Tag Archives: L. Randall Wray

BerkShares, Buckaroos, and Bear Dollars: What Makes a Local Currency Tick?

by L. Randall Wray

Some commentators have argued that the proposed California “warrants” are similar to local currencies (see, e.g., Mark Thoma). In this piece I discuss experiments with local currencies and continue my argument that if California were to accept its own “warrants” in payment to itself, it could turn these into a functioning currency free of the defects of local currencies.

Interest in local currencies has soared in recent years, with nearly 100 U.S. communities experimenting with them. While proponents offer a variety of arguments in favor of local currencies, they share three common themes. First, there is concern that the use of a national, monopoly, currency creates a variety of economic, social, and environmental problems. Second, local currencies are said to improve regional communities, again across several dimensions including economic, social, political and environmental spheres. Third, many proponents want to reduce the power of national government, recognizing a relation between the monopoly of currency issue and centralization. They believe that decentralized money would shift power back to the communities.

At the same time, critics object that most local currency experiments quickly fail. Even the successful ones never displace local use of the national currency to any significant degree. Local currencies are inconvenient and appear to go against the prevailing tide of use of credit and debit cards rather than cash. Retailers must keep two sets of books, and many limit acceptance of local currencies to some kinds or amounts of purchases. Sales taxes must be paid in the national currency, so retailers must either collect taxes in the national currency, or pay taxes for the customers. In some cases, local currencies are accepted at a discount—with either the retailer or the customer bearing the cost. When the discount is borne by the retailer, businesses with low margins are reluctant to accept local currencies. Finally, in a national, and global, economy, most production and sales involve economic activities that are geographically dispersed–making it unlikely that local currencies can ever play much of a role.

The BerkShares program grew out of previous local currency systems used in the region. Local banks maintain a primary (currency exchange) market for BerkShares, selling and buying them for $0.90. Local merchants agree to accept BerkShares one-to-one against the dollar, effectively providing a ten percent discounted price. (This is because a customer can obtain one BerkShare for only ninety cents, purchasing an item priced at a dollar.) Merchants redeem excess BerkShares at participating banks at the fixed rate of one BerkShare equals ninety cents. Banks hold 100% dollar reserves against BerkShares issued, and absorb the cost of operating the exchange. Local consumers (and tourists) have a strong incentive to use BerkShares to take advantage of the ten percent discount; merchants have an incentive to accept them only if their sales increase sufficiently to offset the lost revenue due to the discount. This discount is treated as a business expense, much like a coupon or discounted sales price. There are now over 300 merchants participating and over 1.5 million BerkShares have been put into circulation.

A decade ago, the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) created a local currency, the Buckaroo (derived from slang for the dollar, “buck”, and from the University’s kangaroo mascot), with two purposes in mind: to teach students how a national currency “works”, and to provide community service to the Kansas City area. Most college students today are used to community service requirements, so the second objective could have been met by requiring that each student complete five service hours for every course. With 10,000 students enrolled in three courses each, 150,000 community service hours would be performed each semester—thereby accomplishing many of the community objectives identified above. However, we decided to provide more flexibility while enhancing the educational experience, so we created the Buckaroo. We provide to each community service organization as many Buckaroos it desires, stipulating that the provider pay only 1 Buckaroo per hour of labor.

Of course, on the first day of class when we tell students that they can earn Buckaroos by working at local charities, they invariably ask “but why do I want Buckaroos?”. The answer is that each student faces a 5 Buckaroo tax, which must be paid before the student can pass. Students are free to beg, borrow, earn, or exchange dollars (or any other valuables) to obtain the required Buckaroos. The vast majority of them choose to work with local community service providers to earn their Buckaroos. Many students work extra hours to earn more Buckaroos than required to pay their taxes. They accumulate savings in the form of Buckaroos, which they are able to exchange for dollars, or to purchase goods and services from fellow students.

We have a “Treasurer” who keeps track of “spending” (Buckaroos spent into circulation by community organizations) and “tax receipts” (collected by professors). It is instructive to note that the Treasury has run a budget deficit every semester since the program’s inception, as students earn more buckaroos than necessary to pay taxes, saving some for future use (or souvenirs) or losing them. We also take informal surveys to gauge the Buckaroo-dollar exchange rate, which varies over the semester (the Buckaroo strengthens at the end as desperate procrastinators realize they need to pay their tax). Over the decade, the Buckaroo appreciated considerably against the dollar, rising from a range of $5-$10 per Buckaroo to the current $10-$20—presumably reflecting the rising nominal dollar reservation wage of students. However, the Buckaroo’s purchasing power has remained absolutely constant at one hour of student labor per Buckaroo. If we allowed community service providers to pay 2 Buckaroos per hour, the value of the currency would immediately fall by half in terms of labor—and it would probably depreciate against the dollar. However, as the monopoly supplier of the currency, we can fix its purchasing power in terms of the only thing we buy—student labor.

Conclusion: How can we ensure a currency’s use?

The Buckaroo is a “tax driven” currency: students demand Buckaroos to pay taxes so that they might pass their courses. The US dollar is also tax driven: the US government imposes taxes in dollars and will attach income or property to enforce the liability. It spends dollars into circulation, through its purchases and social spending; it also can lend them into circulation. The purpose of the Buckaroo tax is to move “private” resources (student labor) to the “public” sector (of community service providers)—as is the case with all tax systems. UMKC created the Buckaroo to facilitate that public purpose. In the case of tax driven currency, so long as the tax is enforceable there is a guaranteed demand for the currency at least as great as the total tax liability. And, as the Buckaroo program shows, actual demand will exceed the tax liability because there is a desire to earn and hoard extras. We can envision continued expansion of the program, with local student hang-outs accepting Buckaroos for cappuccinos while paying a Buckaroo wage premium to student baristas (being careful not to run afoul of IRS and minimum wage laws!). In that case, the demand for Buckaroos would expand, fueled by use beyond taxes and payment for community service work—just as the dollar is used outside transactions with the government.

The dollar and the Buckaroo are not unique; indeed it could be argued that tax driven currencies have been the rule, not the exception, throughout recorded history. However, we do not need to debate such a controversial claim—all we need to do is to understand that a tax is sufficient to create a demand for a currency.

As discussed, most local currencies have failed (of the 82 created between 1991 and 2004, only 17 remained by 2004). Those that succeeded shared some combination of the following characteristics: an exchange rate pegged to a strong national currency by a trusted institution; substantial supplies of unemployed or underemployed workers; businesses operating below capacity; and a strong community spirit, led by liberal, middle class residents. These characteristics are not always easy to replicate nor are they necessarily desirable. If the goal is to displace the national monopoly currency, linking the local currency to it appears inconsistent—especially if one fears national government policy is inflating away the value of the nation’s currency. If unemployed workers and excess capacity are required to keep the local currency strong, then success at building a sustainable region might threaten the currency.

Could tax driven local currencies work? In Argentina as the financial crisis deepened after 2000, local governments began to issue “Patacones” (bonds with interest) as local currencies, paying workers and suppliers, and accepting them in tax payment. Utility companies began to accept them—knowing they could pay part of their taxes with them–and acceptance spread even to international corporations such as MacDonald’s. A local government could help to stimulate circulation of BerkShares by accepting them in tax payment. Firms and households with local tax liabilities would be encouraged to accept BerkShares. Local government could pay part of its bills using the local currency. Finally, so long as there are always jobs available for anyone desiring to work for BerkShares, an increase in the demand for the local currency would always generate more employment.

As Marshall Auerback, Warren Mosler, and I have been arguing, California can turn its warrants into sovereign currency by agreeing to accept them in payments to the state. Note that we ARE NOT arguing that California should make them “legal tender, payable for all debts public and private”—this is something it cannot do.

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 would then be “tax driven”, thus sustainable. In other words, it would be a sovereign currency backed by the state’s ability to impose taxes.

The Fed As Super Duper Regulator? Will We be Duped Again?

By L. Randall Wray

Treasury Secretary Geithner is floating a plan that would consolidate more power in the hands of the Fed. The idea is that because it failed so miserably over the past decade to recognize a series of asset bubbles and growing systemic risk, it should be placed in charge of assessing and controlling systemic risk. You’ve got to love the logic. Could it have anything to do with the fact that Geithner came from the NY Fed where he used to cozy-up to Wall Street banks?

Three economists with widely different perspectives trashed the idea in hearings before the Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology, Committee on Financial Services, U.S. House of Representatives, July 9, 2009.

“I do not know of any single clear example in which the Federal Reserve acted in advance to head off a crisis or a series of banking or financial failures,” said Allan H. Meltzer, professor of political economy at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of a history of the Fed.

John Taylor went on: “The administration proposal would grant to the Fed significant new powers, more powers than it has ever had before,” he told lawmakers. “My experience in government and elsewhere is that institutions work best when they focus on a limited set of understandable goals.”

James Galbraith, a long time Fed critic weighed in:

“Chairman Greenspan actively encouraged consumers to sign up for the innovative adjustable-rate mortgage products that would, eventually, destroy the system. Right up to July, 2007 in public statements and testimony before Congress, Chairman Bernanke continued to say that problems in the housing sector were manageable, and that the “predominant risk” was inflation. No doubt this emphasis reflected the macroeconomic priorities of the Federal Reserve at the time. Perhaps there was, also, a calculated desire to maintain public confidence. But that is precisely the problem. An effective systemic-risk regulator would not have those conflicting considerations.”

Those who followed the 1980s Savings and Loan fiasco will recall how that crisis was created by Chairman Volcker’s decision to raise interest rates to historic levels no matter how much that devastated the nation’s thrifts plus a hands-off treatment by regulators—who actually encouraged them to take on big risks to try to grow their way back to profitability. Indeed, top regulators saw their role as something akin to “cheerleading”, best represented by FDIC Chairman William Seidman’s enthusiastic statement that “bankers are our friends”, so encouraged his agency to operate like a “trade association” for the industry. Needless to say, cheerleaders do not make good regulators. (See my article here)

To be sure, the FDIC has done a much better job in recent years (and Chairwoman Sheila Blair has been a thorn in the side of both Geithner and previous Treasury Secretary Paulson). In his testimony Galbraith makes a good case for putting the FDIC—not the Fed–in charge of regulating systemic risk. The reason is that bankers more easily capture the Fed for the simple reason that most decision-making takes place in Washington at the FOMC meetings, where the regional Fed presidents take turns voting on monetary policy. Many of these come directly out of the banking sector (of course Chairman Bernanke does not), and all represent the interests of their member banks. Don’t forget, the private banks own the Fed, although the Fed is legally a creature of Congress. Imagine the outcry if we sold the Treasury to the highest bidder to create a similar Frankenstein creature. (A cynic might argue that “Government Sachs” already bought the Treasury—but let’s not go there.)

Whether the Super Duper Regulator is placed under the auspices of the FDIC, the Fed, or elsewhere, however, I am skeptical that it will do much good in the absence of thorough-going reform of the financial system. The fact is that the biggest financial institutions are too big to supervise, too powerful to regulate, and too big to fail. Practically by definition, anything that hurts the profitability of one of these behemoths will increase systemic fragility. Further, as students of the S&L crisis know, powerful financial institutions are able to buy lots of friendship in Congress (think Charles Keating and Senator John McCain).

Thus, it appears that the proposal for a Super Duper Regulator is an attempt to make a run around any real reform, which would have to start with the recognition that any institution that is too big to fail and too big to manage and too big to supervise and too big to regulate is also too big to save, thus, too big to retain.

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?

Time For the Third Stimulus Package

by L. Randall Wray

According to Paul Krugman “voices calling for stronger stimulus are, may I say, sorta kinda respectable — several Nobelists in the bunch, plus a large fraction of the prominent economists who predicted the housing crash before it happened.”

Professor Krugman provides a link to those who argued that the second stimulus was too small, as well as to those who are already calling for a third stimulus. Three UMKC-affiliated professors are listed, including yours truly. With some immodesty, I’d like to point out that Wynne Godley and I were already calling for a stimulus package in 1999. We were worried that a tightening fiscal stance forced our economy to rely on unsustainable private sector deficits. We said:

“Growing government budget surpluses combined with growing trade deficits have generated record private sector deficits. Unless households continue to reduce their saving—creating an increasingly unsustainable debt burden—the impetus that has driven the expansion will evaporate.”

Of course the economy did quickly collapse into recession, but emerged due to restoration of a budget deficit plus a growing domestic private sector deficit. Over the years, many of us continued to warn that the budget remained too tight while private sector deficits were unsustainable. It all went on far longer than we expected, which does not prove us wrong but rather means that the slump will be immensely worse than it would have been had it come to an end earlier. That is why many of us believe the stimulus is orders of magnitude too small. The private sector is left with a monumental debt overhang and things will not get better until private balance sheets recover.

The best thing that the government can do now is to stop the job losses and to start creating jobs. We are not talking about a couple of million new jobs at this point—we need 6.5 million to replace those already lost, plus another 1-2 million to provide jobs for those who would have entered the labor force (high school and college graduates, for example) if the economy had not collapsed. Reports this morning show that President Obama’s approval rating is falling—below 50% in the swing state of Ohio—and job loss is a big part of the reason. Pessimism is setting in and it will be hard to overcome because it is well-founded. Job losses are devastating for communities—retailers are hit, real estate prices continue to fall, and state and local governments are forced to cut spending.

Many are looking back to 1937, when fiscal policy inappropriately tightened and threw the economy back into depression; indeed the collapse in 1937 was faster than the original crash that started the Great Depression off. To some extent that is not the correct analogy because most of the second stimulus package has yet to be spent, and recent data reported by Mike Norman shows that the federal deficit has actually increased in recent days. But it is still not enough, as evidenced by the growing economic stress around the country.

I realize that it is important for Congress to settle on some dollar figures for a third stimulus because that is the way that budgeting works. But in truth it is impossible to say beforehand how much we will need to stop the carnage. As James Galbraith has been warning, it is better to err on the upside. So far we have done the opposite—with the predictable result that the economy continues on a path toward another great depression.

The Carnage Continues: Time To Ramp Up the Stimulus

By L. Randall Wray

Some like to see green shoots everywhere, but that is becoming an increasingly audacious hope. Here are four related stories from the July 5th edition of the New York Times:

Tax Bill Appeals Take Rising Toll on Governments By JACK HEALY

Homeowners across the country are challenging their property tax bills in droves as the value of their homes drop, threatening local governments with another big drain on their budgets…. The tax appeals and reassessments present a new budget nightmare for governments. In a survey conducted by the National Association of Counties, 76 percent of large counties said that falling property tax revenue was significantly affecting their budgets…. Officials in some states say their property tax revenue is falling for the first time since World War II.

Safety Net Is Fraying for the Very Poor By ERIK ECKHOLM

Government “safety net” programs like Social Security and food stamps have pulled growing numbers of Americans out of poverty since the mid-1990s. But even before the current recession, these programs were providing less help to the most desperately poor, mainly nonworking families with children… The recession is expected to raise poverty rates, economists agree, although the impact is being softened by the federal stimulus package adopted this year…. “It’s a good thing we have the stimulus package,” Mr. {Arloc} Sherman said. “But what happens to the most vulnerable families in two years, when most of the provisions expire?”

Employment Report Sours the Market By JEFF SOMMER

A grim report on unemployment on Thursday let the air out of the stock market…. In a monthly report, the Labor Department said that 467,000 jobs were lost in June. In surveys, most economists expected 100,000 fewer jobs lost. The unemployment rate edged up to 9.5 percent from 9.4 percent the previous month, to its highest level in 26 years, and virtually all analysts expect joblessness to mount in the coming months.

So Many Foreclosures, So Little Logic By GRETCHEN MORGENSON

LAST week, the stock market tumbled on news that housing foreclosures and delinquencies rose again in the first quarter. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency said that among the 34 million loans it tracks, foreclosures in progress rose 22 percent, to 844,389. That figure was 73 percent higher than in the same period last year…. But the most fascinating, and frightening, figures in the data detail how much money is lost when foreclosed homes are sold. In June, the data show almost 32,000 liquidation sales; the average loss on those was 64.7 percent of the original loan balance.

What do these reports have in common? They provide powerful evidence that the federal government is not doing enough to help the “real” economy. As Sam Gompers famously responded when asked what workers wanted–“More!”—our nation’s state and local governments, households, workers, and poor need more help, now. We have tried the Reagan/Paulson/Rubin/Geithner “trickle down” approach of targeting relief to Wall Street, but the only thing trickling down is misery. The only way to stop the downward spiral is to substitute trickle-up policy—and even if nothing trickles-up, at least we will have helped those most in need.

I have already outlined a comprehensive recovery package so will here simply summarize four policies that would bring immediate relief.

1. Payroll tax holiday: This provides nearly $2500 of tax relief per year for each worker, with the same amount of relief going to that worker’s employer. The total stimulus to the economy would be somewhere around $650 billion per year. The relief is well-targeted (to workers and employers), immediate (take home pay rises as soon as the holiday takes effect), simple to administrate, and can be phased out (if desired) after the economy recovers.

2. State and local government assistance: The current stimulus package provided some relief to state and local governments, but was so little that it is forcing them to make Hobson’s choices: cut poor children from Medicaid roles or decimate universities? Furloughs for firefighters or postpone bridge repairs? Increase real estate taxes or raise fees for services? Only the federal government can resolve revenue shortfalls by providing funding to keep state and local governments running. Perhaps $400 billion, allocated by population (a bit over $1200 per capita) across state and local governments would be sufficient. If President Obama really could reform healthcare, that would generate tremendous savings for state governments that are saddled with exploding Medicaid costs to cover low income and elderly patients. Until then, direct grants are required. As I have argued, for the long-term we need a permanent program of federal transfers to states, with some of that attached to a requirement that they reduce reliance on regressive taxes.

3. Jobs to reduce poverty: Last week Pavlina Tcherneva provided an excellent argument for direct job creation by the federal government. We have already lost 6 million jobs, and Tcherneva notes that unemployed plus discouraged workers total about twice that number. However, a plausible case can be made that we are short more than 20 million jobs—as Marc Andre Pigeon and I demonstrated a decade ago. Further, as Stephanie Kelton and I showed, a substantial amount of America’s poverty problem is really a jobless problem. We found that in 2002 the poverty rate of families with no member working reached nearly 26%; on the other hand, if the family had at least one member working full-time, the poverty rate fell to just 3.5%. Our conclusions were similar to those offered by Hyman Minsky: “The achievement and sustaining of tight full employment could do almost all of the job of eliminating poverty” (1968, p. 329); “a large portion of those living in poverty and an even larger portion of those living close to poverty do so because of the meager income they receive from work” (p. 328). Minsky believed that “a suggestion of real merit is that the government become an employer of last resort” (1968, p. 338). Thus, not only will direct job creation reverse the trend toward ever-higher unemployment rates, but it will also go a long way toward filling the growing holes in the social safety net.

4. Homeowner relief: The plan offered by Warren Mosler provides an alternative to the current painful foreclosure process. When banks begin to foreclose, the government would step in to purchase the property at the lower of market price or outstanding mortgage balance. Of course, establishing market price in a glut is not simple and I will leave it to real estate market experts to compose a plan. What is more important is to keep people in their homes. Mosler proposes that the federal government would rent homes back to the dispossessed owners (Dean Baker has a similar plan) for a specified period (perhaps two years) at fair market rent. At the end of that period, the government would sell the home, with the occupant having the right of first refusal to buy it. By itself, this proposal would do little to stop spiraling delinquencies and foreclosures, and home prices will probably continue to decline for many months (or even years). However, as the other parts of this stimulus package begin to spur recovery, the real estate sector freefall will (eventually) be halted. I am somewhat ambivalent about continued falling house prices—on one hand, this will make housing more affordable; on the other it is devastating for families. Still, reducing evictions by offering a rental alternative will help reduce the pain of foreclosure. It might also allow the process to speed up (with smaller losses for banks) since many families would choose to stay-on as renters, with the possibility that they could later buy their homes at more reasonable prices.

I will not address here the preposterous argument that failure of the economy to swiftly recover is evidence against the Keynesian belief that government spending is the answer. Leaving to the side the Wall Street bail-outs (that do little to stimulate production and jobs), only a small portion of the stimulus package has been spent to date. There is evidence, however, that the automatic stabilizers (falling federal tax revenue and rising federal spending) are doing some good already—and would eventually pull the economy out of this depression. However, there is no reason to wait for our ship to hit bottom before it slowly resurfaces. Active, discretionary, targeted policy can reduce suffering and generate the forces that will be required to overcome substantial headwinds created by the private sector as well as by our state and local governments. Only the federal government has the fiscal wherewithal to lead us out.

The Sovereign State of California?

by L. Randall Wray

As everyone knows, California’s state budget is in dire straits. Unlike the federal government, US state governments really do finance their spending through a combination of tax revenues and borrowing. They are users of the nation’s currency (the dollar), not issuers. The current recession (or depression) has caused their tax revenues to collapse. Their projected budget deficits cause ratings agencies to downgrade their debt—making it too expensive to borrow as this sets off a vicious cycle of further downgrades and ever rising interest rates.

However, California might have discovered a solution. Why not become sovereign? (As a native Californian, I can recall the 1960s pipedream of secession of northern California along with Oregon and Washington to create a utopian, green, peaceful nation—but that is another matter.) As reported this morning by Jim Christie:

“California prepared on Tuesday to resort to issuing IOUs as the giant but cash-strapped U.S. state struggled to approve a new budget in time for the new fiscal year that begins on Wednesday. The IOUs, which are notes promising payment to vendors and local agencies, or shutting down some public services, are among measures that California and other states may have to rely on as they contend with staggering budget gaps caused by the U.S. recession.”

That could be a step in the right direction, but it is still borrowing. Here is a suggested improvement. The state should announce a new currency, the California Dollar. Henceforth, the California Dollar will be accepted in all payments made to the Great State of California (fees, fines, and taxes, including payments made by students to the state’s public universities). The state, in turn, will begin to make a portion of its payments in the form of California Dollars. Of course, no one can actually make payments in the form of California Dollars until the state has actually spent some into existence. State payments using California Dollars will be made, as described above, to “vendors and local agencies”. Over time the state can negotiate with others, including employees, to pay out California Dollars. Note that the state will run deficits in California Dollars only to the extent that the population wants to accumulate those Dollars (in excess of the fees, fines, and taxes paid).

Some readers might worry about anti-counterfeiting laws. So far as I understand it, the California Dollar would be treated like the “local currency” systems already in operation around the nation. In the beginning, California will probably value the California Dollar at par against the US dollar. However, it should not promise to convert the California Dollar on demand since that could lead to insolvency (after all, California’s current problem is that it cannot get enough US dollars to cover its spending). The California Dollar would be freely convertible in private exchanges, however—at a floating rate. Exchange rates are very complexly determined and I would not want to predict how the California Dollar will do over the next few years. However, since this proposal would allow California to halt the “Little Hoover” downward spiral occurring in states all across the country, I expect its new Dollar would do pretty well.

Who knows, maybe Arnold—not Obama–is the next FDR?

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 Fiscal Storm

By L. Randall Wray

While most commentary about government budgets has centered on the federal government, the real concern is the impact of the economic crisis on state and local government budgets. Unlike the federal government, state and local governments really do need tax revenue to finance their spending. As the economy has slowed, tax revenues have plummeted for these governments. All US states but one have constitutional requirements that dictate balanced budgets. However, even if this were not the case, states try to submit balanced budgets because markets punish deficits by credit downgrades and interest rate hikes. Hence, an economic slowdown forces states to tighten. The following graphics from today’s New York Times are telling:

Since the Nixon era, Keynesian economic policy had fallen out of favor. Not only were “welfare” programs cut, but federal government also reduced its support for state governments through devolution (moving program responsibility to the state and local government level), it slowed growth of spending—especially on defense–and it increased payroll taxes, which reduced the role of the federal government while gradually tightening the fiscal stance. This finally led, over the course of the 1990s Goldilocks expansion, to sustained and large fiscal surpluses. In spite of the conventional wisdom, fiscal policy remained chronically too tight—and is probably still too tight but that is a topic beyond the scope of this blog.

Turning to the state level, states were faced with more responsibility, especially for social programs like welfare and Medicaid. However, all but one state is restricted by statutes or constitutions to running balanced budgets. The problem is that state revenue is strongly pro-cyclical, increasing in a boom and falling in recession. And this is a big problem when the states are increasingly responsible for types of spending that need to rise in recession—like welfare and Medicaid. What States typically do is to cut taxes and increase spending in a boom—which helps to fuel the boom—and then raise taxes and cut spending in a recession—adding to the depressionary forces that generate the recession. States have also come to rely more heavily on regressive taxes—especially taxes on consumption, while like the Federal government they give tax credits and inducements to encourage saving. This depresses spending, especially in recession when the regressive taxes on consumption are increased at exactly the time that households are trying to cut back spending to increase rainy day funds.

In addition to the current revenue problems faced by states, the second challenge, only dimly recognized, lies in the very real needs neglected by the federal government since the days of President Nixon: public infrastructure investment, public health services, pre-collegiate education, training and apprenticeships programs for those who will not attend college, jobs programs for those not needed in the private sector, and fiscal relief for state and local governments. So what we need now is a major federal government program comprised of three parts: immediate fiscal relief for state and local governments, longer term revenue substitution, and national infrastructure funding.

1. Immediate relief: To do immediate good, we need to ramp up federal social spending to relieve state budgets. Increased unemployment compensation and other forms of social spending are needed. It is also important to help state and local governments, which are reeling from the double whammy of higher expenses and plummeting tax revenues. They need at least $400 billion of “block grants”—perhaps based on population—to be spread among these governments. Maybe some of the money would be targeted (public infrastructure projects that were already underway, or are on the shelf and ready to go), some would go to Medicaid, and some would come with no strings attached.

2. Reducing use of regressive taxes: The “devolution” that has taken place since the early 1970s puts more responsibility on state and local governments but without funding it; in response they have increased (mostly) regressive taxes such as sales and excise taxes. So in addition to immediate relief, we also need to encourage them to move away from regressive taxes (in the average state, poor people pay twice as much of their income in state and local taxes as do the rich). I suggest we offer federal government funding to states that agree to eliminate regressive taxes (except for the taxes on sin), on dollar-for-dollar basis. Of course, there are some fairness issues involved (states that relied more on regressive taxes would get more relief), so, again, federal tax relief could be determined on a per capita basis, with each state required to eliminate its most regressive taxes.

3. Public Infrastructure: Elsewhere, I have argued that government spending needs to operate like a ratchet: increase in bad times to get us out of recessions, and increase in good times to generate demand for growth of capacity. What should we spend on? Infrastructure, social programs and jobs. Here I will just focus on infrastructure spending. We’ve got a $2 trillion public infrastructure deficit—just to bring America up to the minimal standard expected by today’s civil engineers. If anything, our relative dearth of public investment in roads, parks, schools, and energy infrastructure is even worse than it was when J.K. Galbraith brought it to our attention. The long fashionable belief that the market knows best now seems crazily improbable. Heck, the market couldn’t even do a relatively simple thing such as determine whether someone with no income, no job, and no assets ought to be buying a half million dollar McMansion with a loan to value ratio of 120%. Jimmy Stewart’s heavily regulated thrifts successfully financed more housing with virtually no defaults or insolvencies, and with none of the modern rocket scientist models that generated the subprime fiasco. Let the market mow lawns and determine toothpaste flavors; leave the important stuff—education, child and elder care, health care, military and security services, interstate highways and other social infrastructure and services–to government.

Professor L. Randall Wray responds to a question:

Question: I heard a news report that the US Government is issuing bonds to finance its budget deficit, and that this will drive up interest rates and might even threaten government solvency. Also I have heard that the US Government has to rely on China to finance our deficit. Isn’t that why the stock and bond markets are bearish?

Answer: This news report reflects two related misunderstandings: first, that government “funds” its deficit by borrowing; second that a large deficit threatens government with insolvency. Let me first deal with those fallacies, then move on to what is happening in markets.

Government spends by crediting bank accounts (bank deposits go up, and their reserves are credited by the Fed). All else equal, this generates excess reserves that are offered in the overnight interbank lending market (fed funds in the US) putting downward pressure on overnight rates. Let me repeat that: government spending pushes interest rates down. When they fall below the target, the Fed sells bonds to drain the excess reserves—pushing the overnight rate back to the target. Continuous budget deficits lead to continuous open market sales, causing the NY Fed to call on the Treasury to soak up reserves through new issues of bonds. The purpose of bond sales by the Fed or Treasury is to substitute interest-earning bonds for undesired reserves—to allow the Fed to hit its interest rate target. (In the old days, these reserves earned no interest; Chairman Bernanke has changed that, effectively eliminating the difference between very short-term Treasuries and bank reserves. It also entirely eliminates the need to issue Treasuries—but that is a topic for another day.) We conclude: government deficits do not exert upward pressure on interest rates—quite the contrary, they put downward pressure that is relieved through bond sales.

On to the question of insolvency. Let me state the conclusion first: a sovereign government that issues its own floating rate currency can never become insolvent in its own currency. (While such a currency is often called “fiat”, that is somewhat misleading for reasons I won’t discuss here—I prefer the term “sovereign currency”.) The US Treasury can always make all payments as they come due—whether it is for spending on goods and services, for social spending, or to meet interest payments on its debt. While analogies to household budgets are often made, these are completely erroneous. I do not know any households that can issue Treasury coins or Federal Reserve Notes (I suppose some try occasionally, but that is dangerously illegal counterfeiting). To be sure, government does not really spend by direct issues of coined nickels. Rather, it spends by crediting bank accounts. It taxes by debiting them. When its credits to bank accounts exceeds its debits to them, we call that a budget deficit. The accounting and operating procedures adopted by the Treasury, the Fed, special deposit banks, and regular banks are complex, but they do not change the principle: government spending is accomplished by crediting bank accounts. Government spending can be too big (beyond full employment), it can misdirect resources, and it can be wasteful or undesirable, but it cannot lead to insolvency.

Constraining government spending by imposing budgets is certainly desirable. We want to know in advance what the government is planning to do, and we want to hold it accountable; a budget is one lever of control. At this point, it is impossible to know how much additional government spending will be required to get us out of this deep recession. Whether the Obama team finally settles on $850 billion worth of useful projects, or $1.5 trillion, voters have the right to expect that the spending is well-planned and that the projects are well-executed. But the budgets ought to be set with regard to results desired and competencies to execute plans—not out of some pre-conceived notion of what is “affordable”. Our federal government can afford anything that is for sale in terms of its own currency. The trick is to ensure that it spends enough to produce sustainable growth and other desired outcomes while at the same time ensuring that its spending does not have undesirable outcomes such as fueling inflation or taking away resources that could be put to better use by the private sector.

Why do stock markets and bond markets react the way they do, given that insolvency is out of the question? Sophisticated market players do recognize that government cannot go insolvent and that government will always make all interest payments as they come due. Markets are, however, concerned that all the government spending plus the Fed bail-outs (lending reserves and buying bad assets) will be inflationary. In the current environment, that is quite unlikely. Even if oil prices stabilize at a higher level, that will not compensate for all the deflationary pressures around the world as firms cut prices to maintain sales in the face of plummeting demand. Still, it is not really inflation that bond markets are worried about, but rather future Fed interest rate hikes. (Again, that will not happen in the near future, and might not happen for several years—but there is little doubt that the Fed will eventually raise rates when the economy finally recovers.) Rate hikes lead to capital losses on longer-maturity bonds (interest rates and bond prices always move in the opposite direction). The Treasury persists in issuing bonds with a range of maturities (although the maturity structure in recent years has shortened). This is evidence that the Treasury does not fully understand the purpose of bond sales (since bonds are simply an alternative to bank reserves, it makes most sense to offer only overnight bonds)—but, again, that is a topic for another day.

The Treasury is having some trouble selling the longer maturity bonds (so their price is low and their interest rate is high). China is probably playing a role in this because they are shunning longer maturity debt out of fear of capital losses; they have also shifted some of their portfolio to other currencies (partly to diversify so that they will not lose if the dollar depreciates, and perhaps to pressure US authorities to keep the dollar strong). The solution is that the Treasury should shift even more strongly to shorter maturities—something it will do even if it does not fully understand why it should: Treasury sees that short term interest rates are much lower, hence, will sell short term debt to reduce the “cost of funding the deficit”. If Treasury really understood what it was doing, it would simply offer overnight deposits at the Fed, paying the Fed’s target interest rate. Then it would not “need” to sell bonds at all, and we could stop worrying about government “borrowing from the Chinese”. If the Fed wanted to control interest rates of longer term debt, it can offer interest on deposits of different maturities—for example, it can offer an overnight rate, a 30 day rate, a 90 day rate, and so on, for deposits held at the Fed.