Tag Archives: Government’s IOU

The President Remains Trapped In the Talons of Deficit Hawks

By Marshall Auerback

Last Friday Mr. Obama and the GOP staged the equivalent of a British Parliamentary Question Period in front of the TV cameras. It showed the quick-thinking, articulate President at his best. Unfortunately, the subsequent Saturday morning national radio address showed him at his worst. Obama reiterated the need for job creation, even as he decried government deficits, which allegedly imperil our long term economic prosperity. It’s like calling for an open house policy, whilst simultaneously putting explosives on the door knobs.

“As we work to create jobs, it is critical that we rein in the budget deficits we’ve been accumulating for far too long – deficits that won’t just burden our children and grandchildren, but could damage our markets, drive up our interest rates, and jeopardize our recovery right now”.

Give Obama credit. He packs a veritable trifecta of innocent, but deadly, frauds into one sentence – government debt is bad, markets determine interest rates, deficits represent a form of “intergenerational theft”– and then adds several new ones to boot.

Unfortunately, he’s got it backwards. The deficits he decries actually help to sustain demand, and create jobs, thereby supporting the economy – not destroying it. And he reflects a commonly held belief that growing government debt represents a burden on our children and grandchildren, implicitly suggesting that future generations will have to reduce consumption in order to pay the taxes required to pay off the outstanding debt. Related to this is the fallacy that too much bond issuance will create a “debtors’ revolt”, whereby “the markets” will force the country to pay higher interest rates in order to “fund” its spending.

Where to begin? Since the days of George Washington’s administration, national budget deficits and increased public debt have been the rule on all but about six very short occasions. And the US has generally prospered. Why? Far from being a burden, the deficits, and the corresponding government bonds, constitute the foundation of private financial wealth in any nation that creates its own sovereign currency for use by its citizens. Debt owed by the government yields net income to the private sector, unlike all purely private debts, which merely transfer income from one part of the private sector to another. In basic national accounting terms, government deficits equal non-government savings surpluses.

Another important other angle that is often overlooked is that private holdings of government bonds also constitute an income source – that is, the government interest payments on its outstanding debt constitute another avenue for stimulus. So when the Government retires debt it reduces private incomes, just as when it runs budget surpluses, it constrains private sector demand directly by reducing private income and access to adequate currency. Just ask any pensioner if he/she is happy when their income stream from annuities has declined.

Take away that debt, and you take away income. It is no coincidence that the budget surpluses of the Clinton years (wrongly trumpeted as a great fiscal triumph by President Obama) subsequently led to recessions: government budget surpluses ultimately restrict private sector demand and income growth and force greater reliance on PRIVATE debt. Does anybody think it is a coincidence that two of the longest and largest periods of budget surpluses in America history – the periods of 1997-2000 and 1927-1930 – were followed by calamitous economic collapses?

There are ample analyses which explain how government surpluses drain aggregate demand (here, and here). Suffice to say, a government budget surplus has two negative effects for the private sector: the stock of financial assets (money or bonds) held by the private sector, which represents its wealth, falls; and private disposable income also falls as tax demands exceed income. And, as Stephanie Kelton has noted, the case of Japan illustrates that despite a debt-to-GDP ratio in excess of 200%, the Bank of Japan never lost the ability to set the key overnight interest rate, which has remained below 1% for about a decade. And, the debt didn’t drive long-term rates higher either.

Furthermore, now that we’re off the gold standard, Chinese and other Treasury buyers do not “fund” anything for us, contrary to the completely false and misguided scare stories that deficit hawks and, and now Obama, implicitly endorse. (See here for an explanation). Legions of economists, investment advisors, Wall Street practitioners and policy makers continue to peddle such gold-standard thinking to their citizens nationwide. To paraphrase Churchill, “It is as though a vast Gold Standard curtain has descended across the entire body of public thinking.”

Let’s consider a real world example to demonstrate the President’s conceptual confusion on government deficits. We’re in a recession. Our American citizen who was working in a pie shop has lost his job even though his productivity was just as high during the boom years. The problem is that as the recession intensified, pie demand fell as did consumer demand in general. For a variety of reasons, households perceive their wealth holdings are not going to appreciate as quickly as they did in prior periods, so they are saving more money out of their income flows.

The pie guy wants to exercise his freedom to work hard for money. So too do 152 million other people. But there are jobs available for only 138 million of them given current business perceptions of money profit prospects from production now and in the future. The pie guy is stuck with over 15 million other people who would like to exercise their freedom to work hard for money. Over 6 million of those people have been trying to exercise that freedom for over half a year, with no luck. They are dumpster diving for leftover pie scraps.

In desperation, the pie guy has gone back to the pie shop to offer his services for a lower money wage, but unit pie demand is still down, even though the owner has cut pie prices. However, the pie owner, facing lower prices per pie, decides to hire the pie guy back at a lower wage and fires one of his other workers to scratch his way to a little higher profit. Are we all any better off? I suppose pies are cheaper, but then so too are incomes earned by pie makers lower.

In that situation, someone else has to take up the spending slack. Fortunately, we live in an economic system in which a government can freely spend and fill the gap left by the private sector. It has the unique capacity to spend without the constraint of a private firm on productive job creation, thereby increasing output, not just redistributing it. Just giving the pie firm a payroll tax cut on new hires is not going to generate more jobs. Rather giving it to all employees will lead to more pie sales. And the government can do that. Rather than decrying the government deficits, then, the President should be celebrating them as a form of economic salvation.

The problem obviously isn’t about money which a government can always create. The ultimate irony is that in order to somehow ‘save’ public funds for the future, as the President appears to be advocating, what we do is cut back on expenditures today, which does nothing but set our economy back and cause the growth of output and employment to decline. Worse yet, the great irony is that the first thing governments generally cut back on is education- the one thing the mainstream agrees should be done that actually helps our children 50 years down the road. Education cutbacks – as any Californian can tell you – are something that does hurt us, as well as harming our children AND our grandchildren down the road. This is the true “intergenerational theft”, not “runway” government spending.

Like many other people who embrace the nostrums of the Concord Coalition, the President continues to view government spending through a failed household budget analogy:

There are certain core principles our families and businesses follow when they sit down to do their own budgets. They accept that they can’t get everything they want and focus on what they really need. They make tough decisions and sacrifice for their kids. They don’t spend what they don’t have, and they make do with what they’ve got.”

Yes, it’s true: If households spend more than their income now, they have to borrow. To pay the loan back they have to ensure that they can dedicate adequate income in the future, either by increasing incomes somehow or diverting existing income from consumption. If a household borrows too much, it will face major corrections in its balance of income and expenditure and consequently may have to seriously forgo spending later.

That is the logic that the users of the currency have to consider every day. They have to finance every $ they spend and so planning is required to ensure they don’t blow out their personal balance sheets. If all households attempt to net save by spending less than they are earning, and businesses attempt to net save (reinvesting less than their retained earnings), then private sector incomes and real output will decline absent an increase in government spending.

But it’s not the same for a government, as the President wrongly suggests, as the government is the creator of a currency. They can spend now. They can also spend later as well as service and pay back the debt without compromising anything. And a government, unlike a household or a private business, can choose to exact greater tax revenues by imposing new taxes or raising tax rates.

Notwithstanding the obvious reality that sovereign governments have no solvency risk because they create their own currency, most financial commentators (and the President’s own advisors) still waste their time talking about sovereign default risks and the President implicitly legitimizes this sort of talk when he talks about the need for government to embrace budgeting like a household does. This is what we presume he has in mind when he discusses the long term dangers of government deficits. Firms, households, and even state and local governments require income or borrowings in order to spend. But the federal government’s spending is not constrained by revenues or borrowing. It is constrained only by what our population chooses as national goals.

Suffice to say, we would all rather live in a world where profit prospects are so abundant that business investment spending is high enough to insure full employment given household preferences to save out of income flows. But historical and current experience suggests that is a rare configuration indeed. Ideally, that would be the business sector investing more than it retains in earnings. But in recent decades, such appears to only be the case during asset bubbles, and we know how that story ends. Alternatively, the foreign sector could deficit spend – the US could run a trade surplus. But the reality is US firms have chosen to reinvest in low cost production centers abroad (or would prefer to use free cash flow to engage in short run shareholder value maximization through various financial engineering efforts, including M&A) so the US based production structure no longer matches foreign demand very well. Ironically that leaves government fiscal deficit spending as the sole remaining mechanism to insure the freedom of its citizens to work hard for money.

The President, unfortunately, has yet to put the pieces of the puzzle together. He also fails to understand the idea that a government like the United States – i.e. one that issues a non-convertible sovereign currency (i.e. one the government doesn’t promise to convert into gold or other currencies at a fixed price) – can meet any and all outstanding financial obligations, provided the debts are denominated in its national currency. In this regard, the size of the national debt is irrelevant. This myth, and this myth alone, underpins arguments by orthodox economists against government activism in macroeconomic policy. The President does his Administration and the country no service by continuing to jump on this mythical bandwagon. Myth may constitute good grounds for literature, but is a horrible foundation for sound economic policy.

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.

What If the Government Just Prints Money?

By Scott Fullwiler

As Congress gets set in the near future to consider raising the debt ceiling yet again, my fellow blogger L. Randall Wray creatively suggests not raising the debt ceiling but instead having the Treasury continue spending as it always does: by simply crediting bank accounts. As he puts it:

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.

Money as a Public Monopoly

By L. Randall Wray

What I want to do in this blog is to argue that the reason both theory and policy get money “wrong” is because economists and policymakers fail to recognize that money is a public monopoly*. Conventional wisdom holds that money is a private invention of some clever Robinson Crusoe who tired of the inconveniencies of bartering fish with a short shelf-life for desired coconuts hoarded by Friday. Self-seeking globules of desire continually reduced transactions costs, guided by an invisible hand that selected the commodity with the best characteristics to function as the most efficient medium of exchange. Self-regulating markets maintained a perpetually maximum state of bliss, producing an equilibrium vector of relative prices for all tradables, including the money commodity that serves as a veiling numeraire.

All was fine and dandy until the evil government interfered, first by reaping seigniorage from monopolized coinage, next by printing too much money to chase the too few goods extant, and finally by efficiency-killing regulation of private financial institutions. Especially in the US, misguided laws and regulations simultaneously led to far too many financial intermediaries but far too little financial intermediation. Chairman Volcker delivered the first blow to restore efficiency by throwing the entire Savings and Loan sector into insolvency, and then freeing thrifts to do anything they damn well pleased. Deregulation, which actually dates to the Nixon years and even before, morphed into a self-regulation movement in the 1990s on the unassailable logic that rational self-interest would restrain financial institutions from doing anything foolish. This was all codified in the Basle II agreement that spread Anglo-Saxon anything goes financial practices around the globe. The final nail in the government’s coffin would be to preserve the value of money by tying monetary policy-maker’s hands to inflation targeting, and fiscal policy-maker’s hands to balanced budgets. All of this would lead to the era of the “great moderation”, with financial stability and rising wealth to create the “ownership society” in which all worthy individuals could share in the bounty of self-regulated, small government, capitalism.

We know how that story turned out. In all important respects we managed to recreate the exact same conditions of 1929 and history repeated itself with the exact same results. Take John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash, change the dates and some of the names of the guilty and you’ve got the post mortem for our current calamity.

What is the Keynesian-institutionalist alternative? Money is not a commodity or a thing. It is an institution, perhaps the most important institution of the capitalist economy. The money of account is social, the unit in which social obligations are denominated. I won’t go into pre-history, but I trace money to the wergild tradition—that is to say, money came out of the penal system rather than from markets, which is why the words for monetary debts or liabilities are associated with transgressions against individuals and society. To conclude, money predates markets, and so does government. As Karl Polanyi argued, markets never sprang from the minds of higglers and hagglers, but rather were created by government.

The monetary system, itself, was invented to mobilize resources to serve what government perceived to be the public purpose. Of course, it is only in a democracy that the public’s purpose and the government’s purpose have much chance of alignment. In any case, the point is that we cannot imagine a separation of the economic from the political—and any attempt to separate money from politics is, itself, political. Adopting a gold standard, or a foreign currency standard (“dollarization”), or a Friedmanian money growth rule, or an inflation target is a political act that serves the interests of some privileged group. There is no “natural” separation of a government from its money. The gold standard was legislated, just as the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 legislated the separation of Treasury and Central Bank functions, and the Balanced Budget Act of 1987 legislated the ex ante matching of federal government spending and revenue over a period determined by the celestial movement of a heavenly object. Ditto the myth of the supposed independence of the modern central bank—this is but a smokescreen to protect policy-makers should they choose to operate monetary policy for the benefit of Wall Street rather than in the public interest (a charge often made and now with good reason).

So money was created to give government command over socially created resources. Skip forward ten thousand years to the present. We can think of money as the currency of taxation, with the money of account denominating one’s social liability. Often, it is the tax that monetizes an activity—that puts a money value on it for the purpose of determining the share to render unto Caesar. The sovereign government names what money-denominated thing can be delivered in redemption against one’s social obligation or duty to pay taxes. It can then issue the money thing in its own payments. That government money thing is, like all money things, a liability denominated in the state’s money of account. And like all money things, it must be redeemed, that is, accepted by its issuer. As Hyman Minsky always said, anyone can create money (things), the problem lies in getting them accepted. Only the sovereign can impose tax liabilities to ensure its money things will be accepted. But power is always a continuum and we should not imagine that acceptance of non-sovereign money things is necessarily voluntary. We are admonished to be neither a creditor nor a debtor, but try as we might all of us are always simultaneously both. Maybe that is what makes us Human—or at least Chimpanzees, who apparently keep careful mental records of liabilities, and refuse to cooperate with those who don’t pay off debts—what is called reciprocal altruism: if I help you to beat the stuffing out of Chimp A, you had better repay your debt when Chimp B attacks me.

OK I have used up two-thirds of my allotment and you all are wondering what this has to do with regulation of monopolies. The dollar is our state money of account and high powered money (HPM or coins, green paper money, and bank reserves) is our state monopolized currency. Let me make that just a bit broader because US Treasuries (bills and bonds) are just HPM that pays interest (indeed, Treasuries are effectively reserve deposits at the Fed that pay higher interest than regular reserves), so we will include HPM plus Treasuries as the government currency monopoly—and these are delivered in payment of federal taxes, which destroys currency. If government emits more in its payments than it redeems in taxes, currency is accumulated by the nongovernment sector as financial wealth. We need not go into all the reasons (rational, irrational, productive, fetishistic) that one would want to hoard currency, except to note that a lot of the nonsovereign dollar denominated liabilities are made convertible (on demand or under specified circumstances) to currency.

Since government is the only issuer of currency, like any monopoly government can set the terms on which it is willing to supply it. If you have something to sell that the government would like to have—an hour of labor, a bomb, a vote—government offers a price that you can accept or refuse. Your power to refuse, however, is not that great. When you are dying of thirst, the monopoly water supplier has substantial pricing power. The government that imposes a head tax can set the price of whatever it is you will sell to government to obtain the means of tax payment so that you can keep your head on your shoulders. Since government is the only source of the currency required to pay taxes, and at least some people do have to pay taxes, government has pricing power.

Of course, it usually does not recognize this, believing that it must pay “market determined” prices—whatever that might mean. Just as a water monopolist cannot let the market determine an equilibrium price for water, the money monopolist cannot really let the market determine the conditions on which money is supplied. Rather, the best way to operate a money monopoly is to set the “price” and let the “quantity” float—just like the water monopolist does. My favorite example is a universal employer of last resort program in which the federal government offers to pay a basic wage and benefit package (say $10 per hour plus usual benefits), and then hires all who are ready and willing to work for that compensation. The “price” (labor compensation) is fixed, and the “quantity” (number employed) floats in a countercyclical manner. With ELR, we achieve full employment (as normally defined) with greater stability of wages, and as government spending on the program moves countercyclically, we also get greater stability of income (and thus of consumption and production)—a truly great moderation.

I have said anyone can create money (things). I can issue IOUs denominated in the dollar, and perhaps I can make my IOUs acceptable by agreeing to redeem them on demand for US government currency. The conventional fear is that I will issue so much money that it will cause inflation, hence orthodox economists advocate a money growth rate rule. But it is far more likely that if I issue too many IOUs they will be presented for redemption. Soon I run out of currency and am forced to default on my promise, ruining my creditors. That is the nutshell history of most private money (things) creation.

But we have always anointed some institutions—called banks—with special public/private partnerships, allowing them to act as intermediaries between the government and the nongovernment. Most importantly, government makes and receives payments through them. Hence, when you receive your Social Security payment it takes the form of a credit to your bank account; you pay taxes through a debit to that account. Banks, in turn, clear accounts with the government and with each other using reserve accounts (currency) at the Fed, which was specifically created in 1913 to ensure such clearing at par. To strengthen that promise, we introduced deposit insurance so that for most purposes, bank money (deposits) functions like government currency.

Here’s the rub. Bank money is privately created when a bank buys an asset—which could be your mortgage IOU backed by your home, or a firm’s IOU backed by commercial real estate, or a local government’s IOU backed by prospective tax revenues. But it can also be one of those complex sliced and diced and securitized toxic waste assets you’ve been reading about. A clever and ethically challenged banker will buy completely fictitious “assets” and pay himself huge bonuses for nonexistent profits while making uncollectible “loans” to all of his deadbeat relatives. (I use a male example because I do not know of any female frauds, which is probably why the scales of justice are always held by a woman.) The bank money he creates while running the bank into the ground is as good as the government currency the Treasury creates serving the public interest. And he will happily pay outrageous prices for assets, or lend to his family, friends and fellow frauds so that they can pay outrageous prices, fueling asset price inflation. This generates nice virtuous cycles in the form of bubbles that attract more purchases until the inevitable bust. I won’t go into output price inflation except to note that asset price bubbles can fuel spending on consumption and investment goods, spilling-over into commodities prices, so on some conditions there can be a link between asset and output price inflations.

The amazing thing is that the free marketeers want to “free” the private financial institutions to licentious behavior, but advocate reigning-in government on the argument that excessive issue of money is inflationary. Yet we have effectively given banks the power to issue government money (in the form of government insured deposits), and if we do not constrain what they purchase they will fuel speculative bubbles. By removing government regulation and supervision, we invite private banks to use the public monetary system to pursue private interests. Again, we know how that story ends, and it ain’t pretty. Unfortunately, we now have what appears to be a government of Goldman, by Goldman, and for Goldman that is trying to resurrect the financial system as it existed in 2006—a self-regulated, self-rewarding, bubble-seeking, fraud-loving juggernaut.

To come to a conclusion: the primary purpose of the monetary monopoly is to mobilize resources for the public purpose. There is no reason why private, for-profit institutions cannot play a role in this endeavor. But there is also no reason to believe that self-regulated private undertakers will pursue the public purpose. Indeed, as institutionalists we probably would go farther and assert that both theory and experience tell us precisely the opposite: the best strategy for a profit-seeking firm with market power never coincides with the best policy from the public interest perspective. And in the case of money, it is even worse because private financial institutions compete with one another in a manner that is financially destabilizing: by increasing leverage, lowering underwriting standards, increasing risk, and driving asset price bubbles. Unlike my ELR example above, private spending and lending will be strongly pro-cyclical. All of that is in addition to the usual arguments about the characteristics of public goods that make it difficult for the profit-seeker to capture external benefits. For this reason, we need to analyze money and banking from the perspective of regulating a monopoly—and not just any monopoly but rather the monopoly of the most important institution of our society.

* Much confusion is generated by using the term “money” to indicate a money “thing” used to satisfy one of the functions of money. I will be careful to use the term “money” to refer to the unit of account or money as an institution, and “money thing” to refer to something denominated in the money of account—whether that is currency, a bank deposit, or other money-denominated liability

‘Monetization’ of Budget Deficits

By L. Randall Wray [via CFEPS]

It is commonly believed that government faces a budget constraint according to which its spending must be “financed” by taxes, borrowing (bond sales), or “money creation”. Since many modern economies actually prohibit direct “money creation” by the government’s treasury, it is supposed that the last option is possible only through complicity of the central bank—which could buy the government’s bonds, and hence finance deficit spending by “printing money”.

Actually, in a floating rate regime, the government that issues the currency spends by crediting bank accounts. Tax payments result in debits to bank accounts. Deficit spending by government takes the form of net credits to bank accounts. Operationally, the entities receiving net payments from government hold banking system liabilities while banks hold reserves in the form of central bank liabilities (we can ignore leakages from deposits—and reserves—into cash held by the non-bank public as a simple complication that changes nothing of substance). While many economists find the coordinating activities between the central bank and the treasury quite confusing. I want to leave those issues mostly to the side and simply proceed from the logical point that deficit spending by the treasury results in net credits to banking system reserves, and that these fiscal operations can be huge. (See Bell 2000, Bell and Wray 2003, and Wray 2003/4)

If these net credits lead to excess reserve positions, overnight interest rates will be bid down by banks offering the excess in the overnight interbank lending market. Unless the central bank is operating with a zero interest rate target, declining overnight rates trigger open market bond sales to drain excess reserves. Hence, on a day-to-day basis, the central bank intervenes to offset undesired impacts of fiscal policy on reserves when they cause the overnight rate to move away from target. The process operates in reverse if the treasury runs a surplus, which results in net debits of reserves from the banking system and puts upward pressure on overnight rates—relieved by open market purchases. If fiscal policy were biased to run deficits (or surpluses) on a sustained basis, the central bank would run out of bonds to sell (or would accumulate too many bonds, offset on its balance sheet by a treasury deposit exceeding operating limits). Hence, policy is coordinated between the central bank and the treasury to ensure that the treasury will begin to issue new securities as it runs deficits (or retire old issues in the case of a budget surplus). Again, these coordinating activities can be varied and complicated, but they are not important to our analysis here. When all is said and done, a budget deficit that creates excess reserves leads to bond sales by the central bank (open market) and the treasury (new issues) to drain all excess reserves; a budget surplus causes the reverse to take place when the banking system is short of reserves.

Bond sales (or purchases) by the treasury and central bank are, then, ultimately triggered by deviation of reserves from the position desired (or required) by the banking system, which causes the overnight rate to move away from target (if the target is above zero). Bond sales by either the central bank or the treasury are properly seen as part of monetary policy designed to allow the central bank to hit its target. This target is exogenously “administered” by the central bank. Obviously, the central bank sets its target as a result of its belief about the impact of this rate on a range of economic variables that are included in its policy objectives. In other words, setting of this rate “exogenously” does not imply that the central bank is oblivious to economic and political constraints it believes to reign (whether these constraints and relationships actually exist is a different matter).

In conclusion, the notion of a “government budget constraint” only applies ex post, as a statement of an identity that has no significance as an economic constraint. When all is said and done, it is certainly true that any increase of government spending will be matched by an increase of taxes, an increase of high powered money (reserves and cash), and/or an increase of sovereign debt held. But this does not mean that taxes or bonds actually “financed” the government spending. Government might well enact provisions that dictate relations between changes to spending and changes to taxes revenues (a balanced budget, for example); it might require that bonds are issued before deficit spending actually takes place; it might require that the treasury have “money in the bank” (deposits at the central bank) before it can cut a check; and so on. These provisions might constrain government’s ability to spend at the desired level. Belief that these provisions are “right” and “just” and even “necessary” can make them politically popular and difficult to overturn. However, economic analysis shows that they are self-imposed and are not economically necessary—although they may well be politically necessary. From the vantage point of economic analysis, government can spend by crediting accounts in private banks, creating banking system reserves. Any number of operating procedures can be adopted to allow this to occur even in a system in which responsibilities are sharply divided between a central bank and a treasury. For example, in the US, complex procedures have been adopted to ensure that treasury can spend by cutting checks; that treasury checks never “bounce”; that deficit spending by treasury leads to net credits to banking system reserves; and that excess reserves are drained through new issues by treasury and open market sales by the Fed. That this all operates exceedingly smoothly is evidenced by a relatively stable overnight interbank interest rate—even with rather wild fluctuations of the Treasury’s budget positions. If there were significant hitches in these operations, the fed funds rate would be unstable.

The Endogenous Money Approach

By L. Randall Wray [via CFEPS]

In Neoclassical theory, money is really added as an after thought to a model that is based on a barter paradigm. In the long run, at least, money is neutral, playing no role except to determine unimportant nominal prices. Money is taken to be an exogenous variable-whose quantity is determined either by the supply of a scarce commodity (for example, gold), or by the government in the case of a “fiat” money. In the money and banking textbooks, the central bank controls the money supply through its provision of required reserves, to which a deposit multiplier is applied to determine the quantity of privately-supplied bank deposits.

The evolving Post Keynesian endogenous approach to money offers a clear alternative to the orthodox, neoclassical approach. With regard to monetary theory, early Post Keynesian work emphasized the role played by uncertainty and was generally most concerned with money hoards held to reduce “disquietude”, rather than with money “on the wing” (the relation between money and spending). However, Post Keynesians always recognized the important role played by money in the “monetary theory of production” that Keynes adopted from Marx. Circuit theory, mostly developed in France, provided a nice counterpoint to early Post Keynesian preoccupation with money hoards, focusing on the role money plays in financing spending. The next major development came in the 1970s, with Basil Moore’s horizontalism (somewhat anticipated by Kaldor), which emphasized that central banks cannot control bank reserves in a discretionary manner. Reserves must be “horizontal”, supplied on demand at the overnight bank rate (or fed funds rate) administered by the central bank. This also turns the textbook deposit multiplier on its head as causation must run from loans to deposits and then to reserves.

This led directly to development of the “endogenous money” approach that was already apparent in the Circuit literature. When the demand for loans increases, banks normally make more loans and create more banking deposits, without worrying about the quantity of reserves on hand. Privately created credit money can thus be thought of as a horizontal “leveraging” of reserves (or, better, High Powered Money), although there is no fixed leverage ratio. In recent years, some Post Keynesians have returned to Keynes’s Treatise and the State Theory of Money advanced by Knapp and adopted by Keynes therein. Rather than imagining a barter economy that discovers a lubricating medium of exchange, this neo-Chartalist approach emphasizes the role played by the state in designating the unit of account, and in naming exactly what thing answers to that description. Taxes (or any other monetary obligations imposed by authorities) then generate a demand for that money thing. In this way, Post Keynesians need not fall into the “free market” approach of orthodoxy, which imagines some pre-existing monetized utopia free from the evil hands of government. The neo-Chartalist approach also leads quite nicely to Abba Lerner’s functional finance approach, which refuses to make a fine separation of fiscal from monetary policy. Money, government spending, and taxes are thus intricately interrelated. This approach rejects Mundell’s “optimal currency area” as well as the monetary approach to the balance of payments. It is not possible to separate fiscal policy from currency sovereignty-which explains why the “one nation, one currency” rule is so rarely violated, and when it is violated it typically leads to disaster (as in the current case of Argentina, and-perhaps-in the future case of the European Union!).

Like Keynes, Post Keynesians have long emphasized that unemployment in capitalist economies has to do with the fact that these are monetary economies. Keynes had argued that the “fetish” for liquidity (the desire to hoard) causes unemployment because it keeps the relevant interest rates at too high a level to permit sufficient investment to raise aggregate demand to the full employment level. While it would appear that monetary policy could eliminate unemployment either by reducing overnight interest rates, or by expanding the quantity of reserves, neither avenue will actually work. When liquidity preference is high, there may be no rate of interest that will induce investment in illiquid capital-and even if the overnight interest rate falls, this does not mean that the long term rate will. Further, as the horizontalists make clear, the central bank cannot simply increase reserves in a discretionary manner as this would only result in excess reserve holdings and push the overnight interest rate to zero without actually increasing the money supply. Indeed, when liquidity preference is high, the demand for, as well as the supply of, loans collapses. Hence, there is no way for the central bank to simply “increase the supply of money” to raise aggregate demand. This is why those who adopt the endogenous money approach reject ISLM-type analysis in which the authorities can eliminate recession simply by expanding the money supply and shifting the LM curve out.

Furthermore, unlike orthodox economists, Post Keynesians reject a simple NAIRU or Phillips Curve trade-off according to which some unemployment must be accepted as “natural” or as the cost of fighting inflation. Earlier, some Post Keynesians had argued for “incomes policy” as an alternative way of fighting inflation, however, that rarely proved to be politically feasible. Lately, at least some Post Keynesians have argued that not only is the inflation-unemployment “trade-off” unnecessary, but that full employment can be a complement to enhanced price stability. This is accomplished through creation of a “buffer stock” of labor, according to which the government offers to hire anyone ready, willing, and able to work at some pre-announced and fixed wage. The size of the buffer stock moves counter-cyclically, such that government spending on the program will act as an “automatic stabilizer”. At the same time, the fixed wage and benefit package helps to moderate fluctuation of “market” wages. Finally, it is emphasized that the “functional finance” approach to money and fiscal policy advanced by Lerner explains why any nation that operates with a sovereign currency will be able to “afford” full employment. In this way, it is recognized that while unemployment exists only in monetary economies, unemployment does not have to be tolerated even in monetary economies. When aggregate demand is low, fiscal policy-not monetary policy-can raise demand and provide the needed jobs. The problem is not that money is “neutral”, but that when demand is low, the private sector will not create money endogenously, hence, the government must expand the supply of HPM through fiscal policy. If a deficit results, this will increase reserves held by the banking system, which must be drained through sale of government bonds in order to prevent a situation of excess reserve holdings from pushing overnight interest rates to zero. Therefore, bond sales by the treasury are seen as an “interest rate maintenance operation” and not as a “borrowing” operation. Indeed, no sovereign issuer of the currency needs to borrow its own currency from its population in order to spend.



Brunner, Karl. 1968. “The Role of Money and Monetary Policy”, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, vol 50, no. 7, July, p. 9.

Cook, R.M. 1958. “Speculation on the Origins of Coinage”, Historia, 7, pp. 257-62.

Davidson, Paul. Money and the Real World, London, Macmillan, 1978.

Deleplace, Ghislain and Edward J. Nell, editors. Money in Motion: the Post Keynesian and Circulation Approaches, New York, St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1996.

Dow, Alexander and Schiela C. Dow 1989. “Endogenous Money Creation and Idle Balances”, in Pheby, John, ed, New Directions in Post Keynesian Economics, Aldershot, Edward Elgar, p. 147.

Friedman, Milton. 1969. The Optimal Quantity of Money and Other Essays, Aldine, Chicago.

Grierson, Philip (1979), Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Reprints, London.

—–. 1977. The Origins of Money, London: Athlone Press.

Hahn, F. 1983. Money and Inflation, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Innes, A. M. 1913, “What is Money?“, Banking Law Journal, May p. 377-408.

Kaldor, N. The Scourge of Monetarism, London, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Keynes, John Maynard. The General Theory, New York, Harcourt-Brace-Jovanovich, 1964.

—–. A Treatise on Money: Volume 1: The Pure Theory of Money, New York, Harcourt-Brace-Jovanovich, 1976 [1930].

Knapp, Georg Friedrich. The State Theory of Money, Clifton, Augustus M. Kelley 1973 [1924].

Lerner, Abba P. “Money as a Creature of the State”, American Economic Review, vol. 37, no. 2, May 1947, pp. 312-317.

Marx, Karl. Capital, Volume III, Chicago, Charles H. Kerr and Company, 1909.

Moore, Basil. Horizontalists and Verticalists: The Macroeconomics of Credit Money, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Mosler, Warren, Soft Currency Economics, third edition, 1995.

Parguez, Alain.1996. “Beyond Scarcity: A Reappraisal of the Theory of the Monetary Circuit”, in E. nell and G. Deleplace (eds) Money in Motion: The Post-Keynesian and Circulation Approaches, London: Macmillan.

Rousseas, Stephen. Post Keynesian Monetary Economics, Armonk, New York, M.E. Sharpe, 1986.

Wray, L. Randall. Understanding Modern Money: The Key to Full Employment and Price Stability, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, 1998.

—–. Money and Credit in Capitalist Economies: The Endogenous Money Approach, Aldershot, Edward Elgar, 1990.

Leakages and Potential Growth

In his book, Leakages, Treval Powers makes the outrageous claim that without leakages, the US economy could grow at a sustained rate of 13% annually. According to his calculations (based on empirical evidence), normal leakages of 7.4% reduce the rate of growth to 5.6%, leaving the economy operating at only 92.6% of its capacity. Periodic restrictive policy by the Federal Reserve adds another layer of leakages, which can reduce growth to zero, causing the economy to operate at only 87% of potential.

Ironically, the Fed imposes tight policy because it wrongly believes that inflationary pressures result from excessive demand, even though the economy chronically operates well below capacity. Indeed, Powers argues that the greater the leakages, the higher the price level, hence, when the Fed tightens it actually puts upward pressure on prices. In his view, the economy has not been supply constrained, at least in the postwar era, so there has been no reason to fight inflation by constraining demand.

All of this goes against the conventional wisdom. Powers might be dismissed as a crank, as someone who simply does not understand economics. While I do find most of his analysis of monetary policy somewhat confusing, I agree with the general conclusions. What I will do in this note is to concur on two main points:

1. the US economy suffers from chronic inadequate demand, and has rarely been subject to any significant supply constraints—whether of productive capacity or of labor;

2. and leakages have been the cause of the demand constraints

Thus, I also agree with the policy conclusions of Powers: Fed policy can be seen as a string of mistakes guided by a fundamentally flawed view that causes the Fed to tighten policy exactly when it should be loosened. Inflation in the US does not result from excessive aggregate demand and, indeed, our worst bouts with inflation have come during periods of above-normal slack.

However, I do not believe that Fed policy normally has a huge impact on the economy, and for that we should be eternally grateful given how misguided it has been. This is the major disagreement I would have with Powers and other critics of the Fed. I could go even further and argue that we really do not know whether restrictive policy by the Fed actually reduces aggregate demand—and whether lower interest rates stimulate demand—but that would take us too far afield.

Fiscal policy is the primary way in which government impacts the economy, and, unfortunately, it has become increasingly misguided in ways that many do not understand—especially during the Bush dynasty era in which populists, leftists, and the Democratic party have wrongly advocated a return to what they call fiscal responsibility. Thus, rather than focusing on monetary policy failings as the cause of demand slack, I highlight the role played by fiscal policy.

Let me begin with my argument that the US economy, as well as the economies of all the other major nations, have suffered from demand constrained growth. Figure 1 compares the per capita inflation-adjusted GDP growth of the major developed nations—indexed to 100 in 1970. Note the relatively rapid growth of Japan.

Per capita (inflation adjusted) GDP growth can be attributed by identity to growth of the employment rate (workers divided by population) plus growth of productivity per worker. Figure 2 shows employment rate growth by nation. Note that only the US and Canada had much growth of the employment rate. The long term trend in these two countries is rising as more women come into the labor force. There are also obvious cyclical trends—especially in Canada—when employment rates can actually fall off due to unemployment. Employment rates actually fell in France on a long-term trend, while they were more or less stable in the other nations.

I attribute the low growth of employment rates to slow growth of aggregate demand; that is, if aggregate demand does not grow at a clip sufficiently above productivity growth, then employment rate growth must (identically) suffer. Indeed, growth in Japan and Europe has not been high enough to increase employment rates—so they have come up with all these schemes to increase vacations, lower retirement ages, and share work (France’s experiment with mandated work week reductions is the most glaring example).

Figure 3 shows productivity growth. Recall that the sum of growth of the employment rate plus growth of productivity equals total per capita GDP growth. Japan, Italy and France had the best productivity growth—these are all nations that had no employment growth. Note that the US is at the bottom here. In the US our employment rate grows fairly strongly (for a number of reasons: population growth, immigration, and women entering the labor force) but given low growth of GDP, our productivity suffers. Figure 4 shows that our growth is just about evenly divided between employment growth and productivity growth.

These two figures shed light on a three-decades long controversy over productivity growth in the US. All during the 1970s and 1980s there was this hysteria about low productivity growth that was supposed to be the cause of low GDP growth. This is a supply side argument and led to all the policy measures, like tax cuts for the rich and other schemes to raise saving, to try to stimulate productivity through induced investment. In fact, the low productivity falls out of an identity; if the US grows at only 3% and if our employment rate grows at 2% it is mathematically impossible for productivity to grow at anything other than 1%.

Figure 5 shows a hypothetical trade-off for the US, Europe and Japan. In other words, for the US to have productivity growth as high as that of Japan or Europe—or as high as we had during the so-called new economy boom under Clinton–we must grow above 4 or 5% per year. This is something we rarely achieve for very long—for reasons I’ll get to in a second. During the Clinton boom there was all this nonsense about information technology that had suddenly made it possible to grow at such rates precisely because productivity was supposed to be able to grow fast. In reality, the fast growth of the Clinton years could have been achieved at any time, if only demand had been that robust.

That brings me to my second main point—the leakages that constrain demand, resulting in chronic underperformance. We can think of the economy as being composed of 3 sectors: a domestic private sector, a government sector, and a foreign sector. If one of these spends more than its income, at least one of the others must spend less than its income because for the economy as a whole, total spending must equal total receipts or income. So while there is no reason why any one sector has to run a balanced budget, the system as a whole must. In practice, the private sector traditionally runs a surplus—spending less than its income. This is how it accumulates net financial wealth. For the US this has averaged about 2-3% of GDP, but it does vary considerably over the cycle. That is a leakage that must be matched by an injection.

Before Reagan we essentially had a balanced foreign sector—we ran trade surpluses or deficits, but they were small. After Reagan, we ran growing trade deficits, so that today they run about 5% of GDP. That is another leakage.

Finally, our government sector taken as a whole almost always runs a budget deficit. This has reached to around 5% under Reagan and both Bushes. That is the injection that offsets the private and foreign sector leakages. With a traditional private sector surplus of 3% and a more or less balanced trade account, the “normal” budget deficit needed to be about 3% during the early Reagan years. In robust expansions, before the Clinton years, the domestic private sector occasionally ran small and short lived deficits—an injection that allowed a trade deficit to open up, and reduced the government budget deficit. See Figure 6.

Until the Clinton expansion, the private deficits never exceeded about 1% of GDP and never lasted more than 18 months. However, since 1996 the private sector has been in deficit every year, and that deficit climbed to more than 6% of GDP at the peak of the boom. This actually drove the budget into surplus of about 2.5% of GDP. With the trade deficit at about 4% of GDP, the private sector deficit was the sum of those—almost 6.5%. While everyone thought the Clinton budget surplus was a great achievement, they never realized that by identity it meant that the private sector had to spend more than its income, so that rather than accumulating financial wealth it was running up debt.

Let me link this back to the leakages discussed by Powers. The trade deficit represents a leakage of demand from the US economy to foreign production. There is nothing necessarily bad about this, so long as we have another source of demand for US output, such as a federal budget that is biased to run an equal and offsetting deficit. Private sector net saving (that is, running a surplus) is also a leakage. As discussed above, that was typically 2-3% in the past. If we add in the trade deficit that we have today (5% of GDP), that gives us a total “normal” leakage out of aggregate demand of 7 or 8%–about equal to the estimates of Powers.

This leakage has to be made up by an injection from the third sector, the government. The only way to sustain a leakage of 7-8% is for the overall government to run a deficit of that size. Since state and local governments have to balance their budgets, and on average actually run surpluses, it is up to the federal government to run deficits. The federal budget deficit is largely non-discretionary over a business cycle, and at least over the shorter run we can take the trade balance as also outside the scope of policy.

The driving force of the cycle, then, is the private sector leakages. When the private sector has a strong desire to save, it tries to reduce its spending below its income. Domestic firms cut production, and imports might fall too. The economy cycles downward into a recession as demand falls and unemployment rises. Tax revenues fall and some kinds of social spending (such as unemployment compensation) rise. The budget deficit increases more-or-less automatically. That is where we are today, with Bush budget deficits rising to 5% of GDP and, soon, beyond. They will probably need to reach 8% before we get a sustained recovery.

In sum, we experienced something highly unusual during the Clinton expansion because the private sector was willing to spend far more than its income; the normal private sector leakages turned into very large injections. The economy grew quickly and tax revenues literally exploded. State governments and the federal government experienced record surpluses. These surpluses represented a leakage that brought the expansion to a relatively sudden halt. What we have now is a federal budget that is biased to run surpluses except when growth is very far below potential. This means is that the “normal” private sector balance now must be a large deficit in order for the economy to grow robustly.

Rather than the government sector being a source of injections that allow the leakages that represent private sector savings, we now have the private sector dissaving in order to allow the foreign and government sector leakages. This sets up a highly unstable situation because private debt ratios rise quickly and a greater percentage of income goes to service those debts. While I said at the beginning that Fed policy normally doesn’t matter much, in a highly indebted economy, rising interest rates can increase debt problems very quickly—setting off bankruptcies that can snowball into a 1930s-style debt deflation. A far more sensible policy would be to reverse course and lower interest rates, then keep them low.

At the same time, the federal government should take advantage of slack demand and abundant labor by increasing its spending on domestic programs. Robust economic growth fueled by federal deficits is the best way to reduce over-indebtedness. It is hard to say what to do (if anything) about euphoric stock or real estate markets that could be stoked by renewed growth. But the Fed’s sledgehammer approach of jacking up interest rates does not work. We will probably need selective credit controls to constrain financial speculation, if such is desired.

In conclusion, I agree with Powers that growth in the postwar period has mostly been demand constrained, due to leakages. If demand were to grow at 7% or even 10% on a sustained basis, I see no reason to believe that supply could not keep pace. This is all the more true in today’s global economy with massive quantities of underutilized resources all over the world, and with the rest of the world desires to accumulate dollar-denominated financial assets. This requires that they sell output to the US—which is just the counterpart to our trade deficit leakage. In real terms, a trade deficit means we can enjoy higher living standards without placing pressure on our own nation’s productive capacity. While it is hard to project maximum sustainable growth rates, there can be little doubt that our economy chronically operates far below feasible rates. The best policy would be to push up demand, allow growth rates to rise, and try to test those frontiers.


Treval C. Powers, Leakage: The bleeding of the American economy, Benchmark Publications, Inc, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1996.

Sovereign State of California (An Update)

by L. Randall Wray

Finally, there is some good news out of California:

SACRAMENTO — State vendors and contractors could use their government-issued IOUs to pay state taxes, fees and liens under a bill approved by an Assembly committee. The Business and Professions Committee unanimously passed the bill by Assemblyman Joel Anderson during its first legislative hearing Tuesday. The bill requires the state to accept its own IOUs as payment for money owed to the government.

As a stopgap measure, this will ensure a demand for the state’s IOUs. Each individual vendor, contractor, or even state employee will accept the state’s new warrants up to the individual’s expected tax liability. Eventually the warrants will also be accepted by retail establishments and others who also have liabilities to the state of California—meaning that the state could (eventually) issue a number of warrants equal to the total of all such obligations owed to the state, on an annual basis.

The next step is to issue these IOUs at zero interest. The taxes, fees, and liens will be sufficient to generate a demand without promising interest. Currency is simply an IOU that does not pay interest—it is “current”. As I suggested before, the state can also accept its own “currency” in payment of fees and tuition paid to state institutions of higher learning—further increasing demand.

Unlike other local currencies around the country—such as the BerkShare in Massachusetts, the new California currency will be “tax driven”, thus sustainable. In other words, it is a sovereign currency backed by the state’s ability to impose taxes. As California is reportedly the eighth largest economy in the world, a new Bear Flag Dollar ought to do fairly well internationally (meaning in the United States and abroad).

It is amazing that the Obama Administration is ignoring the fiscal crisis in that state (and in all states). Since Arnold cannot run against Obama in the next election, he can at least threaten to secede and run for President of the new Great Nation of California. Mike Norman has outlined a nice game of chicken he could play:

“Here’s what Arnold can do, and I’ve said this before: Declare himself President of California and secede from the Union. Then he can issue his own currency (which is what these I.O.U’s are, effectively). After that, there’d be a short war and California would be brought back into the U.S. and war reparations would be paid to the state. (Possibly far more than what the state was asking for anyway.)”

Perhaps it is a bit far-fetched, but better than going bankrupt quietly—think Orange County in 1994 or New York City and State in 1975-76. See also John Avalon’s thoughts on the possible bankruptcy of both NY and CA.

Hey, here’s an idea. Why don’t all 50 states secede, form a Second United States, issue a New Dollar, and ramp up spending to the required level to get the national economy as well as the economies of the 50 states on a path to full employment?