Category Archives: The National Debt

Why Does Uncle Sam Borrow?

By Dan Kervick

The Unites States government operates a fiat currency system.  The government is therefore the monopoly supplier of the final means of payment in our dollar-based economy, and is ultimately responsible, in one way or another, for any net increase in dollar-denominated financial assets in the private sector.

And yet, we continue to hear bipartisan expressions of fear and angst about the budget deficit and the national debt.  Both major parties seemingly agree that we are “out of money”.   They wrangle over various competing approaches to shrinking the gap between tax revenues and government spending.  They appoint commissions to study the government budget and recommend some combination of slashed spending and higher taxes in order to close that budgetary gap.   They warn us that we will transform ourselves into banana republic status if we do not urgently address our public debt problems.

This situation should be perplexing.  Why does a government that is the issuer of the national currency have to borrow that currency back from the public to which the currency is issued?   And how could such a government ever experience the kinds of budgetary squeezes and debt burdens that can pose severe problems for households and businesses?

I wish to make a radical suggestion:  Public borrowing is an outdated practice, and we could dispense with it entirely.   Borrowing by the public treasury and the accumulation of government debt obligations are legacies of the era that preceded the development of modern fiat currency, an era when governments were primarily users of traditional means of payment that lay outside their control, and not the producers and issuers of the primary means of payment.   That pre-fiat era is now dead in the US, and the chief remaining role of government borrowing in our time is to bamboozle the public, and to obscure the true nature and effects of government fiscal and monetary operations under a bewildering maze of bookkeeping ink and financial legerdemain.  Eliminating public borrowing, and replacing it with operations that are simpler, more direct and more transparent, would advance the cause of informed democratic debate over public spending and taxation.  Above all, the change would eliminate needless obscurity and confusion and help us all understand exactly whose bread is being buttered by the budgetary decisions made by politicians.

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Pinch-Hitting for Peterson. Part 2: How Progressives Helped Stoke Deficit Hysteria; A Case Study

By L. Randall Wray

In Part 1 I argued that Beltway progressives aided and abetted deficit hawk Pete Peterson in his efforts to gut the last remaining vestiges of Roosevelt’s New Deal. By adopting Peterson’s views on government finances, they were unable to provide a progressive alternative to budget cuts. Since Republicans were willing to make a Custer’s Last Stand on the debt limit, and since President Obama was Wall Street’s designate to privatize healthcare and retirement, Democrats needed that progressive voice. But Beltway progressives had already caved, for reasons I discussed.

Indeed, it appears even worse than that. Yves Smith already blew the whistle on three progressive research groups (Roosevelt Institute, Economic Policy Institute, and the Center for American Progress) that produced reports with funding from Peterson. These reports adopted the deficit hysterian’s argument that the US budget is on an “unsustainable” course, and advocated a return to “fiscal responsibility”. Getting progressives to adopt neoliberal terminology was a real coup for the deficit hawks. With such hyped-up talk, there was no doubt that Obama would be able to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block.

I have recently discussed what I see to be problems with the Roosevelt Institute’s report over at FDL. This was also the main target of Yves. (Go here).

Let me say, however, that I think critics have been too hard on these three groups. I have argued that taking tainted money from Peterson can be justified if one uses the money to produce progressive research. I am sure all three groups believe that is precisely what they did—they thought they would get a progressive view into the debate, something that had been sadly lacking. In their budgeting exercises, they preserved what they saw to be progressive programs, they budgeted some new progressive programs, and they shifted tax burdens to higher income individuals and corporations. Surely, they believed, that is better than standing on the sidelines and letting Peterson choose which programs to cut? I get that. I sympathize with them.

But here’s the problem. They accepted—at least implicitly—the Peterson agenda. Deficits and debt ratios have to be reduced, if not immediately then eventually. In other words, they budgeted, but with Peterson’s Austerian constraints.

I do not know if Peterson demanded that they submit budget projections that showed debt and deficit reduction relative to the base case. But the RI proudly displays on the report’s homepage projections of very significant debt reduction relative to the “do nothing” baseline. (see here) In other words, they accepted the premise that debt and deficit ratios should be reduced. Once that is done, there is nothing to do but cut some programs and raise taxes.

Part 1 should have made clear, however, that progressives had already moved very close to the Peterson view before he put them on the payroll. For a variety of reasons they had already adopted a “deficit dove” position. The difference between a hawk and a dove is this: hawks want deficit reduction more-or-less immediately. Many of them hold the position that deficits are always bad because they always cause inflation and slow economic growth. The extreme hawk position is that even now, with official unemployment above 9%, government spending should be reduced. There is no plausible economic theory standing behind that position—it is ideological, or as Representative Ryan put it, it is a “moral” position. More “reasonable” hawks are willing to wait until a stronger recovery gets underway. Even Pete Peterson is on record favoring postponement of deficit-cutting until 2012 (see below).

By contrast, deficit doves believe that deficits are not only OK in a deep recession, they are even necessary. (Prominent deficit doves include Paul Krugman as well as many of the writers at New Deal 2.0 as well as individuals at the three institutions that accepted Peterson’s funds.) However, doves believe that “eventually” deficits need to be cut so that debt stops growing; they typically want to stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio at some level. Some admit that the choice of a final resting place for the debt ratio is somewhat arbitrary—perhaps it should be 60%, or perhaps 100%. But doves are sure that 200% is worse than 100%, and that 100% is worse than 60%. Thus, “eventually” deficits must be cut—and that means hard choices.

A progressive dove can be identified by her preferred means of obtaining that final “sustainable” debt ratio. Tax increases on the rich and on corporations are good. Reductions in military spending and subsidies for corporate agriculture and oil companies are advocated. Raising taxes on the poor and cutting their benefits are rejected by progressive doves.

The problem is that most progressives accept the intergenerational warrior’s claim that “entitlements” (Roosevelt’s New Deal) will bankrupt the nation 25 to 50 years down the road. And those portions of the budget are already large and growing. Hence, as Peterson and his minions have argued for years, “TINA”—there is no alternative to hacking away at entitlements.

The more progressive doves advocate relatively small tweaks to Social Security (raising or eliminating the “cap” so that higher income folks contribute more payroll taxes; raising the retirement age; taxing benefits received by high income retirees; reducing the COLAs; and so on) or bigger tweaks to Medicare and Medicaid (greater emphasis on cost control—some go so far as to recommending the “public option”—or to slow health care cost growth more generally, using centralized bargaining over drug prices). The game played then becomes one of finding the least painful way to reduce longer-term budget deficits and growth of debt in order to move the government’s finances back toward “fiscal responsibility”.

That was a long excursion by way of introduction to what follows—an examination of EPI’s “progressive budget”. I want to make clear three points about EPI. First, EPI’s progressive credentials are not in question. It is without doubt the most important progressive voice in Washington. Second, EPI’s preferred budget was created before it accepted any Peterson money. I will actually refer to the budget it published in 2010, long before Peterson solicited EPI to produce a report. In all important respects, the earlier budget is the same as the budget EPI produced for Peterson. Thus, those critics who have argued that EPI “sold out” to get Peterson funds are wrong.

And, finally, I want to say that much of the budget is indeed “progressive”—it preserves progressive programs, it adds funding for new progressive programs, and it shifts taxes to higher income individuals and corporations. It obtains deficit and debt reduction mostly by increasing taxes. We could quibble over the allocation of funds or the budget priorities of EPI, but I have no problem agreeing that the priorities are consistent with a progressive agenda—albeit not necessarily one I would endorse. Further, EPI has been steadfast in its protection of Social Security. Unlike some other progressives, for example, EPI has rejected any attempt to cut benefits by raising retirement ages or fiddling with COLAs. So I want to make clear that when I criticize Beltway progressives for aiding Social Security’s enemies I am not including EPI, which has been a strong voice in support of Social Security.

Before closely examining EPI’s report let me quickly summarize my complaints about Beltway progressives:

  1. By adopting a deficit dove position, they legitimize the Peterson crowd’s focus on deficit ratios and debt ratios;
  2. By adopting the intergenerational warrior’s long-term budgeting methods, they legitimize the fear-mongering surrounding “unfunded entitlements”;
  3. This leads inexorably to weakening support for New Deal social programs by questioning their “affordability”; and
  4. More generally, it legitimizes the arguments of fiscal conservatives who want to reduce the role of government in the economy.

For the purposes of my analysis, I will compare an EPI report from 2010 (before EPI received funding from Peterson) with a Peterson-funded report from 2009, both of which provided “blueprints” for deficit and debt reduction. As one might expect, the dovish EPI report preserves and even enhances spending on progressive programs, while raising taxes on higher income individuals and corporations. The Peterson report is much more hysterical about a looming financial crisis if we do not do something immediately about unfunded entitlements. Further, the EPI budget would move toward deficit cutting much more slowly, and would stabilize the debt ratio at a higher level.

Still, as one reads the EPI report, one is struck by two things. First, both the goals of the research exercise as well as the major points made are remarkably similar to the earlier Peterson diatribe on the coming fiscal crisis: medium-term and longer-term deficits and debt ratios need to be reduced. I will next examine those similarities. Second, while EPI adopts a dovish position on budget deficits and debt, it offers no serious argument to justify that position. It simply takes as granted the belief that rising debts and deficits are bad, and the bigger they are the badder they are. I surmise that EPI simply presumes that everyone “knows” government deficits and debt are bad, so no explanation is required. Everyone, that is, within the Washington beltway. I suppose that because they all breathe the same hyperventilator’s air, it is just so obvious that Beltway progressives do not need to consider the assumption that the US is on an “unsustainable” course.

The EPI 2010 report provides the following summary of its “blueprint” for a progressive approach to budgeting that adopts a “sound fiscal path”:

1. Jobs first. Jobs and economic growth are essential to our capacity to reduce deficits, and there should be no across-the-board spending reductions until the economy fully recovers. In fact, efforts to spur job creation today will put us on a better economic path and create a solid revenue base. We believe there should be no consideration of overall spending reductions until unemployment has fallen to 6% and remained at or below that level for six months. 2. Stabilize debt. Over the long term, national debt as a share of the economy should be stabilized and eventually brought onto a downward trajectory. 3. Build on economy-boosting investments. We must build and maintain initiatives that directly support long-term job and economic growth. Failing to invest adequately in these efforts – or sacrificing them to short-term deficit reduction – would be a dereliction of sound public management. 4. Target revenue increases. Revenue increases should come primarily from those who have benefited most from the economic gains of the last few decades. 5. No cost shifting. Debt reduction must be weighed against other economic priorities. Policies that simply shift costs from the federal government to individuals and families may improve the government’s balance sheet but would worsen the condition of many Americans, leaving the overall economy no better off.…. We document the hard choices that need to be made and suggest specific policies that will yield lower deficits and a sustainable debt while preserving essential initiatives and investments. (p. V)

Note that of the 5 bullet points that summarize the blueprint, three address the supposed debt and deficit problems. Bullet 2 argues for stabilizing and then reducing the debt ratio; Bullet 4 argues for increasing tax revenues; and Bullet 1 postpones blood-letting through spending reductions until unemployment falls to 6%. It is also important to note, however, that EPI recognizes that it does no good to shift debt from government to households—so, for example, reducing Medicare costs by putting them on households only reduces government deficits and debt by increasing household deficits and debt.

Let us look at EPI’s projections, that compare the “do nothing” scenario against Obama’s proposals and the EPI proposals (labeled “OFS” for “our fiscal security”). This graph shows that EPI’s proposals will cut the deficit to GDP ratio by almost half over the medium term.

The next graph compares the medium term debt-to-GDP ratios under the three scenarios:

What is the source of the government’s financial problems? Rising healthcare costs and lack of adequate tax revenue. (“Any realistic solution to the long-term budget outlook must confront the real drivers of the growth of the national debt, namely the rapid rise in health care costs and the lack of adequate revenue.”, p. 2). It is important to note here that EPI wants to protect Social Security benefits—it does not advocate any cuts. So to close the “fiscal gap” it recommends higher payroll taxes by raising the “cap”. It tweaks “Obamacare” to reduce the rate of growth of health insurance costs. (Interested readers can go to the report. While I do not support either of these proposals, one could label them “progressive” given the narrow range of what passes for progressive discourse in America.) In summary, their proposal achieves deficit and debt reduction (relative to current policy):

Our suggested budget blueprint achieves lower deficits in the medium term and balances the primary federal budget (the year’s current revenue and spending, not counting interest payments on past debt) in less than a decade. This path recognizes the need to increase revenue while targeting certain areas for reductions in spending; in particular, our proposed path reallocates spending away from the Department of Defense by adopting common sense spending reductions. Finally, the blueprint protects core priorities such as Social Security and health care from economically counterproductive reductions in benefits. The net impact of the spending and revenue adjustments we put forth in this blueprint will produce the following short- and long-term results: • Substantial and sustained increased funding for job creation and investments, especially in the near term; • A budget path that significantly improves the 10-year budget window; • A transition from a primary deficit to a primary surplus in 2018, and sustainable debt levels by the end of the decade; • An improvement in the path for public debt in the long term (stabilizing debt as a share of the economy beyond 2025); • A solid footing for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid for the long term; • A modernized tax code that raises adequate revenue fairly and efficiently.

The following figure shows a significantly lower long-term debt trajectory as a result of EPI’s proposals.

Throughout the report, EPI refers to “fiscal security”, “fiscal responsibility”, a “sound fiscal path”, “sustainable debt”, and the current “unsustainability of the national budget”. None of these terms is ever adequately defined.

The report also discusses the “75 year fiscal gap”, that must be reduced to “stabilize the debt ratio at today’s level”, requiring tax increases or spending reductions amounting to 7-9% of GDP. It warns that the government is not raising sufficient revenue to cover its expenses and that we cannot face national challenges without adequate funding and a return to fiscal responsibility. I will return to these claims below.

It is interesting to compare the EPI Blueprint with the Peterson-Pew Commission’s report from 2009. The Peterson report is cited as a source for the EPI blueprint, and shares similar phrasing and analysis. Like the EPI Blueprint, the Peterson report advocates a return to “fiscal responsibility”, and the need to “return to a sustainable path”. And like the EPI, the Peterson group is committed to stabilizing the public debt over the medium term and then reducing the debt ratio over the long term. The Peterson report also attributes the fiscal problems to growing healthcare costs and insufficient growth of tax revenue, but it also adds as a cause an aging population. Hence, its attack on Social Security is direct, as one would expect from a group funded by Peterson. In summary, the Peterson report

“recommends that Congress and the White House follow a six-step plan: Step 1: Commit immediately to stabilize the debt at 60 percent of GDP by 2018; Step 2: Develop a specific and credible debt stabilization package in 2010; Step 3: Begin to phase in policy changes in 2012; Step 4: Review progress annually and implement an enforcement regime to stay on track; Step 5: Stabilize the debt by 2018; and Step 6: Continue to reduce the debt as a share of the economy over the longer term.”

The differences between the Peterson plan and the EPI blueprint are that EPI would move toward deficit and debt reduction more slowly, and its debt stabilization would be at higher levels (a ratio of about 80% for the medium term and 60% for the longer term, versus 60% and 40%, respectively, for the Peterson plan). According to the Peterson report, the consequences of not getting debt and deficits under control are: “An ever-growing debt would likely hurt the American standard of living by fueling inflation, forcing up interest rates, dampening wages, slowing economic growth and job creation, and shrinking the government’s ability to cut taxes, invest, or provide a safety net.”

I carefully searched the EPI report to find exactly what it is about growing debt and deficits that makes them “unsustainable” and “undesired”. There is no serious attempt made to justify the recommendation to “stabilize” and then reduce debt ratios. Indeed, in the 70-plus page document, the supposed negative impacts of growing debt ratios are discussed only briefly in three places. It boils down to this:

a) budget deficits and government debt might crowd-out private investment;
b) high deficit and debt ratios would hinder government’s ability to deal with future financial crises;
c) high debt ratios could trigger a fiscal crisis;
d) high debt service (ie paying interest on bonds) could crowd out other government spending;
e) high debt ratios could threaten confidence in government debt.

The Peterson report is much more hysterical about the possibility—nay, near certainty—of a fiscal crisis if debt ratios are not reduced. It also adds to the list above the possibility that deficits will spark inflation and devaluation of the dollar, and claims that deficits slow economic growth. But in general outline, the two analyses warn of similar dangers without providing any serious discussion of the mechanisms through which deficits and debts generate these outcomes.

Let me stick to the EPI fears. While we probably disagree about operational details, I suspect EPI agrees that government can make all payments as they come due in its own sovereign currency—that is a position to which even Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, and Paul Krugman subscribe. But if that is so, I do not see how a “fiscal crisis” can be triggered. Let us say that market confidence in Treasuries is shaken. A sovereign government can offer to redeem all of them—that is, stand ready to pay off interest and principal by crediting bank accounts with US dollars. Yes, I know that the inflation hyperventilators are already screaming. But EPI did not list inflation as a possible result; it listed fiscal crisis. How can you have a fiscal crisis when you spend your own currency? EPI is silent on the matter.

The EPI report lists two types of crowding out. The first is the old and thoroughly discredited loanable funds idea: there is a fixed amount of loanable funds in markets and if government borrows, there is less available for private firms. Interest rates rise, investment falls, and growth suffers (one of the Peterson claims). There is also an ISLM version—but that is equally discredited (all modern macro has a horizontal LM curve) and too wonky for this blog. One must conclude that EPI’s macroeconomics is based on pre-Keynesian theory.

Actually, finance is not a scarce resource. (Anyone who thinks it is scarce had a Rip Van Winkle nap during the last two decades, when finance was more abundant than hot air within the Beltway.) Government deficits cannot financially crowd out investment. Yes, if we went beyond full employment of all resources, more government spending could crowd out private spending because there would be no real resources to devote to production of additional output. But it is pretty clear that EPI is not worried about real resources, since its Blueprint devotes Bullet 3 to ramping up public investment.

The second kind of crowding out listed is based on the belief that government faces a fixed budget so that if it spends more on interest it must cut spending (or raise taxes) elsewhere. This is also related to the view popularized by neoliberals Reinhart and Rogoff that low debt ratios are good because when a crisis hits there is fiscal policy space that can be used for bail-outs and stimulus packages. But that means EPI is using a circular argument: we must reduce the debt by cutting spending because the debt imposes a constraint on spending.

The reality is, as all those reading this blog know well, a sovereign government is never financially constrained in its own currency. Government spends by keystrokes. It can stroke keys to pay interest and as well stroke keys to undertake any progressive spending policies EPI proposes. And it still has “room” to stroke keys for bailouts. There is no affordability tradeoff. What matters is inflation—too much government spending drives the economy to the inflation barrier. And real resource use: a government that takes too many resources for its use (hopefully, to serve the public purpose) leaves too few for the private sector. But that requires full capacity use—otherwise at most you get bottlenecks.

Further, as all readers here know, the interest rate is a policy variable. The central bank chooses the overnight interest rate; the short maturity government bill rate tracks that closely since bills are close substitutes for bank reserves. Other rates are more complexly determined. Government bills and bonds are interest-earning alternatives to the rates paid on reserves by the central bank. Let us say that government decides it wants to spend less on interest on longer maturity bonds. Easy enough: stop issuing them. Facing a drought of longer maturity bonds, markets will bid up their prices and rates will fall. Government can stay in the short end of the market as long as it wants; indeed, it can stop issuing even bills and just pay 25 basis points on reserves (as it now does). Yes, this requires a change from current operating procedure. I won’t go through this now as NEP has provided ample analysis of operating procedures and the simple changes that would lead to an era of zero government debt (as conventionally measured, since reserves and currency are not counted).

Now, EPI might challenge me: what would my progressive 15 to 25 year government budget proposal look like? My response: I wouldn’t budget for 5 years, let alone 25. It is a silly exercise that only stokes the fires of Peterson’s hyperventilators.

The best argument against doing long-term budgeting exercises is here, a co-authored Policy Brief that was based on testimony we supplied to Congress. A quick summary is contained in my FDL piece (here). This blog is already too long to repeat the arguments. Budgeting by sovereign government does make sense, and one could even envision budgeting for particular long-lived projects for periods as long as 25 years. But it makes no sense to project total government spending, taxing, and deficits out to 15 or 25 years, let alone to infinity and beyond. And once we bring in recognition of the three sectors balances and the necessity they sum to zero, the futility of calculating budget deficits for year 2035 becomes obvious. You cannot even get a budget deficit unless the private sector wants to net save and the rest of the world wants to earn dollars by net exporting. To calculate the budget deficit in 2035 we would have to be able to project out the current account balance and the private sector balance. That is something EPI did not do—and so, the whole exercise is not only silly but seriously incoherent from the vantage point of the sectoral balances.

In conclusion: critics have wrongly implied that EPI (and perhaps RI and CAP) adopted Peterson’s hawkish approach because they were paid to do so. The similarity between the EPI and the Peterson position on sustainability of deficits and debts predates the funding. The EPI Blueprint does adopt a progressive approach to budgeting, so long as one agrees that progressives should adopt a dovish approach to budget deficits, and that it is progressive to draw up budgets for the far distant future. Personally, I reject both of those stances.

But, MMTers are in a distinct minority—we are deficit owls. As I have argued here, most progressives have lined up on the Peterson side because they adopt the deficit dove position. And that is why all progressive policies adopted since the Great Depression are now in danger.

Counterfactuals can never be proven. What if Beltway progressives had mounted a strong opposition against Peterson? What if they understood and endorsed MMT? Would Democrats have found the will to call the Republican’s bluff? Would Obama have stood up to the attacks on the New Deal? We will never know.

I conclude: progressives have unwittingly aided and abetted the deficit hawks because they do not have any strong alternative to the argument that deficit and debt trajectories are “unsustainable”.

More Reasons to Doubt Rogoff and Reinhart

By Yeva Nersisyan
With unemployment expected to remain high in the U.S. and Europe and the possibility of a double-dip recession growing stronger, some sensible voices are calling for another round of fiscal stimulus. And then there are others who not only argue that we don’t need more stimulus, but make a case for starting to cut spending today, notwithstanding a very fragile “recovery.” Ken Rogoff (see here), who has become the de-facto authority on the issue of sovereign deficits and debt (together with his co-author, Carmen Reinhart), in a recent FT article is trying to make the case for the redundancy of further economic stimulus. Subpar economic performance and unemployment are the usual companions of post-financial crisis recovery, he argues, hence there is no need for a “panicked fiscal response” (even Secretary Geithner has cited their research to demonstrate that the current slow pace of recovery is normal). Rogoff goes on to argue that the long-term effects of government debt accumulation on growth shouldn’t be ignored. The theoretical and empirical bases for his arguments are found in his recent book with Reinhart, This Time is Different, as well as an NBER paper, “Growth in Time of Debt”. This paper, similar to the book, has been very popular, especially among those needing empirical justification for their anti-fiscal policy stance. While the RR book focuses on the short-run, immediate impacts of sovereign debt (i.e. financial and economic crises), the focus of the paper is the impact of sovereign debt on long-term growth. In this blog I want to give a quick, critical evaluation of the paper (a longer version can be found here).

When orthodox economists start their empirical research regarding the long-term impact of deficits and sovereign debt, they do not ask whether deficits contribute to or inhibit long-term economic growth. They do not ask, because they already “know” the answer, as the ECB put it: “Although fiscal consolidation may imply costs in terms of lower economic growth in the short run, the longer-run beneficial effects of fiscal consolidation are undisputed.” (ECB, Monthly Bulletin, June, 2010). What they want to find is some threshold for deficit-to-GDP and debt-to-GDP ratios beyond which debt becomes detrimental to growth. With this goal in mind, Rogoff and Reinhart embark on a “scientific” journey through time and space.
Their method is actually quite simple: they construct some arbitrary ranges for debt-to-GDP ratios (0-30, 30-60, 60-90, >90) and take the average of growth rates for each range. They then take the average of these averages for a large number of countries and conclude that when the government debt-to-GDP ratio crosses the threshold of 90% (again, an arbitrary number), median growth rates fall by one percentage point and the average falls even more. This limit is the same for developed and developing countries, however, when it comes to external debt (which is defined in their book as both public and private debt issued in a foreign jurisdiction, and usually, but not always, denominated in foreign currency), the threshold is much lower, just 60% of GDP. Once a country crosses this lower external debt threshold, annual growth declines by about 2 percentage points and at very high levels, the growth rate is cut almost in half.
Interestingly, however, average growth rates don’t monotonically decline, i.e. the average rate of growth is higher when debt-to-GDP ratio is in the 60-90% range than the lower range of 30-60%. In addition, growth rates don’t slow down for all the countries in their sample. For some countries the average growth rate is higher when debt is over 90% of GDP than for lower levels of debt. Reinhart and Rogoff don’t point out this “anomaly,” nor do they offer any explanations. More importantly, since they take the average of averages of a number of countries, it is possible that countries like the U.S. may drive the results for the whole group. They single out the case of the U.S. in their paper to demonstrate their results. However, a closer look shows that they only have 5 data points for the U.S. when the debt-to-GDP ratio was over 90%. This is only 2.3% of the total of 216 observations. Moreover, 3 out of these 5 observations are for the years 1945, 1946 and 1947, the period after WWII when government debt was high due to war spending. In this period, growth slowed down significantly as the government was withdrawing war spending from the economy. In 1946 alone, GDP contracted at a pace of -10.9%. Rogoff and Reinhart fail to even mention this in their paper. Similar situations might be true for many other countries, where high levels of debt-to-GDP follow extreme economic or political events.
But what is even more important is that what they find in the data is merely a correlation. The causation then is imposed by Reinhart and Rogoff with explanations based on Barro’s Ricardian equivalence theory. “The simplest connection between public debt and growth is suggested by Robert Barro (1979). Assuming taxes ultimately need to be raised to achieve debt sustainability, the distortionary impact imply is likely to lower potential output” [sic].
There is no doubt about the correlation between high debt-to-GDP ratios and low economic growth found in the data. However, there is a more sensible explanation for this correlation. As explained in many past posts on this blog, the government budget balance automatically goes into deficit in a recession leading to an accumulation of public debt. Besides, GDP, the denominator of the ratio shrinks making the ratio even larger. It is sufficient to look at what happened during this most recent crisis to see this. The average rate of growth has been -0.23% for the recession years 2007-2009. At the same time, government debt held by the public has increased from 36% of GDP in 2006 to about 52% in 2009. So if you look at the data, the rate of growth was 2.7% in 2006 corresponding to a debt-to-GDP ratio of 36%. In 2009 growth was -2.6% with a corresponding debt-to-GDP ratio of 52%. Hence there is a correlation between slow growth and high levels of debt which is not surprising. But unless you want to argue that the current recession was caused by high levels of government debt, then it is obvious that causation runs from slow growth to high debt and not the other way around as Reinhart and Rogoff claim.
They also find that growth deteriorates significantly at external debt levels of over 60% and that most default on external debt in emerging economies since 1970s has been at 60% or lower debt-to-GDP ratios (which is the Maastricht criteria). While this might be a surprising finding for them, it should be clear why countries are not tolerant to external debt which is almost always denominated in foreign currency. When a government borrows in foreign currency, even low levels of indebtedness can be unsustainable since the government is not able to issue that foreign currency to meet its debt obligations. As countries need to earn foreign exchange from exports, a sudden reversal in export conditions can render the country unable to meet its foreign debt obligations leading to a crisis and slower growth. Sovereign governments, on the other hand, do not face any financial constraints and cannot run out of their own currency as they are the monopoly issuers of that currency. They don’t need to increase taxes in the future (a la Barro) to pay off the debt as they make interest payments on their “debt” as well as payments of principal by crediting bank accounts, meaning that operationally they are not constrained on how much they can spend. See here for more on this.
While many experts believe that there is an acute possibility of a double-dip recession in the U.S. (see here) and other developed nations, Ken Rogoff is not one of them. And even if we do face the threat, he argues, monetary policy will suffice (if anything, this crisis has demonstrated the ineffectiveness of monetary policy (interest rate management to be more precise) not to be confused with the massive lender-of-last resort operations that the Fed undertook to stabilize the financial system).
Even if there was no threat of a double-dip recession, one could rightly argue that the current high levels of unemployment and underemployment require more government spending. Rogoff’s argument, however, is that sustained high unemployment is the normal consequence of a financial crisis and hence he seems to conclude that fiscal measures to solve the unemployment problem are unnecessary. This is very bad policy advice – we know we have a problem (unemployment), we know how to solve it (public works), but we shouldn’t do so for fear of growth slowing or markets disciplining the government at some indefinite time in the future, a fear based on the wobbly research of Reinhart and Rogoff.
To summarize, the Rogoff and Reinhart research is not a scientific quest but merely a journey with a set destination. It is not based on any sensible theory, and the statistical analysis is of questionable quality as well. Government deficits and debt largely mirror what goes on in the private sector. There are no magic numbers for deficit and debt ratios applicable to all countries and all times. Devising such ratios is a useless exercise.
Even in better times, the U.S. economy is operating with considerably high levels of unemployment and underemployment (see here), underscoring the necessity of government intervention in the economy. In a recession as the private sector cuts back its spending and tries to de-leverage, the role of government, as the only entity in the economy that can run persistent deficits without facing solvency issues, becomes especially important. Regardless of whether there is a threat of a double dip recession, the government should act to solve the unemployment problem through direct job creation TODAY. High levels of unemployment are not compatible with a democratic society.

“Fed Chairman Ruml got it right in 1946″

Hat tip Warren Mosler’s blog (http://www.moslereconomics.com/)

On his recent piece “Taxes For Revenue Are Obsolete ” that appeared on the Huffington Post he notes:

April 15th has come and gone, but the issue of taxation remains the course de jour. I was recently forwarded an article entitled Taxes For Revenue Are Obsolete, written in 1946 by Beardsley Ruml, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and published in a periodical named American Affairs. While Ruml was writing about the merits of corporate taxes, it is his discussion about how the function of taxes changed after the nation exited the gold standard that make this a must read. As Ruml’s stated, with an “…inconvertible currency, a sovereign national government is finally free of money worries and need no longer levy taxes for the purpose of providing itself with revenue… It follows that our Federal Government has final freedom from the money market in meeting its financial requirements… All federal taxes must meet the test of public policy and practical effect. The public purpose which is served should never be obscured in a tax program under the mask of raising revenue.” He goes on to explain how, with Federal spending not revenue constrained, the first function of taxation is to regulate the value of the dollar, which we know as regulating inflation. The notion of the Federal government ‘running out of money’ and ‘dependence on foreign borrowing’ as well as ‘sustainability’ is categorically inapplicable. The operative CBO ‘scoring’ is the inflationary effect, rather than simply a revenue forecast. And while Social Security and Medicare may turn out to be inflationary, they are not ‘bankrupting the nation’ as most believe, including a Democratic Congress that cut Medicare spending with the recent health care bill and has all entitlements ‘on the table.’

See also here.

It Takes Two to Tango: Look At The Numerator and Denominator

By Marshall Auerback

A new book by Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, “This Time It’s Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Follies“, has occasioned much comment in the press and blogosphere (see here and here).

The book purports to show that once the gross debt to GDP ratio crosses the threshold of 90%, economic growth slows dramatically.

But that’s too simplistic: Debt to GDP is a ratio and the ratio value is a function of both the numerator and denominator. The ratio can rise as a function of either an increase in debt or a decrease in GDP. So to blindly take a number, say, 90% debt to GDP as Rogoff and Reinhart have done in their recent work, is unduly simplistic. It appears that they looked at the ratio, assumed that its rise was due to an increase in debt, and then looked at GDP growth from that period forward assuming that weakness was caused by debt instead of that the rise in the ratio was caused by economic weakness. In other words, they have the causation backwards: Deficits go up as growth slows due to the automatic counter cyclical stabilizers.They don’t cause the slow down, etc.

As Randy Wray and Yeva Nersisyan have noted in a yet unpublished work, after the Second World War, the debt ratio came down rather rapidly-mostly not due to budget surpluses and debt retirement but rather due to rapid growth that raised the denominator of the debt ratio. By contrast, slower economic growth post 1973, accompanied by budget deficits, led to slow growth of the debt ratio until the Clinton boom (that saw growth return nearly to golden age rates) and budget surpluses lowered the ratio.

From 1991 through 2001 the growth of government debt had been falling and since then rising most recently at a faster pace. The raw data comes courtesy of the St. Louis Fed: http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/
(and attached spreadsheet).

The Ratio of the rates of change of Debt / GDP is rising faster than the change in Debt indicating that both the increase in Debt and the fall in GDP are contributing to a rising Debt / GDP ratio. For policy makers who obsess about a rising Debt / GDP ratio, they fail to understand that austerity measures that cut GDP growth will cause a rise in the Debt to GDP ratio. Basically, it boils down to this simple observation: it is foolish, dangerous, and thoroughly counterproductive to treat fiscal balances in isolation. In particular, setting a fiscal deficit to GDP target equal to expected long run real GDP growth in order to hold public debt/GDP ratios at a completely arbitrary (indeed, literally pulled out of thin air) public debt to GDP ratio without for a moment considering what the means for the feasible range of current account and domestic private sector financial balance is utterly nonsensensical.

It is crucial that investors and policy makers recognize and learn to think coherently about the connectedness of the financial balances before they demand what is being currently called fiscal sustainability. As it turns out, pursuing fiscal sustainability as it is currently defined will in all likelihood just lead many nations to further private sector debt destabilization. To put it bluntly, if the private sector continues to pursue a high net saving/financial surplus position while fiscal retrenchment is attempted, unless some other bloc of nations becomes large net importers (and the BRICs are surely not there yet), nominal GDP will fall in the fiscally “sound” nations, the designated fiscal deficit targets WILL NEVER BE ACHIEVED (there can also be a paradox of public thrift), and private debt distress will simply escalate.

In fact, if austerity measures are based on measures of debt relative to economic growth there is a very real risk of a downward spiral where economic growth declines at a faster pace than government debt and the rising Debt / GDP ratio leads to ever greater austerity measures. At a minimum, focusing only on the debt side of the equation risks increasing the Debt / GDP ratio that is the object of purported concern is likely to lead to policy incoherence and HIGHER levels of debt as GDP plunges. The solution is to recognize that the increase in the ratio is in some fair measure the result of declining economic growth and that only by increasing economic growth will the ratio be brought down. This may cause an initial rise in the ratio because of debt financing of fiscal stimulus but if positive economic growth is achieved the problem should be temporary. The alternative is to risk a debt deflationary spiral that will be much more difficult (and costly) to reverse.

Warren Mosler’s Proposals for the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, and the Banking System

By Warren Mosler

The purpose of this paper is to present proposals for the Treasury, the Fed, and the banking system. Government begins with an assumption that it exists for public purpose, and I use that as the guiding assumption of my proposals. I begin with my proposals for the banking system, as banking operations influence both Fed and Treasury operations.

Proposals for the Banking System

U. S. banks are public/private partnerships, established for the public purpose of providing loans based on credit analysis. Supporting this type of lending on an ongoing, stable basis demands a source of funding that is not market dependent. Hence most of the world’s banking systems include some form of government deposit insurance, as well as a central bank standing by to loan to its member banks.

Under a gold standard or other fixed exchange rate regime, bank funding can’t be credibly guaranteed. In fact, fixed exchange rate regimes by design operate with an ongoing constraint on the supply side of the convertible currency. Banks are required to hold reserves of convertible currency, to be able to meet depositor’s demands for withdrawals. Confidence is critical for banks working under a gold standard. No bank can operate with 100% reserves. They depend on depositors not panicking and trying to cash in their deposits for convertible currency. The U.S. experienced a series of severe depressions in the late 1800’s, with the ‘panic’ of 1907 disturbing enough to result in the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. The Fed was to be the lender of last resort to insure the nation would never again go through another 1907. Unfortunately, that strategy failed. The depression of 1930 was even worse than the panic of 1907. The gold standard regime kept the Fed from being able to lend its banks the convertible currency they needed to meet withdrawal demands. After thousands of catastrophic bank failures, a bank holiday was declared and the remaining banks were closed by the government while the banking system was reorganized. When the banking system reopened in 1934, convertibility of the currency into gold was permanently suspended (domestically), and bank deposits were covered by federal deposit insurance. The Federal Reserve wasn’t able to stop depressions. It was going off the gold standard that did the trick.

It has been 80 years since the great depression. It would now take exceptionally poor policy responses for even the current severe recession to deteriorate into a depression, though misguided and overly tight fiscal policies have unfortunately prolonged the restoration of output and employment.

The hard lesson of banking history is that the liability side of banking is not the place for market discipline. Therefore, with banks funded without limit by government insured deposits and loans from the central bank, discipline is entirely on the asset side. This includes being limited to assets deemed ‘legal’ by the regulators and minimum capital requirements also set by the regulators.

Given that the public purpose of banking is to provide for a payments system and to fund loans based on credit analysis, additional proposals and restrictions are in order:

1. Banks should only be allowed to lend directly to borrowers, and then service and keep those loans on their own balance sheets. There is no further public purpose served by selling loans or other financial assets to third parties, but there are substantial real costs to government regarding the regulation and supervision of those activities. And there are severe consequences for failure to adequately regulate and supervise those secondary market activities as well. For that reason (no public purpose and geometrically growing regulatory
burdens with severe social costs in the case of regulatory and supervisory lapses), banks should be prohibited from engaging in any secondary market activity. The argument that these areas might be profitable for the banks is not a reason to extend government sponsored enterprises into those areas.

2. US banks should not be allowed to contract in LIBOR. LIBOR is an interest rate set in a foreign country (the UK) with a large, subjective component that is out of the hands of the US government. Part of the current crisis was the Federal Reserve’s inability to bring down the LIBOR settings to its target interest rate, as it tried to assist millions of US homeowners and other borrowers who had contacted with US banks to pay interest based on LIBOR settings. Desperate to bring $US interest rates down for domestic borrowers, the Federal Reserve resorted to a very high risk policy of advancing unlimited, functionally unsecured, $US lines of credit called ‘swap lines’ to several foreign central banks. These loans were advanced at the Fed’s low target rate, with the hope that the foreign central banks would lend these funds to their member banks at the low rates, and thereby bring down the LIBOR settings and the cost of borrowing $US for US households and businesses. The loans to the foreign central banks peaked at about $600 billion and did eventually work to bring down the LIBOR settings. But the risks were substantial. There is no way for the Fed to collect a loan from a foreign central bank that elects not to pay it back. If, instead of contracting based on LIBOR settings, US banks had been linking their loan rates and lines of credit to the US fed funds rate, this problem
would have been avoided. The rates paid by US borrowers, including homeowners and businesses, would have come down as the Fed intended when it cut the fed funds rate.

3. Banks should not be allowed to have subsidiaries of any kind. No public purpose is served by allowing bank to hold any assets ‘off balance sheet.’

4. Banks should not be allowed to accept financial assets as collateral for loans. No public purpose is served by financial leverage.

5. US Banks should not be allowed to lend off shore. No public purpose is served by allowing US banks to lend for foreign purposes.

6. Banks should not be allowed to buy (or sell) credit default insurance. The public purpose of banking as a public/private partnership is to allow the private sector to price risk, rather than have the public sector pricing risk through publicly owned banks. If a bank instead relies on credit default insurance it is transferring that pricing of risk to a third party, which is counter to the public purpose of the current public/private banking system.

7. Banks should not be allowed to engage in proprietary trading or any profit making ventures beyond basic lending. If the public sector wants to venture out of banking for some presumed public purpose it can be done through other outlets.

8. My last proposal for the banks in this draft is to utilize FDIC approved credit models for evaluation of bank assets. I would not allow mark to market of bank assets. In fact, if there is a valid argument to marking a particular bank asset to market prices, that likely means that asset should not be a permissible bank asset in the first place. The public purpose of banking is to facilitate loans based on credit analysis rather, than market valuation. And the accompanying provision of government insured funding allows those loans to be held to maturity without liquidity issues, in support of that same public purpose. Therefore, marking to market rather
than evaluation by credit analysis both serves no further public purpose and subverts the existing public purpose of providing a stable platform for lending.

Proposals for the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation)

I have three proposals for the FDIC. The first is to remove the $250,000 cap on deposit insurance. The public purpose behind the cap is to help small banks attract deposits, under the theory that if there were no cap large depositors would gravitate towards the larger banks. However, once the Fed is directed to trade in the fed funds markets with all member banks, in unlimited size, the issue of available funding is moot.
The second is to not tax banks in order to recover funds lost on bank failures. The FDIC should be entirely funded by the US Treasury. Taxes on solvent banks should not be on the basis of the funding needs of the FDIC. Taxes on banks have ramifications that can either serve or conflict with the larger public purposes presumably served by government participation in the banking system. These include sustaining the payments system and lending based on credit analysis. Any tax on banks should be judged entirely by how that tax
serves or doesn’t serve public purpose.

My third proposal for the FDIC is to do its job without any assistance by Treasury (apart from funding any FDIC expenditures). The FDIC is charged with taking over any bank it deems insolvent, and then either selling that bank, selling the bank’s assets, reorganizing the bank, or any other similar action that serves the public purpose government participation in the banking system. The TARP program was at least partially established to allow the US Treasury to buy equity in specific banks to keep them from being declared insolvent by the FDIC, and to allow them to continue to have sufficient capital to continue to lend. What the
TARP did, however, was reveal the total failure of both the Bush and Obama administrations to comprehend the essence of the workings of the banking system. Once a bank incurs losses in excess of its private capital, further losses are covered by the FDIC, an arm of the US government. If the Treasury ‘injects capital’ into a bank, all that happens is that once losses exceed the same amount of private capital, the US Treasury, also an arm of the US government is next in line for any losses to the extent of its capital contribution, with the FDIC covering any losses beyond that. So what is changed by Treasury purchases of bank equity? After the private capital is lost, the losses are taken by the US Treasury instead of the FDIC, which also gets its funding from the US Treasury. It makes no difference for the US government and the ‘taxpayers’ whether the Treasury covers the loss indirectly when funding the FDIC, or directly after ‘injecting capital’ into a bank. All that was needed to accomplish the same end as the TARP program- to allow banks to continue to function and acquire FDIC insured deposits- was for the FDIC to directly reduce the private capital requirements. Instead, and as direct evidence of a costly ignorance of the dynamics of the banking model, both the Obama and Bush administrations burned through substantial quantities of political capital to get the legislative authority to allow the Treasury to buy equity positions in dozens of private banks. And, to make matters worse, it was all accounted for as additional federal deficit spending. While this would not matter if Congress and the administrations understood the monetary system, the fact is they don’t, and so the TARP has therefore restricted their inclination to make further fiscal adjustments to restore employment and output. Ironically, the overly tight fiscal policy continues to contribute to the rising delinquency and default rate for
bank loans, which continues to impede the desired growth of bank capital.

Proposals for the Federal Reserve

1. The fed should lend unsecured to member banks, and in unlimited quantities at its target fed funds rate, by simply trading in the fed funds market. There is no reason to do other wise. Currently the Fed will only loan to its banks on a fully collateralized basis. However, this is both redundant and disruptive. The Fed demanding collateral when it lends is redundant because all bank assets are already fully regulated by Federal regulators. It is the job of the regulators to make sure that all FDIC insured deposits are ‘safe’ and ‘taxpayer money’ is not at risk from losses that exceed the available private capital. Therefore, the FDIC has already determined that funds loaned by the Fed to a bank can only be invested in ‘legal’ assets and that the bank is adequately capitalized as required by law. There is no room for funding from the Fed to be ‘misused’ as banks already can obtain virtually unlimited funding by FDIC insured deposits. The only difference between banks funding with FDIC insured deposits and funding directly from the Fed might be the interest rate the bank may have to pay, however it’s the further purpose of the Fed’s monetary policy to target the fed funds rate. The Fed also tends to set quantity limits when it lends to its member banks, when there is every reason to instead lend in unlimited quantities. Bank lending is not reserve constrained, so constraining lending to the banks by quantity does not alter lending. What constraining reserves does is alter the fed funds rate, which is the rate banks pay for reserves as well as the Fed’s target rate. So the only way the Fed can fully stabilize the fed funds rate at its target rate is to simple offer to provide unlimited funds at that rate as well as offer to accept fed funds deposits at that same target rate. And with no monetary risk or adverse economic consequences for lending unlimited quantities at its target rate there is no reason not to do this. Another benefit of this policy would be to entirely eliminate the inter bank fed funds market. There is no public purpose served by banks trading fed funds with each other when they can do it with the Fed, and transactions costs are reduced as well. And to eliminate the inter bank markets entirely the Fed has the further option to provide funding with an entire term structure of rates to its banks to both target those rates and also eliminate the need for any inter bank trading.
2. I would limit the Fed to using banks as agents for monetary policy. I would not pursue the policy of attempting to establish additional public/private partnerships for the purpose of buying various financial assets. Instead, if I agreed with the need to purchase those assets, I would enable the banking system to do this along the same lines proposed for the new public/private partnerships. That might take the form of allowing banks to put these ‘qualifying assets’ in a segregated account, where losses to bank capital would be limited to, for example, 10% of the investment in those accounts. This would have the same result as the recently proposed public/private partnerships but within the existing highly regulated and supervised banking system. Banks are the appropriate instrument of monetary policy for targeting the risk adjusted term structure of interest rates. Why go to the expense and risk of creating new public/private partnerships when there are already approximately 8,000 member banks already set up for that purpose?
3. I would make the current zero interest rate policy permanent. This minimizes cost pressures on output, including investment, and thereby helps to stabilize prices. It also minimizes rentier incomes, thereby encouraging higher labor force participation and increased real output. Additionally, because the non government sectors are net savers of financial assets, this policy hurts savers more than it aids borrowers, so a fiscal adjustment such as a tax cut or spending increase would be appropriate to sustain output and employment.
4. I would instruct the Fed to offer credit default insurance on all Treasury securities through its banking system to any buyer. There is no default risk in US Treasury securities, but, if market participants do want to buy such credit default insurance, I would make it available through the Fed. This would keep the premiums and the perception of risk down to a level determined by the Fed. I would suggest they offer it freely at 5 basis points for any maturity.

Proposals for the Treasury

1. I would cease all issuance of Treasury securities. Instead any deficit spending would accumulate as excess reserve balances at the Fed. No public purpose is served by the issuance of Treasury securities with a non convertible currency and floating exchange rate policy. Issuing Treasury securities only serves to support the term structure of interest rates at higher levels than would be the case. And, as longer term rates are the realm of investment, higher term rates only serve to adversely distort the price structure of all goods and services.
2. I would not allow the Treasury to purchase financial assets. This should be done only by the Fed as has traditionally been the case. When the Treasury buys financial assets instead of the Fed all that changes is the reaction of the President, the Congress, the economists, and the media, as they misread the Treasury purchases of financial assets as federal ‘deficit spending’ that limits other fiscal options.

Conclusion

I conclude with my proposals to support aggregate demand and restore output and employment.

1. A full payroll tax holiday where the Treasury makes all the contributions for employees and employers. This immediately restores the purchasing power of those still working and enables them to make their mortgage payments which also stabilizes the banking system.
2. I would distribute $150 billion of revenue sharing to the State governments on a per capita basis. This would stabilize State governments currently cutting back on public services due to revenue short falls caused by the recession. Distribution on per capita basis makes it ‘fair’ and does not ‘reward bad behavior.
3. I would have the Federal government fund $8/hr full time jobs for anyone willing and able to work, that includes health care benefits. This provides an employed labor buffer stock that’s a superior price anchor to our current unemployed buffer stock. This helps support an expansion in private sector employment as the economy improves. It’s been demonstrated that the private sector prefers to hire those already working rather than those who are unemployed. These three proposals, along with above proposals for the Fed, the Treasury, the FDIC, and banking system, will quickly restore the US economy to positive growth, full employment, and establish a banking system that will promote the intended public purpose and require less regulation while substantially reducing the systemic risk inherent in our current institutional arrangements.

Warren Mosler
October 11, 2009
President, Valance Co.
www.moslereconomics.com
www.mosler2012.com

Why Do Progressives Claim that Deficits Today Mean More Pain Tomorrow?

By L. Randall Wray

Yesterday I posted a blog here arguing that we should not conflate a sovereign government’s balance sheet with that of a household. One is the issuer of the currency, the other is a user. That makes a big difference. The currency issuer can spend by “financing” its purchases through credits to bank accounts, issues of new currency, or new issues of sovereign interest-paying debt that is considered to be the safest dollar-denominated asset in existence. Households cannot do that. I also argued that there is no “piper-paying” due date on which government needs to repay its debts, hence, no financial imperative to ever run a budget surplus (or even a balanced budget). Further, even if the government were to try to run surpluses to repay debt, that would (based on historical experience) throw the economy into a depression that would only increase budget deficits. Empirically, budget deficits are correlated with growth; budget surpluses precede depressions. Based solely on the historical record, only a fool would recommend budget surpluses as a policy goal. Yes, that implies that Robert Rubin and Pete Peterson advocate foolish policy.

Somewhat ironically (at least from my point of view) the shrillest critics come from the left. When I try to explain how government “really” spends, or why government is not like a household, or why the focus on budget deficits is misplaced, the loudest objections come from those who claim to be progressives. Indeed, on the matter of deficits, the only discernable difference between the “progressive” position and the “deficit hawk” position of a Pete Peterson is over the short run. Both agree that deficits today mean higher taxes and less government spending in the future—more burdens for our grandkids. Both agree that spending more now to relieve the pain of unemployment only means more pain in the future. The only difference of opinion comes down to the willingness to “party now” and “pay later”. Conservatives would forego the party to avoid the hangover; “progressives” would party like it is 1999, then deal with the migraines and stomach upsets later. I must say that if I had to choose between the two strategies, I would go with the conservatives: take the pain now and enjoy lower taxes later. Indeed, I cannot think of any justification for taking the party now and putting the burden of the aftermath on our children in the future—if that is what the choice really involved.

But here’s the deal. The “progressives” are wrong. Nay, they are dangerous. They are the worst enemies we face. At least with the Pete Petersons you know what you get: they oppose deficits precisely because they oppose any progressive policy that might help the average American today—the pain in the future is just a bogeyman to prevent progress today. Indeed, that is, by definition, the position of conservatives who want to return to the idyllic past when the poor suffered their deserved fate and the deserving enjoyed their privileges.

Progressives are supposed to be, well, progressive. But almost all of them constrain progressive policy to a Puritanical trade-off: anything that leads to improvement today is bought by more suffering later. They are far worse than the conservatives because no one who wants to improve the position of the average American would ever take the deficit hawk position of Pete Peterson seriously. We all know what he stands for. So the position of the progressives on deficits, which is identical in all important respects to that of the deficit hawks, is far more dangerous precisely because they appear to prefer progressive policy but warn that in the long run it will bankrupt us.

Why do they adopt a position that is fundamentally inimical to the progressive agenda?

Let me proffer an informed hypothesis. It is all politics. Back during the waning days of the Clinton administration, a high ranking economist of a major labor union laid it all out in public at an economics conference. Union surveys showed that voters trusted Democrats far more to protect Social Security than they trusted Republicans (a finding that is not surprising, given the efforts of Republicans dating back to the early postwar period to kill the program). As they have long argued, Republicans claimed that Social Security faces an Armageddon because when baby-boomers retire, payroll tax revenues will not cover Social Security benefit payments. This labor union economist assured the assembled crowd that this is not really a problem because Social Security is a government program, and as government is a sovereign issuer of the currency it can and will make all Social Security payments as they come due simply by crediting bank accounts. I was practically dumbfounded, having thought that I was just about the only economist who understood this.

But he went on. Democrats needed a campaign issue, he said, something candidate Gore the Bore could sink his teeth into. (Recall that this was before Gore had become the global warming messiah we all now love.) So the Democrats had decided that “save Social Security” would be his main campaign theme. Problem: Social Security did not and does not need saving because it does not and cannot face any financial problems. Solution: join the Pete Petersons and Senator Judds of the world, and claim that Social Security is going bankrupt. This would be a “two-for”. First, Gore could rise from the near-dead as savior of Social Security, garnering the support of voters fearing that Republicans would gut the program.

More importantly, Gore could collect the campaign contributions of Wall Streeters, who desperately wanted to privatize Social Security because the dot-com bubble was running out of steam. They wanted to manage a growing Trust Fund, charging huge fees from whence to pay Wall Street sized bonuses. And thanks to Clinton, the Democrats had become the official Protectorate of Wall Street’s cash flow (with Rubin and Summers the anointed minions). So Gore promised to save Social Security from the evil-doers on both the right and the left. The right wanted to slash benefits, the left wanted to use Social Security’s surpluses to finance other government spending. Gore would protect those surpluses by locking up Greenbacks in a safe, to be taken out later when the babyboomers retire. Not only that, he would have the federal government kick in some extra bucks by double counting Social Security’s surpluses. It was accounting nonsense, but Wall Street drooled in anticipation of obtaining access to the overstuffed safes.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the election: the population could not understand what the heck Gore was talking about, but it sure sounded scary. Baby Bush seemed to be a safer choice—he had lots of happy talk about making us all “stakeholders” in a new “ownership society”. That sounded a lot better than Gore’s scare mongering. Americans like to be scared about foreigners—immigrants, Reds, French fries—but they do not want to listen to incomprehensible plans to rescue near and dear entitlement programs to which they had become accustomed. Better to kill the messenger. (The same thing happened to Kyoto and cap-and-trade, but that is an issue to be left for another day.)

And so it goes. The “left” simply will not give up on the scare tactics. They want to terrorize the population about budget deficits, so they can propose some deficit-cutting policies in the distant future—preferably left for the next administration. More party today, more pain later. Who gets to party? Well, obviously, Wall Street—the main benefactors of the Democratic party and, no surprise, the main beneficiaries of bail-outs.

And what if Wall Street did not get its bail-outs? Armageddon, as Bernanke, Paulson, Rubin, and Geithner have been claiming for two years. In reality, there would have been no collapse, indeed, we would have been in far better shape had we simply closed down all of the insolvent financial institutions (which would have included all of the big ones). But the Wall Street rescue operation never had, and never will have, anything to do with saving the economy, dealing with retiring baby-boomers, or indeed with resolving any real world problems. It is all about stoking the flow of cash from Wall Street to Democrats.

Unfortunately, it is a strategy that will fail. Scaring voters and funneling money to Wall Street only generates distrust. Voters voted against Gore, against Kerry, and for change—that they thought they would get with Obama. They want honesty, not terror. They want action, not threats of deferred pain. They want jobs now, not excuses about “affordability” or “sustainability”. They don’t need nonsensical lectures about why the government can afford $23 trillion in promises to Wall Street, but it cannot afford to support Main Street. They want the sure recovery now, not scary talk about burdens this will place on future generations.

They will not accept the argument that because of some hypothetical revenue shortfalls 75 years from now, government cannot keep teachers employed and schools open now. They will not sit idly by as Haiti suffers from the same governmental near-paralysis that New Orleans experienced under the previous President. They want government to spend, now, on the necessary scale to deal with our problems, and those of our even less fortunate neighbors. They recognize that the problem is not one of “money”—something that costs the government nothing to create—but rather a failure of will to mobilize the ample and underused resources we now have to accomplish the tasks at a hand.

While more than two generations have passed, memories of WWII are still strong. Government ramped up its spending to 50% of GDP; its deficit reached 25% of GDP—almost twice as high as the ratio today. We shipped our highest tech products out of the country and we sent some of our most motivated and productive workers off to fight the war—many of whom never came back; we mobilized our labor force and went far beyond what anyone thought to be full employment—with the help of female workers that many had believed to be incapable of the work they successfully undertook; and we constrained our domestic consumption sector to preserve resources for the war effort. Still, living standards rose, inequality, racism, and poverty fell, and we emerged from the experience stronger than ever. The next generation experienced the “golden age” of US capitalism as we put resources to work producing for domestic consumption, and the rest of the world grew faster than it ever had before.

With the New Deal programs and constraints in place, the financial system played a secondary role, with no significant crises for a whole generation after the war. By design, Wall Street was tiny, and our financial institutions were simple, but they financed the most rapid and sustained growth of output and living standards our nation had ever seen. Over the course of the 1930s, we had downsized, strangled, and constrained Wall Street. It took a half century for it to fully recover—and once it did it returned to its old destabilizing ways. To make a long story short, finance gradually returned to the dominant position it enjoyed on the eve of the Great Depression—and duplicated the result.

In this current crisis, Wall Street refuses to downsize. It wants to emerge as the still dominate force that it had enjoyed before the crisis. Its biggest threat is the recognition that it is not needed, that it plays no important social function. Not only can the financial system be downsized by two-thirds or more without ill effects, the economy would actually perform better.

From Wall Street’s perspective, if government finance were truly understood, there would be little room left for the “financialization” that Goldman Sachs and others have been promoting. Securitization of mortgages and of other consumer debt is superfluous. Private pensions managed by Wall Street are unneeded–Social Security is safe and can be expanded as desired to provide decent and secure pensions. Health care insurance does not need to be reformed or expanded, instead, it needs to be eliminated and replaced by a single payer system. Government does not need to beg or bribe finance to fund efforts by entrepreneurs to create jobs because a federal job guarantee program can ensure continuous full employment. And Wall Street does not need to choose our candidates for us, as voters are perfectly capable of electing representatives of their interests. In short, it is difficult to conceive of any positive role for outsized finance to play.

Lest anyone think that I am advocating a bigger government, I want to make clear that I am actually arguing for less government intervention into the economy. The market wants to eliminate the biggest financial institutions. I think the market is correct. It wants to get rid of the riskiest financial instruments, such as credit default swaps and securitization. The market is correct on that score. The market would eliminate bonuses for Wall Street traders and CEOs—only Bernanke and Geithner stand in the way, providing government bail-outs that fund the outrageous rewards paid to the crooks and fools that created the crisis. The market would wipe out the mortgage debts of underwater homeowners—it is only the inducements provided by government that keep the mortgage servicers and first and second lien vampires afloat so that they can suck some more blood. And no rational market would have developed private employer-based pension plans or use of employment-related insurance as the dominant method of providing healthcare services. Both of these anomalies were created by partnerships of Government and Wall Street acting against the interests of the vast majority of Americans. I believe that we can have decent and rationalized retirements, health care, and jobs programs without increasing the size of government.

But the first step is to get beyond the deficit bogey. A government budget is not like a household budget. A government deficit—by itself–is neither good nor bad. And in any case government deficits are mostly not discretionary—they do not result from government policy but are largely “endogenously” determined by the nongovernment sector’s behavior. That is a topic for another blog. The most important thing to recognize that there is no “party today, pain tomorrow” trade-off. If government needs to spend more today to create jobs, provide healthcare, and support education, that simply means we can enjoy the benefits of fuller use of our resources. It does not impact our ability tomorrow to similarly use government spending as necessary to create jobs, provide healthcare, and support education. Indeed, it will make it easier because our nation will be in better shape tomorrow than it would have been if we had gone without jobs, healthcare and education today.

Is It Time to Reduce the Ease to Prevent Inflation and Possible National Insolvency?

By L. Randall Wray

The growing consensus view is that the worst is behind us. The Fed’s massive intervention finally quelled the liquidity crisis. The fiscal stimulus package has done its work, saving jobs and boosting retail sales. The latest data show that net exports are booming. While residential real estate remains moribund, there are occasional reports that sales are picking up and that prices are firming. Recovery is just around the corner.

Hence, many have started to call on the Fed to think about reversing its “quantitative ease”—that is, to remove some of the reserves it has injected into the banking system. Further, most commentators reject any discussion of additional fiscal stimulus on the argument that it is no longer needed and would likely increase inflation pressures. Thus, the ARRA’s stimulus package should be allowed to expire and Congress ought to begin thinking about raising taxes to close the budget deficit.

Still, there remain three worries: unemployment is high and while job losses have slowed all plausible projections are for continued slack labor markets for months and even years to come; state and local government finances are a mess; and continued monetary and fiscal ease threaten to bring on inflation and perhaps even national insolvency.

Me thinks that reported sightings of economic recovery are premature. Still, let us suppose that policy has indeed produced a resurrection. What should we do about unemployment, state and local government shortfalls, and federal budget deficits? I will be brief on the first two topics but will provide a detailed rebuttal to the belief that continued monetary ease as well as federal government deficits might spark inflation and national insolvency.

1. Unemployment

Despite the slight improvement in the jobs picture (meaning only that things did not get worse), we need 12 million new jobs just to deal with workers who have lost their jobs since the crisis began, plus those who would have entered the labor force (such as graduating students) if conditions had been better. At least another 12 million more jobs would be needed on top of that to get to full employment—or, 24 million total. Even at a rapid pace of job creation equal to an average of 300,000 net jobs created monthly it would take more than six years to provide work to all who now want to work (and, of course, the labor force would continue to grow over that period). There is no chance that the private sector will sustain such a pace of job creation. As discussed many times on this blog, the only hope is a direct job creation program funded by the federal government. This goes by the name of the job guarantee, employer of last resort, or public service employment proposal. (see here, here, and here)

2. State and Local Government Finance

Revenues of state and local governments are collapsing, forcing them to cut services, lay-off employees, and raise fees and taxes. Problems will get worse in coming months. Most property taxes are infrequently adjusted, and many governments will be recognizing depressed property values for the first time since the crisis began. Lower assessed values will mean much lower property tax revenues next year, compounding fiscal distress. Ratings agencies have begun to downgrade state and local government bonds—triggering a vicious downward spiral because interest rates rise (and in some cases, downgrades trigger penalties that must be paid by governments—to those same financial institutions that caused the crisis). Note that contractual obligations, such as debt service, must be met first. Hence, state and local governments have to cut noncontractual spending like that for schools, fire departments, and law enforcement so that they can use scarce tax revenue to pay interest and fees to fat cat bankers. As government employees lose their jobs, local communities not only suffer from diminished services but also from reduced retail sales and higher mortgage delinquencies—again pushing a vicious cycle that collapses tax revenue.
The solution, again, must come from the federal government, which is the only entity that can spend countercyclically without regard to its tax revenue. As discussed on this blog in several posts (here and here), one of the best ways to provide funding would be in the form of federal block grants to states on a per capita basis—perhaps $400 billion next year. A payroll tax holiday would also help—increasing take-home pay of employees and reducing employer costs on all employees covered by Social Security.

3. Federal Budget Deficit, Insolvency, and Inflation

Resolving the unemployment and state and local budget problems will require help from the federal government. Yet that conflicts with the claimed necessity of tightening fiscal and monetary policy in order to preempt inflation and solvency problems. Two former Fed Chairmen have weighed in on US fiscal and monetary policy ease and the dangers posed. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Alan Greenspan argued:
“I think the Fed has done an extraordinary job and it’s done a huge amount (to bolster employment). There’s just so much monetary policy and the central bank can do. And I think they’ve gone to their limits, at this particular stage. You cannot ask a central bank to do more than it is capable of without very dire consequences,”

He went on, claiming that the US faces inflation unless the Fed begins to pull back “all the stimulus it put into the economy.”

In an interview (with SPIEGEL ONLINE – News – International) former Chairman Paul Volcker said the deficit will need to be cut:

Volcker: You’ve got to deal with the deficit and you’ve got to deal with it in a timely way. Right now, with the unemployment rate still very high, excess capacity is still evident, and the economy is dependent on government money as we said. We are not going to successfully attack the deficit right now but we have got to prepare for attacking it.
SPIEGEL: Should Americans prepare themselves for a tax increase?
Volcker: Not at the moment, but I think we would have to think about it. The present tax system historically has transferred about 18 to 19 percent of the GNP to the government. And we are going to come out of all this with an expenditure relationship to GNP very substantially above that. We either have to cut expenditures and that means reducing entitlements and certainly defense expenditures by an amount that may not be possible. If you can do it, fine. If we can’t do it, then we have to think about taxes.
Both the Fed and the Treasury are said to be “pumping” too much money into the economy, sowing the seeds of future inflation. There are two kinds of cases made for the argument that monetary and fiscal policy are too lax. The first is based loosely on the old Monetarist view that too much money causes inflation., while the second is more Keynesian, pointing toward the money provided through the Treasury’s spending. The evidence can be found in the huge expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet to two trillion dollars of liabilities and in the Treasury’s budget deficit that has grown toward a trillion and a half dollars. Chairman Greenspan, a committed Monetarist, points to the first of these, recognizing that most of these Fed liabilities take the form of reserves held by banks—which will eventually start lending their excess reserves. Chairman Volcker points to the second—federal government spending that will create income that will be spent. Hence, those trillions of extra dollars provided by the Treasury and Fed surely will fuel more lending and spending, leading to inflation or even to a hyperinflation of Zimbabwean proportions.
Some have made a related argument: all those excess reserves in the banking system will be lent to speculators, fueling yet another asset price bubble. The consequence could be rising commodities prices (such as oil prices) feeding through to inflation of consumer and producer prices. Or, the speculative bubble would give way to yet another financial crisis. Worse, either inflation or a bursting bubble could generate a run out of the dollar, collapsing the currency—and off we go again toward Zimbabwean ruin.
Finally, over the past two decades the Fed—accompanied by New Consensus macroeconomists—has managed to create a widespread belief that inflation is caused by expected inflation. In other words, if everyone believes there will be inflation, then inflation will result because wages and prices will be hiked on the expectation that costs will rise. For this reason, monetary policy has long been directed toward managing inflation expectations, with the Fed convincing markets that it is diligently fighting inflation pressures even before they arise. Now, however, the Fed is in danger of losing the battle because all of those extra reserves in the banking system will create the expectation of inflation—which will itself cause inflation. For this reason, the Fed needs to begin raising interest rates and (or, by?) removing reserves from the banking system. That would prevent expected inflation from generating Zimbabwean hyperinflation.

Unfortunately, all these arguments misunderstand the situation. Here is why:

You cannot tell much of anything by looking at current bank reserve positions. As and when banks decide they do not need to hold so many reserves, they will begin to unwind them, repaying loans to the Fed (destroying reserves) and buying Treasuries (the Fed will accommodate by selling assets in order to keep the overnight fed funds rate on target—if it did not, excess reserves would drive the fed funds rate to zero).There are no direct inflationary pressures that result from such operations. Indeed, all else equal, the reserves will be reduced with no new bank lending or deposit creation.

Banks normally buy financial assets (including loan IOUs) by issuing liabilities (including deposits). As the economy recovers, banks will want to resume such activities. If there is a general demand to buy output or financial assets, coming from borrowers perceived to be creditworthy, banks normally accommodate by making loans. This does not require ex ante reserves (or even capital if regulators do not enforce capital requirements or if banks can move assets off balance sheet). Yes, such a process can generate rising asset prices and banks broadly defined might accommodate this as they seek profits through lending to speculators. In this respect you could argue that expected inflation of asset prices fuels actual inflation of asset prices since that can fuel a speculative run up. Yet, this can occur with or without any excess reserves–indeed even if banks were already short required reserves they could expand lending then go to Fed to get the reserves. In other words, banks do not lend reserves nor is their lending constrained by reserves. Thus, while it is true that banks can finance a speculative bubble in asset prices, they can do this no matter what their reserve position is.

Nor will bank lending for asset purchases necessarily generate inflation of output prices. Any implications of renewed bank lending for CPI or PPI inflation are contingent on pass through from commodities to output prices. If the speculative binge in, say, futures prices of commodities feeds through to commodities spot prices, and if this then pressures output price inflation (as measured by the CPI and PPI), there can be an effect on measured inflation. There are lots of caveats–due to the way these indexes are calculated, to the possibility of consumer and producer substitutions, and to offsetting price deflation pressures (Chinese production and all of that). In any case, if there is a real danger that the current commodities price boom could accelerate to the point that it might create a crash or output price inflation, the best course of action would be to constrain the speculation directly. This can be done through direct credit controls placed on lenders as well as regulation of speculators.

It is true that the Fed has operated on the belief that by controlling inflation expectations it prevents inflation. Low inflation, in turn, is supposed to generate robust economic growth and high employment. This has been exposed by the current crisis as an unwarranted belief. The Wizard of Oz behind the curtain was exposed as an impotent fraud—while Bernanke remained focused on controlling inflation expectations for far too long, the whole economy collapsed around him. It was only when he finally abandoned expectations management in favor of bold action—lending without limit to institutions that needed reserves—that he helped to quell the liquidity crisis. All of his subsequent actions have had no impact on the economy—“quantitative easing” is nothing but a slogan, meaning that the Fed accommodates the demand for reserves (which it has always done, and necessarily must do so long as it has an interest rate target and wants par clearing).

It is sheer folly to believe that inflation expectations lead to inflation and that by controlling the expectations one controls inflation. In the modern capitalist economy, prices of output are mostly administered, with the caveat that competitive pressures from low cost producers in China and India put downward pressure on prices that may force domestic sellers to cut prices. Hence, US inflation has remained low in recent years because there has been little cost pressure; and note that most countries around the world have also experienced low inflation over the same period even though they did not enjoy the supposed benefits of a Wizard in charge of monetary policy. In the current environment of a global financial and economic calamity, the real danger is price deflation. The bit of inflation we do experience is due almost entirely to energy price blips—which could be prevented if we would just prohibit pension funds from speculating in commodities.

Still, there remains one path to Zimbabwean hyperinflation: a collapse of the currency due to insolvency and default by our federal government on its debts. Yet, as many have discussed on this blog (see here, here, here, here, and here), the US government is the sovereign issuer of our dollar currency. It cannot be forced into bankruptcy because it services its dollar debt by crediting bank accounts. It can never run out of these credits, since they are merely electronic entries on balance sheets, created at the stroke of a computer key. It can, and will, make all payments as they come due. In short, federal government insolvency is not possible.

To be sure, as we have emphasized many times, too much government spending can be inflationary. But the measure of “too much” cannot be found by looking at the size of the deficit (or, equivalently, at the shortfall of tax revenue), or at the ratio of government spending to GDP, or at the outstanding debt stock. Rather, government spending will approach an inflation barrier as the economy approaches full employment of resources, including labor resources. Yet, we are no where near to full employment. Any fear that current levels of spending, or even much larger amounts of federal spending, might be inflationary are premature. With 12 to 25 million jobless workers remaining, inflation is not a legitimate worry.

You can be sure that no matter how misguided President Obama’s policies might be, he is not taking us down the path to a Zimbabwean hyperinflation. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of the probable course of the dollar. In coming months it might decline a bit, or rise a bit (I’d bet on the latter if I were a gambler)—but there will be no global run out of the dollar. For one thing, runners must run to something—and as recent reports suggest, Euroland’s prospects look dire. That leaves smallish nations (Japan, the UK—both with their own problems) or big nations (China, India) that are too risky for foreigners. The best place to park savings will remain the US dollar.

Memo to Congress: Don’t Increase the Government’s Debt Limit!

By L. Randall Wray

In a piece written for CNN, Senator Evan Bayh rails against the growing federal government budget deficit. He warns that next month the Treasury will ask Congress to raise the debt limit from its current $12.1 trillion, and promises that he will vote “no”. It is time, he argues, for Congress to stand up for our nation’s future by creating a bi-partisan debt commission that would finally put an end to “unsustainable” deficit spending.

The Senator goes on:

When President George W. Bush took office in 2001, our public debt amounted to 33 percent of our economy. Today, it is 60 percent of our gross domestic product. If we do nothing, our debt is projected to swell to over 70 percent by 2019. To put those numbers in perspective: If you divided the debt equally among all Americans, every man, woman and child living in the United States today would owe more than $39,000.

I presume the Senator has got his math correct, but there is a glaring error in his English that can be corrected by substituting an “n” for an “e”: If you divided the debt equally among all Americans, every man, woman and child living in the United States today would own more than $39,000. Government debt is a private asset. You and I do not owe government debt, we own it. Indeed, the only source of net dollar-denominated financial wealth is federal government debt.

The good Senator continues, comparing his proposed debt commission with an earlier successful bi-partisan effort:

There is precedent to create this type of commission with real teeth. President Ronald Reagan created a commission, chaired by Alan Greenspan, to shore up Social Security in the early 1980s.

That commission hiked payroll taxes to transform Social Security from a “pay-as-you-go” system (payroll taxes collected were matched to current year spending) to an “advanced funded” system that accumulated “Trust Fund assets”. In truth the Trust Fund is nothing but an accounting gimmick in which one arm of government (the Treasury) owes another arm of government (Social Security), with workers and their firms saddled with payroll taxes that are a third larger than Social Security spending. Like almost everything else Alan Greenspan did, the Social Security commission was a monumental failure and its actions were completely unnecessary. All Social Security payments can be made as they come due whether the Trust Fund holds Treasury debt or not, and no matter how much “revenue” the payroll tax collects. Like the bowling alley that credits points when pins are knocked down, the Treasury cannot run out of “points” credited to the accounts of pensioners.

The anti-deficit mania in Washington is getting crazier by the day. So here is what I propose: let’s support Senator Bayh’s proposal to “just say no” to raising the debt ceiling. Once the federal debt reaches $12.1 trillion, the Treasury would be prohibited from selling any more bonds. Treasury would continue to spend by crediting bank accounts of recipients, and reserve accounts of their banks. Banks would offer excess reserves in overnight markets, but would find no takers—hence would have to be content holding reserves and earning whatever rate the Fed wants to pay. But as Chairman Bernanke told Congress, this is no problem because the Fed spends simply by crediting bank accounts.

This would allow Senator Bayh and other deficit warriors to stop worrying about Treasury debt and move on to something important like the loss of millions of jobs.

Should America Kowtow to China?

By Marshall Auerback
First Published on New Deal 2.0.

Do the Chinese really fund our deficit? Or is this more Neo-classical money mythology?

Another Presidential junket to Asia and another one of the usual lectures from China, decrying our “profligate ways”. Today’s Wall Street Journal reports:, “China’s top banking regulator issued a sharp critique of U.S. financial management only hours before President Barack Obama commenced his first visit to the Asian giant, highlighting economic and trade tensions that threaten to overshadow the trip.”

According to Liu Mingkang, chairman of the China Banking Regulatory Commission, a weak U.S. dollar and low U.S. interest rates had led to “massive speculation” that was inflating asset bubbles around the world. It has created “unavoidable risks for the recovery of the global economy, especially emerging economies,” Mr. Liu said. The situation is “seriously impacting global asset prices and encouraging speculation in stock and property markets.”

Well, “them’s fightin’ words”, as we say over here. And of course, the President and his advisors are supposed to accept this criticism mildly because in the words of the NY Times, the US has assumed “the role of profligate spender coming to pay his respects to his banker.”

The Times actually does believe this to be true. They refer to China’s role as America’s largest “creditor” as a “stark fact”. They do not seem to understand that simply because a country issuing debt which it creates, it does not depend on bond holders to “fund” anything. Bonds are simply a savings alternative to cash offered by the monetary authorities, as we shall seek to illustrate below.

It is less clear to us whether the Chinese actually believe this guff, or simply articulate it for public consumption. China has made a choice: for a variety of reasons, it has adopted an export-oriented growth strategy, and largely achieved this through closely managing its currency, the remnimbi, against the dollar.

One can query the choice, as many would argue that it is more economically and socially desirable for China to consume its own economic output. According to Professor Bill Mitchell, for example, “once the Chinese citizens rise up and demand more access to their own resources instead of flogging them off to the rest of the world…then the game will be up. They will stop accumulating financial assets in our currencies and we will find it harder to run [current account deficits] against them.”

But there have undoubtedly been certain benefits that have accrued to the Chinese as a consequence of this strategy. The export prices obtained by Chinese manufacturers are about 10 times as high as the prices obtained in the more competitive domestic markets, and the challenge of competing in global markets has forced Chinese manufacturers to adhere to higher quality standards. This, in turn, has improved the overall quality of Chinese products. In the words of James Galbraith:

“Is there a way for the Chinese manufacturing firm to turn a profit? Yes: the alternative to selling on the domestic market is to export. And export prices, even those paid at wholesale, must be multiples of those obtained at home. But the export market, however vast, is not unlimited, and it demands standards of quality that are not easily obtained by neophyte producers and would not ordinarily be demanded by Chinese consumers. Only a small fraction of Chinese firms can actually meet the standards. These standards must be learned and acquired by practice.” (”The Predator State, Ch. 6, “There is no such thing as free trade”, pg. 84).

What about the US government? What should it do? Should it actually respond to China’s complaints by trying to “defend the dollar”?

I hear this recommendation all of the time in the chatterplace of the financial markets, but seldom do those who fret about the dollar’s declining level actually suggest a concrete strategy to achieve the objective. In fact, it is unclear to me that there is any measure the Fed or Treasury could adopt which might support the dollar’s external value.

And why should they? Given the horrendous unemployment data, and 65% capacity utilization, it is hard to view imported inflationary pressures via a weaker dollar actually becoming a serious threat.

But wait? Don’t the Chinese (and other external creditors) “fund” our deficit? And won’t they demand a higher equilibrating interest rate in order to offset the declining value of their Treasury hoard?

Again, this displays a seriously lagging understanding of how much modern money has changed since Nixon changed finance forever by closing the Gold window in 1973. Now that we’re off the gold standard, the Chinese, and other Treasury buyers, do not “fund” anything, contrary to the completely false & misguided scare stories one reads almost daily in the press.

This claim is seldom challenged, but our friend, Warren Mosler, recently gave an excellent illustration of this fact in an interview with Mike Norman. Mosler provides a hypothetical example in which China decides to sell us a billion dollars’ worth of T-shirts. We buy a billion dollars’ worth of T-shirts from China:

“And the way we pay them is somebody pays China. And the money goes into their checking account at the Federal Reserve. Now, it’s called a reserve account because it’s the Federal Reserve, and they give it a fancy name. But it’s a checking account. So we get the T-shirts, and China gets $1 billion in their checking account. And that’s just a data entry. That’s just a one and some zeroes.

Whoever bought them gets a debit. You know, it might have been Disneyland or something. So we debit Disney’s account and then we credit China’s account.

In this situation, we’ve increased our trade deficit by $1 billion. But it’s not an imbalance. China would rather have the money than the T-shirts, or they wouldn’t have sent them. It’s voluntary. We’d rather have the T-shirts than the money, or we wouldn’t have bought them. It’s voluntary. So, when you just look at the numbers and say there’s a trade deficit, and it’s an imbalance, that’s not correct. That’s imbalance. It’s markets. That’s where all market participants are happy. Markets are cleared at that price.

Okay, so now China has two choices with what they can do with the money in their checking account. They could spend it, in which case we wouldn’t have a trade deficit, or they can put it in another account at the Federal Reserve called a Treasury security, which is nothing more than a savings account. You give them money, you get it back with interest. If it’s a bank, you give them money, you get it back with interest. That’s what a savings account is.”

The example here clearly illustrates that bonds are a savings alternative which we offer to the Chinese manufacturer, not something which actually “funds” our government’s spending choices. It demonstrates that rates are exogenously determined by our central bank, not endogenously determined by the Chinese manufacturer who chooses to park his dollars in treasuries (credit demand, by contrast, is endogenous).

Here is how the mechanics actually work: government spending and lending adds reserves to the banking system because when the government spends, it electronically credits bank accounts.

By contrast, government taxing and security sales (i.e. sales of bonds) drain (subtract) reserves from the banking system. So when the government realizes a budget deficit (as is the case today), there is a net reserve add to the banking system, WHICH BRINGS RATES LOWER (not higher). That is, government deficit spending results in net credits to member bank reserves accounts. If these net credits lead to excess reserve positions, overnight interest rates will be bid down by the member banks with excess reserves to the interest rate paid on reserves by the central bank (currently .25% in the case of the US since the Fed started to pay interest on these reserves). If the central bank has a positive target for the overnight lending rate, either the central bank must pay interest on reserves or otherwise provide an interest bearing alternative to non interest bearing reserve accounts. But this is a choice determined by our central bank, not an external creditor.

Yet we are constantly being told by the financial press that the dollar’s weakness was supposed be the factor that would “force” the Fed to raise rates, since the Chinese supposedly “fund” our deficits.

So far, that thesis hasn’t been borne out. And it won’t be, because this isn’t how things operate in a post gold-standard world.

And a second and equally salient point: what would those who fret about the dollar, have the Fed do? Should they raise rates to defend it? It is unclear that this would work. The relationship between a given level of interest rates offered by the central bank and the external value of a currency is tenuous. Consider Japan as Exhibit A. The BOJ has been offering virtually free money for 15 years and yet the yen today remains a strong currency (much to the chagrin of the likes of Toyota or Sony).

Of course, higher rates can have an offsetting beneficial income impact (what Bernanke calls the “fiscal channel”), but it does not follow that a decision to raise rates would actually elevate the value of the dollar (and the benefits of higher rates from an income perspective could just as easily be achieved via lower taxation).

The reality is that private market participants could well view the move as something akin to a panicked response by the Fed, and the decision could well trigger additional capital flight, which could weaken the value of the dollar.

So it is unclear to me what the Tsy or Fed should be doing about the dollar. My view is that this is a private portfolio preference shift and I don’t think central banks should be responding to every vicissitude of changing market preferences. The US government should simply ignore the market chatter and idle threats from the Chinese and do nothing.