributing to society by working, the old principle of Labour’s Clause 4 applies: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible etc..”

Having a JG, even on a so-called living wage, doesn’t change that one bit!

The UK Autumn Budget Statement – More Neoliberal Nonsense!

The Autumn statement would not be so bad if it was economically coherent, with the spending and taxing plans agreeable, or otherwise, according to one’s political opinion. However, it does not make any sense. Not only does it not “add up”, it is inconsistent with all the principles of arithmetic.

The right wing Tory MP John Redwood makes the point :

“In total the new estimates show us paying an extra £105 billion in tax over the five years”

George Osborne says:

” we will reach a surplus of £10.1 billion in 2019/20″

Note: it’s not just “about £10 billion” its  “£10.1 billion”. We’ve all got to admire just how precise George and his Treasury economists can be about these five year forecasts! As if !

There’s no chance of this happening with the UK running a ~ £90 billion deficit in its external deficit due to trade and other international payments.  It would mean that the UK economy would have to find ~ £100 billion every year to pay the import bill and also provide the government with its £10 billion surplus.

This, presumably, is close enough to John Redwood’s ” extra £105 billion in tax”?

George Osborne says that  “Britain will be out of the red and into the black” which is completely untrue. These figures mean the British economy will be in the red to the extent of ~£100 billion to pay for the Govt being ~£10 billion in the black,  and Britain’s overseas trading partners being ~£90 billion in the black.

It can’t possibly happen that way,  unless somehow the trade deficit can be turned into a trade surplus, and that aspect is totally ignored in George Osborne’s grand plan. The UK economy could not sustain a net loss of £100 billion even for one year – never mind on an annual basis. George Osborne will only send the economy into a downward spiral trying to achieve the impossible. An economy in a depressed state will also deliver depressed levels of taxation revenue.

In a couple of years time, the excuse for the plan failing , as it inevitably will , is likely to be that even though the Government has kept spending under control, taxation revenues will have not come in as expected. This will be attributed to: Problems in the eurozone, problems with world trade, problems with loss of revenue from North Sea oil, a new war in the Middle East maybe?

In other words, the same kind of ‘excuses’ as were put forward after the last similar plan failed, in the years following the Tory win in 2010, except the Govt could blame the Lib Dems then! If the Government cared to look for a reason, rather than an excuse, they would explain that their deficit has to be the sum of what everyone else saves. They don’t have direct control of that.

There’s a saying , usually incorrectly attributed to Einstein, about doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results, being a sign of madness.  Are the Tories mad, though, or just plain bad?