Tag Archives: The Trade Deficit

“My alternative proposal on trade with China”

By Warren Mosler*

We can have BOTH low priced imports AND good jobs for all Americans

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has urged US Treasury Secretary Geithner to take legal action to force China to let its currency appreciate. As stated by Blumenthal: “By stifling its currency, China is stifling our economy and stealing our jobs. Connecticut manufacturers have bled business and jobs over recent years because of China’s unconscionable currency manipulation and unfair market practices.”

The Attorney General is proposing to create jobs by lowering the value of the dollar vs. the yuan (China’s currency) to make China’s products a lot more expensive for US consumers, who are already struggling to survive. Those higher prices then cause us to instead buy products made elsewhere, which will presumably means more American products get produced and sold. The trade off is most likely to be a few more jobs in return for higher prices (also called inflation), and a lower standard of living from the higher prices.

Fortunately there is an alternative that allows the US consumer to enjoy the enormous benefits of low cost imports and also makes good jobs available for all Americans willing and able to work. That alternative is to keep Federal taxes low enough so Americans have enough take home pay to buy all the goods and services we can produce at full employment levels AND everything the world wants to sell to us. This in fact is exactly what happened in 2000 when unemployment was under 4%, while net imports were $380 billion. We had what most considered a ‘red hot’ labor market with jobs for all, as well as the benefit of consuming $380 billion more in imports than we exported, along with very low inflation and a high standard of living due in part to the low cost imports.

The reason we had such a good economy in 2000 was because private sector debt grew at a record 7% of GDP, supplying the spending power we needed to keep us fully employed and also able to buy all of those imports. But as soon as private sector debt expansion reached its limits and that source of spending power faded, the right Federal policy response would have been to cut Federal taxes to sustain American spending power. That wasn’t done until 2003- two long years after the recession had taken hold. The economy again improved, and unemployment came down even as imports increased. However, when private sector debt again collapsed in 2008, the Federal government again failed to cut taxes or increase spending to sustain the US consumer’s spending power. The stimulus package that was passed almost a year later in 2009 was far too small and spread out over too many years. Consequently, unemployment continued to rise, reaching an unthinkable high of 16.9% (people looking for full time work who can’t find it) in March 2010.

The problem is we are conducting Federal policy on the mistaken belief that the Federal government must get the dollars it spends through taxes, and what it doesn’t get from taxes it must borrow in the market place, and leave the debts for our children to pay back. It is this errant belief that has resulted in a policy of enormous, self imposed fiscal drag that has devastated our economy.

My three proposals for removing this drag on our economy are:

1. A full payroll tax (FICA) holiday for employees and employers. This increases the take home pay for people earning $50,000 a year by over $300 per month. It also cuts costs for businesses, which means lower prices as well as new investment.

2. A $500 per capita distribution to State governments with no strings attached. This means $1.75 billion of Federal revenue sharing to the State of Connecticut to help sustain essential public services and reduce debt.

3. An $8/hr national service job for anyone willing and able to work to facilitate the transition from unemployment to private sector employment as the pickup in sales from my first two proposals quickly translates into millions of new private sector jobs.

Because the right level of taxation to sustain full employment and price stability will vary over time, it’s the Federal government’s job to use taxation like a thermostat- lowering taxes when the economy is too cold, and considering tax increases only should the economy ‘over heat’ and get ‘too good’ (which is something I’ve never seen in my 40 years).

For policy makers to pursue this policy, they first need to understand what all insiders in the Fed (Federal Reserve Bank) have known for a very long time- the Federal government (not State and local government, corporations, and all of us) never actually has nor doesn’t have any US dollars. It taxes by simply changing numbers down in our bank accounts and doesn’t actually get anything, and it spends simply by changing numbers up in our bank accounts and doesn’t actually use anything up. As Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke explained in to Scott Pelley on ’60 minutes’ in May 2009:

(PELLEY) Is that tax money that the Fed is spending?
(BERNANKE) It’s not tax money. The banks have– accounts with the Fed, much the same way that you have an account in a commercial bank. So, to lend to a bank, we simply use the computer to mark up the size of the account that they have with the Fed.

Therefore, payroll tax cuts do NOT mean the Federal government will go broke and run out of money if it doesn’t cut Social Security and Medicare payments. As the Fed Chairman correctly explained, operationally, spending is not revenue constrained.

We know why the Federal government taxes- to regulate the economy- but what about Federal borrowing? As you might suspect, our well advertised dependence on foreigners to buy US Treasury securities to fund the Federal government is just another myth holding us back from realizing our economic potential.

Operationally, foreign governments have ‘checking accounts’ at the Fed called ‘reserve accounts,’ and US Treasury securities are nothing more than savings accounts at the same Fed. So when a nation like China sells things to us, we pay them with dollars that go into their checking account at the Fed. And when they buy US Treasury securities the Fed simply transfers their dollars from their Fed checking account to their Fed savings account. And paying back US Treasury securities is nothing more than transferring the balance in China’s savings account at the Fed to their checking account at the Fed. This is not a ‘burden’ for us nor will it be for our children and grand children. Nor is the US Treasury spending operationally constrained by whether China has their dollars in their checking account or their savings accounts. Any and all constraints on US government spending are necessarily self imposed. There can be no external constraints.

In conclusion, it is a failure to understand basic monetary operations and Fed reserve accounting that caused the Democratic Congress and Administration to cut Medicare in the latest health care law, and that same failure of understanding is now driving well intentioned Americans like Atty General Blumenthal to push China to revalue its currency. This weak dollar policy is a misguided effort to create jobs by causing import prices to go up for struggling US consumers to the point where we buy fewer Chinese products. The far better option is to cut taxes as I’ve proposed, to ensure we have enough take home pay to be able to buy all that we can produce domestically at full employment, plus whatever imports we want to buy from foreigners at the lowest possible prices, and return America to the economic prosperity we once enjoyed.

*This article first appeared on moslereconomics.com

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.

Central Bank Sterilization

By L. Randall Wray [via CFEPS]

There is a great deal of confusion over international “flows” of currency, reserves, and finance, much of which results from failure to distinguish between a floating versus a fixed exchange rate. For example, it is often claimed that the US needs “foreign savings” in order to “finance” its persistent trade deficit that results from “profligate US consumers” who are said to be “living beyond their means”. Such a statement makes no sense for a sovereign nation operating on a flexible exchange rate. In a nation like the US, when viewed from the vantage point of the economy as a whole, a trade deficit results when the rest of the world (ROW) wishes to net save in the form of dollar assets. The ROW exports to the US reflect the “cost” imposed on citizens of the ROW to obtain the “benefit” of accumulating dollar denominated assets. From the perspective of America as a whole, the “net benefit” of the trade deficit consists of the net imports that are enjoyed. In contrast to the conventional view, it is more revealing to think of the US trade deficit as “financing” the net dollar saving of the ROW—rather than thinking of the ROW as “financing” the US trade deficit. If and when the ROW decides it has a sufficient stock of dollar assets, the US trade deficit will disappear.

It is sometimes argued that when the US experiences a capital account surplus, the dollars “flowing in” will increase private bank reserves and hence can lead to an expansion of private loan-and-deposit-making activity through the “money multiplier”. However, if the Fed “sterilizes” this inflow through open market sales, the expansionary benefits are dissipated. Hence, if the central bank can be persuaded to avoid this sterilization, the US can enjoy the stimulative effects.

Previous analysis should make it clear that sterilization is not a discretionary activity. First it is necessary to understand that a trade deficit mostly shifts ownership of dollar deposits from a domestic account holder to a nonresident account holder. Often, reserves do not even shift banks as deposits are transferred from an account at a US branch to an account at a foreign branch of the same bank. Even if reserves are shifted, this merely means that the Fed debits the accounts of one bank and credits the accounts of another. These operations will be tallied as a deficit on current account and a surplus on capital account. If treasury or central bank actions result in excess reserve holdings (by the foreign branch or bank), the holder will seek earning dollar-denominated assets—perhaps US sovereign debt. US bond dealers or US banks can exchange sovereign debt for reserve deposits at the Fed. If the net result of these operations is to create excess dollar reserves, there will be downward pressure in the US overnight interbank lending rate. From the analysis above, it will be obvious that this is relieved by central bank open market sales to drain the excess reserves. This “sterilization” is not discretionary if the central bank wishes to maintain a positive overnight rate target. Conversely, if the net impact of international operations is to result in a deficit dollar reserve position, the Fed will engage in an open market purchase to inject reserves and thereby relieve upward pressure that threatens to move the overnight rate above target.

Another Take on the Financial Balances

By Eric Tymoigne

First, regarding the identity itself, for a domestic economy we have, in terms of economic flows:


With PDFB the private domestic financial balance, RWFB the financial balance of the Rest of the World, and GFB the government financial balance. This identity holds all the time, in any domestic economy (in a world economy RWFB disappears). For economic analysis, it is insightful to arrange this identity differently in function of the type of monetary regime.
In a country that is monetarily sovereign the federal government has full financial flexibility. By monetary sovereignty, one means that there is a stable and operative federal/national government that is the monopoly supplier of the currency used as ultimate means of payment in the domestic economy, and that the domestic currency is not tied to any asset (like gold) or foreign currency. Other posts have already explained the implications of this in terms of federal government finance (taxes and T-bonds do not act as financing sources for federal government spending, the federal government always spends by creating monetary instruments first, etc.) and banking (bank advances create deposits, credit supply is endogenous and is created ex-nihilo (i.e. banks do not need depositors to be able to provide an advance of funds to deficit spending units), higher reserve ratios do not constrain directly the money supply process in a multiplicative way, etc.). All this also has implications in terms of accounting and in terms of modeling.

First, in terms of accounting identity, in a monetarily sovereign country, the government financial balance (GFB), through the federal government financial balance, is the ultimate means to accommodate the changes in holdings of the domestic currency by other sectors (private domestic sector and the Rest of the World). This means that, for a monetarily sovereign country, the most insightful way to arrange the national accounting identity is:




Where NGFB is the non-government financial balance (the sum of the financial balance of the private domestic sector and the Rest of the World). This way of arranging the identity shows well that the government sector (through its federal branch) is the ultimate provider/holder of domestic currency: government fiscal deficit (surplus) is always equal to non-government financial surplus (deficit). The graph below shows the identity for the US.

Fiscal balances for the United State (billions of dollars)

Source: BEA (Table 5.1).
Note: Statistical discrepancy was distributed evenly among the three sectors (Private Domestic, Rest of the World, and Government).

Any net injection of dollars (i.e. financial deficit) by any sector must be accumulated somewhere else (i.e. financial surplus). As the monopoly supplier of ultimate domestic means of payment, usually the US government sector is the net injector of dollars, while the private domestic sector and the Rest of the World usually accumulate the dollars injected. For a while, like from 1997 to 2007 in the US, the private domestic sector and the Rest of the World may transfer the domestic currency among each other while the government runs a surplus; however, this cannot last because ultimately one of them (private sector or Rest of the World) will run out of domestic currency and/or will have to become highly indebted in domestic currency leading ultimately to a Ponzi process that collapses. Only the federal government has a perfect creditworthiness and can always meet its financial obligations denominated in the domestic currency (that is why US Treasury bonds are not rated, default rate is zero).

In addition, one may note that the Rest of the World and the private sector cannot accumulate any domestic currency unless the government sector injects them in sufficient quantity in the first place. Stated alternatively, the Rest of the World (e.g., the Chinese) does not help to finance the deficit of the federal government (US federal government). On the contrary, the federal government deficit allows the Rest of the World to accumulate dollars. This pressure to generate a deficit is all the more strong on the dollar that it is the reserve currency of the world, so there is a net demand for the dollar from the Rest of the World.

This also works the other way around, i.e. if the Rest of the World disaccumulates the domestic currency the government must be the ultimate acquirer of this domestic currency and so must run a surplus if the private domestic sector does not accumulate it in a large enough quantity.
Once it acquires the domestic currency, the government may destroy them (federal government has huge shredders or they are deleted from the computer memory), or store them into a safe/computer for later use (especially true for state and local governments). Destruction of bank notes occurs usually because they are in bad shape. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bank notes are destroyed every month at the Fed banks in the US; then they are used as compost (during my last tour of the San Francisco Fed last March, I was told that about $56 million worth of bank notes are destroyed every day at the SF Fed, and then are spread on the fields of California). If you go visit a fed bank this will be the main attraction.

Besides the poor condition of some bank notes, the destruction of dollars by the federal government may also occur for other reason, e.g., because there is a lack of storage capacity (safe is too small, computer memory is too small). One central point is that the dollars that are accumulated by the federal government do not increase its financing capacity because the federal government created those dollars in the first place. It chooses not to destroy them all because it takes time and it is costly to destroy and to make monetary instruments, and because it has the storage capacity.

For the moment, we stayed at the level of the identity, which basically tracks where the domestic currency comes from and where it goes. Every dollar comes from somewhere and must go somewhere. There is no dollar floating around that is not held by a sector. No desire/behavioral equation were included in the analysis above. However, even that basic identity provides us a powerful insight. Indeed, it shows us that it is impossible for all sectors to be in surplus; at least one of them must deficit spend and usually it is the government sector because of its monetary sovereignty. The reverse is also true, i.e. not all sectors can be in deficit at the same time; at least one of them must be in surplus (usually the private domestic sector). As Randy noted in a previous post, this is probably not understood well; even the Wall Street Journal did not make the connection in early the 2000s between the federal government surplus and the households’ negative saving. It is often assumed that if they wish, all sectors could be in surplus; one just needs to work hard enough at it (note that this is one of the promises that is always made during presidential campaigns: “we should save more, reduce our trade deficit and reach a fiscal surplus”). Economic reality does not work that way.

In terms of the model (where one includes desires and so behavioral aspects as well as an explanation of the adjustment mechanisms to those desires in relation to the state of the economy), for the analysis of a monetarily sovereign country, I would rather put the desired financial balance of the Rest of the World with the desired private domestic financial balance and call the sum the desired financial balance of the non-government sector (NGFBd). The model does not deal with stocks at all and their relation to flows (IS-LM did try but failed to do it correctly; read Hicks’s own account in his JPKE article “IS-LM: An explanation”); however, the financial-balance model is a good place to start in Econ 101. If students can understand the model, the identity and how they relate to each other, it would be a HUGE step forward in terms of removing this counterproductive phobia of government fiscal deficits (then one would have to learn about government finance and the monetary creation process, which, like many other things, are all taught backward in textbooks).

If the Rest of the World has too many dollars relative to its taste it and cannot bring them back into the domestic economy, by buying enough goods and services or financial assets from the private domestic and government sectors, the currency depreciates and/or long-term interest rate falls. This boosts exports and reduces imports. This may also promote investment and consumption if the state of expectations is stable.

If the non-government sector desires to save more, then, unless the government sector increases its spending propensity or reduces tax rates, the economy will enter a slump; possibly a debt-deflation process if debt levels are far too high. All this was done nicely in previous posts.
Before, during, and after the adjustment processes (variation of flows, levels and prices) the identity holds and the actual financial balance always sum to zero. The sum of GFBd and NFGBd will be different from zero except when the adjustment is completed, i.e. when actual and desired balances are equal (“at equilibrium” if you want to call it that way, even though markets may not be cleared).

The Sector Financial Balances Model of Aggregate Demand

By Scott Fullwiler

Paul Krugman’s recent post indicates that perhaps those of us taking a stock-flow consistent approach to macroeconomics may be making some headway. My fellow blogger, Rob Parenteau, and another friend, Bill Mitchellboth describe many of the details of this approach and how they fit the graph posted by Krugman. Rob is correct to suggest this would be a much better framework for understanding macroeconomics than the traditional IS-LM model, which was highly flawed to begin. My purpose here is to build on both of these posts and demonstrate a few uses of the model (thus, those not familiar with this framework should read Rob’s and/or Bill’s posts first, probably).To begin, consider the graph in Krugman’s post below:

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Employing Krugman’s Cross: Farewell, Mr. Hicks?

By Robert Parenteau

Paul Krugman’s July 15th blog post diagramming financial balances makes some important steps in revealing the analytical power of the financial balance approach to macroeconomics – something once understood by J.M Keynes and early Keynesians like Nicholas Kaldor, Abba Lerner, and Joan Robinson, but long since lost in the headlong rush over the past three decades of mainstream macroeconomics to become a special branch of microeconomics, which itself appears to have become a special branch of applied calculus in some sort of rather twisted physics envy. I suspect reading Minsky has helped Paul immeasurably in seeing these relationships, and I would urge him and others to go find some of Wynne Godley’s contributions (many of which are available online at the Levy Economics Institute) to a stock/flow coherent macroeconomics, and it may all become that much clearer.

The diagram Paul presented at first (reproduced below) threw me for a loop, but I believe I now see what he was doing, as the labeling did not initially make it clear, and perhaps by walking through Paul’s diagram, others can avoid my initial confusion.

The upward sloping line should be labeled the private sector financial balance (PSFB), and the downward sloping line should be labeled the government financial balance (GFB). Only the part of the PSFB schedule above the horizontal axis is in surplus, if this horizontal GDP axis crosses the vertical sectoral financial balance axis at zero. Similarly, only that part of the GFB schedule above the horizontal axis is in deficit. I believe Paul has defined the vertical axis such that the range above zero represents a rising PSFB, and at the same time, a falling GFB of the same absolute amount, but of opposite sign. Then the area below zero is a falling PSFB and a rising GFB. Above zero represents a private sector financial surplus and a government deficit, while below zero represents a private sector deficit and a government surplus.

Confusing at first, but this follows because Paul has simplified the analysis to two sectors, and sectoral financial balances must balance ex post for any accounting period. The range above zero representing a private sector surplus must also represent a government deficit (GFB must be of equal magnitude but opposite sign to the PSFB). This would seem consistent with Paul’s GFB schedule falling below zero as GDP increases, since a falling fiscal deficit would eventually give way to an increasing fiscal surplus as income increases if automatic stabilizers work as we believe they do (see previous post here). Similarly, the rising PSFB schedule is consistent with traditional Keynesian stability conditions, with saving increasing faster in income than investment does, although we should all keep in mind, as Minsky emphasized, that explosive growth dynamics (Minsky’s upward instability) can arise in economic expansions characterized by euphoric asset pricing. Hence, the last two US business cycle expansions have been characterized by a falling PSFB (that is, deficit spending by the household and business sectors combined), not a PSFB rising as income rises, but that can be accommodated in less simplified versions of Krugman’s cross.

Another way to see why this interpretation of the diagram must be correct is that when the PSFB schedule shifts up and to the left, representing a higher desired net private saving at each level of income, the new point of intersection with the GFB schedule would, for example represent a new short run equilibrium point where say a $250b net private saving position is met by a $250b fiscal deficit. Again, sectoral financial balance must balance ex post (as explained in prevoius posts here and here). If one sector is running a net saving or surplus position, the other sector must be dissaving or deficit spending. That is the tyranny of double entry book keeping – not high Keynesian theory.

If I now have the orientation of the diagram straight in my head (and this is the only way I can see that it makes sense), those who believe in fiscal rectitude may wish to notice two aspects of the world we live in. If you view a balanced fiscal budget as the ultimate and over riding goal, you can get there one of two ways from Paul’s second PSFB schedule (the higher line we seem to have shifted to, as asset prices and profitability have collapsed over the past year, thereby forcing lower private investment and driving saving out of private income flows higher).

To arrive at a fiscal balance, you can shift the GFB schedule down and to the left by jamming tax rates higher and lowering the government spending propensities out of tax revenue income until the GFB schedule intersects the PSFB schedule at the point where the PSFB schedule crosses the horizontal axis at the zero financial balance mark. Notice the level of income the economy is then operating at, and all of you who pay dues to the Concord Coalition, please consider whether existing private debt loads could actually be serviced at that lower level, since most private debt contracts are fixed nominal payment commitments. Think post Lehman bankruptcy, on steroids, and you might get a taste of what you are praying for with perpetually balanced fiscal budgets.

The second way to get to a fiscal balance is to encourage the PSFB schedule to shift down and to the right until it intersects the GFB schedule at the point at which it crosses the horizontal axis. That means increasing incentives for the private sector to invest more money at each income level and save less money at each income level. Given the residential housing stock overhang, and the need for households to save out of income flows if they cannot rely on serial asset bubbles to deliver the appropriate nominal net worth at retirement, that means ways must be found to encourage US businesses to pursue a higher reinvestment rate in the US, rather than borrowing money to buy back shares to boost stock prices or reinvesting abroad. Not easy, but not impossible either. Notice also that the second form of adjustment leaves you at a higher equilibrium income level, and the existing private debt to GDP ratio will stabilize, since there will be no additions to the private debt stock, as net private deficit spending is zero at the new income flow level.

Of course, this should all eventually be recast in dynamic terms. For example, income won’t grow unless the GFB is continually shifting up and to the right, or the PSFB is continually shifting down and to the right (or some combination of the two). There is also no obvious endogenous mechanism shifting the PSFB toward a position of full employment income over time, given the position of the GFB. Of course, in theory, policy could be geared such that given reasonable estimates of the likely position of the PSFB schedule, the GFB schedule could be shifted out (or less likely, in) to achieve the level of income associated with full employment. Alternatively, fiscal policy could be structured so the GFB schedule could be perfectly vertical at the full employment level of income, which in many ways is what an employer of last resort (ELR) driven fiscal policy attempts to do.

Finally, for those insistent that public and private debt to income ratios must be held fixed from here to eternity for whatever reason, then starting from Paul’s initial equilibrium, income growth could only be accomplished if the PSFB schedule could be encouraged to shift outward, and the GFB could be shifted in concert such that either the realized financial balances of both sectors were kept at zero, or there was some cycling between the two, such that periods of private sector financial deficits were followed by periods of government sector deficits of similar magnitude and duration.

The trade balance must also be brought back into the story, as a trade surplus is the only way both the GFB and the PSFB can maintain a net saving position at the same time (assuming for whatever reason that was a worthy goal), but at least it is a promising start at representing how sectoral financial balances are related, and it reveals many of the misconceptions that unnecessarily cloud the debate.

If the Krugman Cross does nothing more than provide a stepping stone away from the dead end trap of the Hicks/Harrod/Meade IS/LM diagram, then this is a useful initial contribution. Caught under the spell of IS/LM conventions, Paul and other New Keynesians have spilled far too much ink trying to devise ways of instituting negative real interest rates to get the economies out of a balance sheet driven recession. With policy rates near zero, this analysis has devolved into arguments about how best to increase inflation expectations or actual inflation in order to achieve a sufficiently negative real interest rate. From a practical point of view, the last thing households facing heavy debt servicing loads with falling wage and salary incomes need are rising consumer prices that drain their already reduced discretionary income. Households need higher money incomes, not higher consumer prices, expected or actual, to exit their current difficulties. Real interest rates are diversion from the real problem at hand in a balance sheet recession, which is how to get the economy to a point where money income levels can service most private debts. Krugman’s Cross makes it obvious – shift the GFB schedule in response to shifts in the PSFB schedule.

As always, we must be careful about sliding between the usual ex ante/ex post distinctions, as the income multiplier lies masked behind these interactions, as does the reconciliation of new liability issuance with portfolio preferences, among other balance sheet and asset price considerations that must be brought into play for a coherent stock/flow macroeconomics, of which Hick’s IS/LM approach was a pale shadow that concealed more than it revealed.

For example, the private sector may plan to net save more at any given expected income or GDP level, but unless some other sector net saves less or deficits spends more, private incomes will adjust downward, and the desired private net saving will be thwarted, paradox of thrift style. If Paul recalls his reading of Keynes’ General Theory (and he is to be applauded for being one of the few New Keynesians to actually read Keynes in the original), this is one of the reasons Keynes argues incomes adjust to close gaps between intended investment and planned saving. Interest rates do not equilibrate investment and saving – incomes do, in Keynes’ General Theory. Paul has taken a very large step in this direction with his financial balance diagram, which hopefully he will find more powerful than his IS/LM analytics which he employed in the case of the Japanese balance sheet recession.

Specifically, Paul refers to the need for net private saving being “absorbed” by the public deficit spending. That assumes the net private saving can exist without some other sector deficit spending at the same time, which is impossible. William Vickrey and James Tobin used to make a similar slip, with Vickrey arguing the private saving had to be recycled by public deficit spending (see Vickrey’s otherwise useful piece on 15 fundamental fallacies, linked at CFEPS here.

In Paul’s 2 sector model, unless the public sector spends more money than it takes in as tax receipts, the private sector cannot earn more money than it spends, no matter what its plans or intentions or ex ante designs. Net private saving is created, allowed, or constrained by the size of the public deficit. Net private saving cannot exist as anything more than a hope and a prayer unless some other sector is willing and able to deficit spend. Ex post, in a 2 sector model, as a matter of basic accounting, the net saving of one sector must be equal to the net deficit spending of the other. That is the short run accounting “equilibrium” or reality.

Moving beyond a simple 2 sector model to the world we actually inhabit, it is really as simple as this. The US household sector cannot net save in nominal terms (spend less money than it earns) unless some other sector (or combination of sectors) is willing and able to spend more money than it earns.

It can be the government, the business, or the foreign sector or some mix of the three that net deficit spends – take your choice. But keep in mind, of the three, a government with a sovereign currency (not convertible into fixed quantities of a commodity or another currency on demand) and no debt denominated in foreign currencies is the only one of those three that cannot go bankrupt and cannot default on its debt while continuously deficit spending – unless it chooses to default for some odd political reason.

The sooner we face this fundamental reality of contemporary monetary and economic arrangements, the better. It does not require swearing allegiance to high Keynesian theory – it is simply an accounting reality. Reject it, and you will also have to throw at least seven centuries of double entry book keeping out the window as well.

Since the US economy does appear to have entered a debt deflation spiral for the first time in a lifetime, and it does appears that the spiral has been contained for the moment by a reduction in the trade deficit and a surge in the fiscal deficit, it might be a good time for economists, investors, policy makers, and the general public to once and for all find some clarity on these questions regarding financial balances and the economy. Perhaps Paul’s simple back of the napkin diagram of financial balances takes us one step in that direction.

Coherently Confronting US Macro Challenges

Many investors, policy makers, and economists find themselves unnerved by current economic conditions, and reasonably so. Depression or recovery, deflation or run away inflation, private or public insolvency – debates rage on all fronts. The disarray reflects in part the uncharted waters the global economy has sailed into over the past year, but it also reflects the inadequacy of contemporary macro frameworks. The financial balance approach is a simple yet powerful lens that can help clarify relationships that otherwise remain elusive at the macroeconomic level. Without this lens, it is hard to think coherently about the options available and their possible consequences.

We first encountered the financial balance approach[1] in the work of Wynne Godley at the Levy Institute for Economics over a decade ago, but this framework also informed the contributions of Hy Minsky and Dr. Kurt Richebacher in anticipating the conditions that give rise to financial instability at the level of the economy as a whole. It is not a difficult approach to follow, but it has proven very useful in thinking through the implications of recent credit bubbles and episodes of financial instability.

We can enter this approach from the standard macro observation that in any accounting period, total income in an economy must equal total outlays, and total saving out of income flows must equal total investment expenditures on tangible assets. The financial balance of any sector in the economy is simply income minus outlays, or its equivalent, saving minus investment. A sector may net save or run a financial surplus by spending less than it earns, or it may net deficit spend as it runs a financing deficit by earning less than it spends.

Furthermore, a net saving sector can cover its own outlays and accumulate financial liabilities issued by other sectors, while a deficit spending sector requires external financing to complete its spending plans. At the end of any accounting period, the sum of the sectoral financial balances must net to zero. Sectors in the economy that are net issuing new financial liabilities are matched by sectors willingly owning new financial assets. In macro, fortunately, it all has to add up. This is not only true of the income and expenditure sides of the equation, but also the financing side, which is rarely well integrated into macro analysis.

We can next divide the economy into three major sectors: the domestic private sector (including households and businesses), the government sector, and the foreign sector and ask a simple question relevant to current developments. What happens if the domestic private sector tries to net save, with no attending change in the government or foreign sector financial balances?

If 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 nominal incomes and real output will be likely to fall. Money incomes and economic activity will tend to contract until private savings preferences are reduced (with essential goods and services taking up a larger share of household income as incomes fall), or until depreciation leaves businesses and households inclined to invest once again in durable assets. Common sense suggests that a drop in private income flows while private debt loads are high is an invitation to debt defaults and widespread insolvencies – that is, unless creditors are generously willing to renegotiate existing debt contracts en masse.

In other words, such a configuration is an invitation to Irving Fisher’s cumulative debt deflation spiral which has been discussed on this website and in prior Richebacher letters. So unless some other sector is willing to reduce its net saving (as with the foreign sector recently, via a reduction in the US current account deficit as US imports have fallen faster than US exports) or increase its deficit spending (as with the federal budget balance of late) then the mere attempt by the domestic private sector to net save out of income flows, given the existing private debt overhang, can prove very disruptive.

In fact, the US economy has dipped into a mild version of Fisher’s debt deflation process as nominal GDP has fallen, wage and salary income flows have fallen, the CPI and other inflation measures have dropped into deflation, and private debt delinquencies and defaults are still spreading. Following the shocks to tangible and financial asset prices, credit availability, and the labor market, the US private sector, by our calculations, has swung from a 4.5% of GDP deficit spending position three and a half years ago to a 4% net saving position as of Q1 2009. This exceeds the 8% of GDP swing in the private sector financial balance witnessed as the tail end of the 1973-5 recession – it is an enormous adjustment, to put it mildly.

Had the current account deficit (which, remember, is the trade balance plus net income flows related to asset holdings, equals foreign net saving) not shrunk from 6% to 2% of GDP over the same period, while the combined government fiscal deficit increased from 1.5% to 6% of GDP, then the attempt by the private sector to complete such a dramatic swing in its financial balance position would have ended in a very sharp and severe debt deflation.

From an Austrian School perspective, nothing less than that is required to wipe the slate clean of excess private debt and to free up productive resources misallocated during the credit boom years. However, the political appetite for an Austrian solution appears to have all but disappeared following the global repercussions of the Lehman derailment. Investors and policy makers looked into the abyss, and they could not stomach what they saw. Even Germany Chancellor Merkel, who appears to have the most Austrian orientation among G7 policymakers, has chosen to introduce some degree of fiscal stimulus and financial sector intervention in the German economy.

To further illustrate the current situation, we can use the 1973-5 recession as a rough guide – after all, as mentioned above, that is when domestic private net saving jumped to its highest share of GDP in the post WWII period. Currently, we appear to have an even deeper recession, and we know the drop in the ratio of household net worth to disposable income is over four times that experienced in the 1973-5 episode. What happens if private net saving preferences run all the way up to 10% of GDP, with say an additional 4% of GDP increase from the household side, and another 2% from the business side?

If the swing evident from 2006 is any indication, the hypothetical 4% increase in the household financial balance as a share of GDP will take the current account back to balance (for the first time in nearly two decades) from its recent 2% of GDP deficit position. To further contain debt deflation dynamics, given a domestic private sector attempting to save 10% of GDP, the combined fiscal balance will need to expand out to 10% of GDP, or else private income will fall further. The reduction in foreign net saving and the increase in fiscal deficit spending will then match the increase in private net saving from Q1 2009 values assumed above.

If the combined government deficit aims for 12-13% of GDP while the domestic private sector is shooting for 10% and net foreign saving is zero, then the odds improve that an economic recovery can take root alongside a larger private sector deleveraging than we witnessed in Q1 2009. Household and business incomes will be buttressed by tax cuts and government spending, which will allow higher private spending for any given private saving target. In other words, in a worst case scenario, it does appear debt deflation dynamics can be contained and reversed, but at the price of a rather large fiscal deficit that in essence validates higher domestic private sector net saving. The linkages between rising private sector net saving and deflation, and between fiscal deficits and private net saving, are currently poorly understood, but the financial balance approach helps bring some clarity to these questions.

Normally, the business sector tends toward a deficit spending position as profitable investment opportunities exceed retained earnings. This makes a certain amount of sense: debt imposes future cash flow commitments on borrowers, and using debt to expand productive capacity allows the borrower to have a decent shot at generating sufficient cash flow to service debt. Notice this is not usually the case with consumer debt, except perhaps with the case of mortgages used to purchase rental properties, or credit cards used to finance new small businesses. Households do not directly increase their income earning capacity, and hence their debt servicing capacity, by purchasing a flat screen TV or a larger house on credit. Of course, businesses that use credit to buy back shares or complete a merger or acquisition similarly are not directly enhancing their ability to service debt with new productive capacity, so the intended use of new debt is relevant in either sector.

Richard Koo makes the related point in his book, “The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics”, that following the bursting of an asset bubble, businesses often move into a debt reduction mode that takes over their usual search for profitable opportunities. For the current post bubble period, reeling fiscal deficit spending back in before the business sector is headed back toward its more “natural” deficit spending position, or before the rest of the world has found its way to a faster pace of recovery than the US (thereby aiding US export growth), could prove disruptive.

Ideally then, fiscal deficit spending would be designed to encourage businesses to reinvest in more efficient technology or in new product innovation, both of which could help improve US export competitiveness. Alternatively, public/private cooperation in R&D projects like Sematech could be explored with various emerging energy technologies, for example, in order to reduce US energy dependence. Such moves would speed the transition away from deep fiscal deficit spending which began riling investors in longer dated Treasury debt back in March. Nevertheless, such a shift in the fiscal deficit was required for the domestic private sector to return to a net saving position and begin reducing its debt load without setting off a full blown debt deflation.

At best, favorable effects on business investment will arise be secondary or peripheral results of some of the infrastructure and green tech investments in the current fiscal stimulus package, generally due to ramp up in 2010 and 2011. Unfortunately, since few economists work with the financial balance approach we shared with you above, policy makers are not yet emphasizing this type of policy design. Nevertheless, the financial balance approach does offer a more coherent way of thinking about the macroeconomic dynamics currently underway, and the plausible paths ahead. From this framework, we can see the situation is indeed difficult, but not insurmountable, as some of the necessary adjustments in US sector financial imbalances are already in motion. Deflation in the US does look like it can be contained and reversed, but the quest for a new growth model – one that does not rely on serial asset bubbles, household deficit spending and debt accumulation, and imported consumer goods leading to a perpetually rising current account deficit – remains ahead. No doubt it will test the ingenuity and adaptability of an entire generation – a generation that through the abundance of credit, may have forgotten that in order to consume, one must first produce.

[1] Very simply, if income (Y) equals expenditures (E) at the level of the whole economy, and we split the economy into three sectors, domestic private (dp), government (g), and foreign (f) then the following holds true:

Y = E
Ydp + Yg + Yf = Edp + Eg + Ef
(Ydp-Edp) + (Yg-Eg) + (Yf – Ef) = 0

The first term in parentheses is the domestic private financial balance, the second is the combined government financial balance, and the third term is the inverse of the current account balance, since US imports are income to foreign producers, and US exports are expenditures of foreign economic agents. The sum of the domestic private financial balance and the combined government financial balance minus the current account balance must net to zero.

This is an ex post accounting identity that must hold true. It could equally be derived using the saving equals investment identity for the economy as a whole. Values for these concepts can be derived from the Fed’s Flow of Funds quarterly report. In general, nominal income adjusts to reconcile divergences in planned investment relative to intended saving.

Government Deficits Generate Household Savings

by L. Randall Wray

A Bloomberg report by Rich Miller and Alison Sider recently noted that “Americans are shutting their wallets and building their nest eggs at the fastest pace in 15 years.” It went on: [T]he household savings rate rose to 6.9 percent in May, the highest since December 1993, as personal spending increased less than incomes. The rate in April 2008 was zero. Most of the rise in income in May was due to one-time government stimulus payments to seniors, said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts.
These should not be surprising events, as we have explained in previous posts (here, here and here). Government sector spending creates private sector income; government sector deficits create private sector savings. These are identities that virtually no one recognizes. I can recall that during the Clinton administration’s budget surpluses, the Wall Street Journal ran two front-page stories side-by-side, one congratulating the government for finally getting its budget in order—supposedly adding to national savings–and the other chastising consumers for spending more than their incomes—reducing national savings. The rising Obama budget deficit will help our private sector to accumulate savings and retire debt, part of the necessary remedy to the run-up of debt that occurred over the past dozen years. Unfortunately, fiscal policy remains too tight, as evidenced by continued (and, I think, growing) stress in the retail sector.

The report goes on: “the trend will put the country’s finances in better balance and reduce its dependence on Chinese investment”. Now this is utterly confused. Yes, our household sector’s finances will improve and might eventually recover—if the fiscal stance loosens and job losses are turned around to employment growth. However, the US did not, indeed in a significant sense cannot, rely on the Chinese. Our spending is in dollars, and we are the source of those dollars. Needless to say, every dollar spent by the Chinese was generated by us. In fact, we “financed” their accumulation of dollars, mostly through our current account deficit (we bought more stuff from them than they bought from us). This allowed them to “net save” in dollar assets. As our trade deficit with China shrinks (by the way, not necessarily a good thing for us!), China’s net saving in dollars will also shrink. It is quite unlikely that the trade balance will reverse any time soon (China is not going to become a net importer in the near future), so China will continue to accumulate dollar assets although (probably) at a reduced pace. But that does not “finance” US domestic spending.

The Congressional Budget Office’s long-term budget outlook

by Felipe Rezende and Stephanie Kelton

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has just released its long-term budget outlook. The dismal report warns:

“Although great uncertainty surrounds long-term fiscal projections, rising costs for health care and the aging of the U.S. population will cause federal spending to increase rapidly under any plausible scenario.” Given these large increases in projected spending, the report went on to caution that “[u]nless tax revenues increase just as rapidly, the rise in spending will produce growing budget deficits and accumulating debt.” Finally, the report asserts that the ensuing “[l]arge budget deficits would reduce national saving, leading to more borrowing from abroad and less domestic investment, which in turn would depress income growth in the United States.”
Once again, we find it necessary to point out the flawed logic of those who certainly ought to have a better understanding of things. First, taxes do not pay for government spending. It would help a great deal if those at the CBO (and elsewhere) would work through the balance sheet entries to decipher exactly how government “financing” operations work.

As Kelton and Wray have explained in earlier posts, the federal government spends by crediting bank accounts. Period. Tax payments to the government result in the destruction of money — high-powered money to be exact — as the banking system clears the checks and reserve accounts are debited. In other words, taxes don’t provide the government with “money to spend”. Tax payments destroy money. Not in theory. Not by assumption. By definition.

Second, growing budget deficits do not reduce national savings. They do just the opposite. Indeed, the private sector — households and firms taken as a whole — cannot attain a surplus position unless some other sector (the public sector or the foreign sector) takes the opposite position. Again, it is an indisputable feature of balance sheet accounting that is governed by the following identity:

Private Sector Surplus = Public Sector Deficit + Current Account Surplus

This fundamental accounting identity can be found in any decent International Economics texbook (see, e.g., Krugman and Obstfeld), and it is one of the most important macroeconomic concepts we can think of. It demonstrates the conditions under which national savings will be positive. Not in theory. Not by assumption. By definition.

Source: Levy Institute

To appreciate the interplay, consider the main sector balances in 2004. The public sector’s deficit of about 5% of GDP was just enough to offset the 5% current account deficit, leaving the private sector with no addition to its net saving (i.e. private sector savings were zero). Today, in contrast, private savings are up sharply because: (1) the public deficit is up sharply and (2) the external deficit is declining. Add today’s (rising) public deficit to today’s (falling) current account deficit and, voila, the CBO’s much-feared explosion in the government deficit has translated into an explosion in private savings.

As for the relationship between savings and investment . . . let’s tackle that accounting lesson next week.

Update: See some Wynne Godley’s pieces here, here , and here. See also Krugman’s piece here.

Historical Perspectives on the Crisis