MMP BLOG #6: WHAT IS A SOVEREIGN CURRENCY?

In recent weeks we have examined in some detail the three balances approach developed largely by Wynne Godley. In some sense all of that is preliminary to examining the nature of modern money. Further, as many of you have no doubt already recognized, a key distinguishing characteristic of MMT is its view on how government really spends. Beginning with this blog we will begin to develop our theory of sovereign currency.

So in coming weeks we examine spending by government that issues its own domestic currency. We first present general principles that are applicable to any issuer of domestic currency. These principles apply to both developed and developing nations, and regardless of exchange rate regime. We later move on to analysis of special considerations that apply to developing nations. Finally we will discuss implications of the analysis for different currency regimes.

In this blog we examine the concept of a sovereign currency.

Domestic Currency. We first introduce the concept of the money of account—the Australian dollar, the US dollar, the Japanese Yen, the British Pound, and the European Euro are all examples of a money of account. The first four of these monies of account are each associated with a single nation. By contrast, the Euro is a money of account adopted by a number of countries that have joined the European Monetary Union. Throughout history, the usual situation has been “one nation, one currency”, although there have been a number of exceptions to this rule, including the modern Euro. Most of the discussion that follows will be focused on the more common case in which a nation adopts its own money of account, and in which the government issues a currency denominated in that unit of account. When we address the exceptional cases, such as the European Monetary Union, we will carefully identify the differences that arise when a currency is divorced from the nation.

Note that most developing nations adopt their own domestic currency. However, some of these peg their currencies, hence, surrender a degree of domestic policy space, as will be discussed below. However, since they do issue their own currencies, the analysis here of the money of account does apply to them.

Note also, following the discussion at the end of Blog 4, we recognize that individual households and firms (and even governments) can use foreign currencies even within their domestic economy. For example, within Kazakhstan (and many other developing nations) some transactions can occur in US Dollars, while others take the form of Tenge. And individuals can accumulate net wealth denominated in Dollars or in Tenge. However, the accounting principles that apply to a money of account will still apply (separately) to each of these currencies.

One nation, one currency. The overwhelmingly dominant practice is for a nation to adopt its own unique money of account—the US Dollar (US$) in America; the Australian Dollar (A$) in Australia; the Kazakhstan Tenge. The government of the nation issues a currency (usually consisting of metal coins and paper notes of various denominations) denominated in its money of account. Spending by the government as well as tax liabilities, fees, and fines owed to the government are denominated in the same money of account. The court system assesses damages in civil cases using the same money of account.

For example, wages are counted in the nation’s money of account and in the event that an employer fails to pay wages due, the courts will enforce the labor contract and assess monetary damages on the employer to be paid to the employee.

A government might also use a foreign currency for some of its purchases, and might accept a foreign currency in payment. It might also borrow—issuing IOUs—in a foreign currency. Usually, this is done when the government is making purchases of imports or when it is trying to accumulate foreign currency reserves (for example when it pegs its currency). While important, this does not change the accounting of the domestic currency. That is, if the Kazakhstan government spends more Tenge than it collects in Tenge taxes, it runs a budget deficit in Tenge that exactly equals the nongovernment sector’s accumulation of Tenge through its budget surplus (assuming a balanced foreign sector it will be the domestic private sector that accumulates the Tenge).

We will argue that the government has much more leeway (called “domestic policy space”) when it spends and taxes in its own currency than when it spends or taxes in a foreign currency. For the Kazakhstan government to run a budget deficit in US Dollars, it would have to get hold of the extra Dollars by borrowing them. This is more difficult than simply spending by issuing Tenge to a domestic private sector that wants to accumulate some net saving in Tenge.

It is also important to note that in many nations there are private contracts that are written in foreign monies of account. For example, in some Latin American countries as well as some other developing nations around the world it is common to write some kinds of contracts in terms of the US Dollar. It is also common in many nations to use US currency in payment in private transactions. According to some estimates, the total value of US currency circulating outside America exceeds the value of US currency used at home. Thus, one or more foreign monies of account as well as foreign currencies might be used in addition to the domestic money of account and the domestic currency denominated in that unit.

Sometimes this is explicitly recognized by, and permitted by, the authorities while other times it is part of the underground economy that tries to avoid detection by using foreign currency. It might be surprising to learn that in the United States foreign currencies circulated alongside the US dollar well into the 19th century; indeed, the US Treasury even accepted payment of taxes in foreign currency until the middle of the 19th century.

However, such practices are now extremely rare in the developed nations that issue their own currencies (with the exception of the Euro nations—each of which uses the Euro that is effectively a “foreign” currency from the perspective of the individual nation). Still it is not uncommon in developing nations for foreign currencies to circulate alongside domestic currency, and sometimes their governments willingly accept foreign currencies. In some cases, sellers even prefer foreign currencies over domestic currencies.

This has implications for policy, as discussed later.

Sovereignty and the currency. The national currency is often referred to as a “sovereign currency”, that is, the currency issued by the sovereign government. The sovereign government retains for itself a variety of powers that are not given to private individuals or institutions. Here, we are only concerned with those powers associated with money.

The sovereign government, alone, has the power to determine which money of account it will recognize for official accounts (as discussed, it might choose to accept a foreign currency for some payments—but that is the sovereign’s prerogative). Further, modern sovereign governments, alone, are invested with the power to issue the currency denominated in its money of account.

If any entity other than the government tried to issue domestic currency (unless explicitly permitted to do so by government) it would be prosecuted as a counterfeiter, with severe penalties resulting.

Further, the sovereign government imposes tax liabilities (as well as fines and fees) in its money of account, and decides how these liabilities can be paid—that is, it decides what it will accept in payment so that taxpayers can fulfil their obligations.

Finally, the sovereign government also decides how it will make its own payments—what it will deliver to purchase goods or services, or to meet its own obligations (such as payments it must make to retirees). Most modern sovereign governments make payments in their own currency, and require tax payments in the same currency.

Next week we will continue this discussion, investigating “what backs up” modern money.

13 Responses to MMP BLOG #6: WHAT IS A SOVEREIGN CURRENCY?

  1. Medium of exchange question(s) later.

  2. Not sure as to what budget deficit in foreign currency means. There was another post here sometime back which claimed "and there will be a macro balance equation in that currency, too."The macro identities are sectoral identities and not currency identities. The UK Blue Book does not talk of the UK government budget deficit in Sterling and UK budget deficit in dollars. Rather, it just talks of a budget deficit. For the UK Government, there is just one budget deficit for every period. It is first expressed in Pounds and can be written in dollar equivalent as well. How the budget deficit is financed – by borrowing in Sterling (mostly) or in Dollars is a slightly different matter. So let us assume that the UK government expenditures in dollars in 2010 was $0 and income was $5 billion. The UK Government can do many things. It can exchange the $5b through a bank in the UK. Or it can reduce its liabilities in US Dollars. In either case, the budget deficit is the same. The net borrowing is equal to this deficit and national accountants may then also give statistics on how the net borrowing was financed. One more example. Combine the balance sheets of the Federal Reserve and US Federal Government. The Fed did swaps with the ECB amounting to €220 billion in 2008. Can we say the US Government has a budget surplus in Euros ? How come the US government sector acquired a budget surplus in Euros without having income/expenditure in Euros ?

  3. I would assume because there was a net financial inflow of 220B Euros to the US govt and a net financial outflow of 220B Euros from the ECB.Budget/Deficit/balances are about balancing the NFA inflows and outflows, and they have to net to zero.

  4. "If any entity other than the government tried to issue domestic currency (unless explicitly permitted to do so by government) it would be prosecuted as a counterfeiter, with severe penalties resulting."Is the monetizing of private bank debt created on a ledger accounted for in the MMT model?My understanding is that banks issue checks denominated in the sovereign's currency by creating the money from nothing but the asset/liability basis of the debt instrument and the collateral, summing both together to zero on their account. This is a privilege granted by the sovereign government to a private entity which endangers economic stability. When money supply is diminished by saving during a recession by paying up debts, while at the same time issuance of new money is dependent upon the banks judgment that new borrowers have sufficient collateral and income to assure their profit, money supply becomes dependent upon these private banks. How is the seigniorage of a “trillion dollar coin” not issued through bank debt accounted for? Does MMT show a public benefit to treasury issued money, not passing through a private bank system, but spent directly into circulation?

  5. When you write "currency", you refer to coins and paper notes. Only the government issues those. So far so good.Later, you write:"Most modern sovereign governments make payments in their own currency, and require tax payments in the same currency."I pay taxes using a checking account, not with coins and paper.To me, as customer of a private bank, it appears as if, not only the government, but also a private bank can issue the thing with which I pay taxes: when a bank grants a loan and credits my checking account, I can use the credits to pay taxes.

  6. "I pay taxes using a checking account, not with coins and paper."Most people do, but the key point is that the denomination in which you pay taxes is in your domestic currency (in the US you pay $X out of your checking account etc.)."To me, as customer of a private bank, it appears as if, not only the government, but also a private bank can issue the thing with which I pay taxes: when a bank grants a loan and credits my checking account, I can use the credits to pay taxes."That's very true. And this is where the whole thing ties into the sectoral balances in the previous posts. The private sector — i.e. you — can indeed get access to money that is, in all essentials, created by the banking system. However, this means that the private sector as a whole takes on more debt.

  7. Note to commentators: We've got a techie problem so my response did not get up last night and we have been unable to post it so far today. Should be up later today. Meanwhile I will paste it in here, but be assured it will be properly formatted and posted later.SOVEREIGN CURRENCY, MEDIUM OF EXCHANGE, AND SECTORAL BALANCES: Response to Comments on MMP Blog #6Thanks for comments. As you may have noticed, I kept the blog shorter this week so that we could focus on a smaller range of topics. That seems to have helped—the comments this week are also well-focused. I think I can hit the main concerns by addressing three topics. due to space limitations, these will be in next 3 comments.

  8. 1. Relation between the sovereign currency and the medium of exchange: We first introduced the money of account: the Dollar in the US and the Pound in the UK. This is a unit of account, a measuring unit like the “inch”, “foot” and “yard”. It does not exist even as an electronic entry; not even a bloodhound could sniff it out. It is representational, something only a human could imagine. Next we introduced the concept of “money things”—denominated in the money of account. (Similarly, our unit used to measure length cannot be sniffed by dog, but it does have physical things that can be sniffed and measured: the inch worm is an inch in length, my foot is a foot—more or less, and the football field is 100 times the distance from Henry the first’s nose to thumb. Probably more, actually, as we know those kings exaggerated the size of their anatomical features, like rap stars today.) This can include paper, notes, and electronic entries. We’ll say a lot more about the nature of those things that get measured by the money of account. This week we introduced the sovereign currency—the national money of account adopted by a sovereign government. While a money of account could—in theory—be created and adopted by private entities, the sovereign currency is adopted by the sovereign government; and the sovereign currency is usually at least the primary money of account if not the only money of account used within a sovereign nation. The word “currency” is frequently used to designate not only the money of account adopted by sovereign government, but also to designate a money thing issued by the sovereign government and denominated in the money of account. In the US it is the coin issued by the Treasury and the note issued by the Fed. In other words, we use the term “Dollar” to indicate both the sovereign currency (money of account) and the money thing (paper note or coin) issued by the US government. We have not yet got to the “medium of exchange”. Most textbooks begin with the medium of exchange (Crusoe and Friday look about for handy sea shells to function as convenient media of exchange). I reject that story and purposely wait to introduce the concept. But to jump ahead a bit, yes the “money thing” currency issued by government generally functions as a medium of exchange. Other privately issued money things also frequently function as media of exchange. That is a function of money things, and really does not help us to understand much about the nature of money. When you walk into a relatively new diner or any other “mom and pop” firm, there usually is a frame hanging on the wall, with a Dollar bill and some sort of statement like “the first dollar we ever earned”. Here, money functions as a momento—reflecting the pride of the owner of the establishment. Two decades ago, there were lots of stories of Wall Street traders using hundred Dollar bills functioning as cocaine delivery devices. I don’t think it is useful to put undue emphasis on the various functions of money. Let us at least first try to understand its nature.

  9. 2. That leads us to the question about “bank money”. Again, we will get into this in detail in coming weeks. However, to break the suspense, banks (and other institutions as well as individuals) can issue IOUs denominated in the money of account. We do not call these “currency”. They are not issued by sovereign government. They are “money things”. Yes, some are more “special” than others: the IOU of the Bank of America (a private bank—not Uncle Sam’s bank) is more “special” than the IOU that you issue. Yes, it can function as a medium of exchange. The reasons for the “specialness” will be examined later. But an obvious one is that to some degree Uncle Sam stands behind BofA—for example, he guarantees demand deposits (your checking account). So, yes I do understand the worry that Uncle Sam has essentially licensed BofA to “counterfeit” Dollars—if the bank goes bust, Uncle Sam will pay out nice new Dollar bills to depositors. This raises many issues of concern, and some of those are directly relevant to the global financial crisis we are going through—in which Uncle Sam has effectively done just that. But for right now, that really would take us too far afield. Please be patient.

  10. 3. Currencies and balances. Recall that we have discussed (briefly) unsold inventories. Suppose it is the end of the year 1974 and we are Ford motor company and we produce 1000 Ford Pintos (remember those—the ones with exploding gas tanks?) that we cannot sell. Unsold inventory gets counted as investment. Ford carries the inventory at its market price—let us say, the average price of Pintos that it actually did sell in 1974. Assume it cannot sell them in 1975, either (deep recession, bad publicity about the tanks, and so on). How to value them? All things equal, Ford would prefer not to book a loss of value—it carries them at original value, otherwise, the value of its inventory declines impacting 1975 profits and net worth. Now in 2011 it is still carrying those Pintos in inventory. You see the problem. We have to assign a dollar value to them. Now let’s address the problem of dual currencies. Suppose Ford produces cars in America but sells them in America and Japan. It imports all the electronic components from Japan. It can keep two sets of books—one for Dollars and one for Yen. It has income and outgo in each currency. Clearly it could run a deficit in one and a surplus in the other (or surpluses in both, or deficits in both, etc—you get the picture). All other firms, households, and levels of government can do the same in Dollars and Yen. Adding up all the sectors, we get to our three balances in each of the currencies. But Ford’s shareholders do not want to know that it has a surplus in Dollars of 1 billion and a deficit in Yen of 1 trillion—it wants the overall balance for Ford’s income. Just as we have to convert Pintos to Dollars, we have to convert those Yen to Dollars. We need an exchange rate. Yen and Dollars float—changing every day in relative value. It is going to make a huge difference what exchange rate we use.

  11. So, yes I am sympathetic to “Tobinesque’s” comments. The cleanest way is to keep the accounts separate and there will be sectoral balances in each currency that do balance. But, yes, a government as well as a firm needs a budget in one currency (generally it is going to be the domestic currency) and so if income and outgo occur in more than one, exchange rates must be used to get everything into that currency of denomination. This is true even if the government/firm/household actually has bank accounts denominated in the foreign currency. This complicates matters because now the sectoral balances will not balance (exactly) unless everyone uses the same exchange rate all the time—which would happen if we pegged. This issue has come up before—there are variations in estimates of the three balances. One reader pointed out that one of the graphs I used showing—say—the private deficit during the Clinton years differed a bit from a later one I showed here on the MMP. The reason was due to updated data and different sources (the older one came from Wynne Godley and the later one from Scott Fullwiler). As they say, economics is not an exact science! More seriously, you should not think that aggregate economic data like GDP or the CPI (consumer price index), or the sectoral balance are measured precisely. These are estimates, using data that is constructed. What is important is consistency. I know this always shocks students the first time they hear it. But the CPI does not come from heaven. It is constructed, it is revised, and it is subject to great debate among wonky people with thick glasses. And believe it or not, it does matter exactly how these data are constructed. But do not get misled by that. Certainly at the level of logic, the three balances do balance. If we could measure things exactly, they would balance in practice. Knowing that they should balance, the statistician who puts them together ensures they do balance—by construction. This is not easy; a “statistical discrepancy” is added to ensure they do—and if you need a big one of those, that is not good. And, yes, dealing with valuing those inventories is a big headache—I can remember when Wynne Godley used to fret over that, and I didn’t understand why. Now I do.

  12. My main concern is that when the sector accounts revalue into the Sovereign currency, the revaluation 'creates' an amount of money that isn't actually in circulation.So if (in extremis) exports and imports are all booked in a non-sovereign currency, the trade balance revaluation 'creates' a load of sovereign currency that isn't there in reality.

  13. Pingback: A Financial Sovereignty Strategy for Egypt | New Economic Perspectives