Loanable funds is not helping

Noah Smith has a Christmas post in which he intervenes in the debate over whether $600 government cheques should be given to rich people or poor people. This is the latest iteration of the age-old debate that stems from the dubious argument that income inequality is good because rich people use resources efficiently and poor people waste them. Noah correctly concludes that this argument is wrong and that cheques should be sent to those on lower incomes. But his argument contains several mistakes.

National Saving

Noah starts by discussing whether the rich or poor are more likely to save their $600 cheque, noting that although the rich have a higher propensity to save than the poor, the effect on “national saving” of windfall gains like a one-off cheque may be hard to predict: “if you want to increase national saving, you might want to give the $600 to Tiny Tim instead of to Scrooge!”

Noah’s assumption, at this point in the argument, is that unspent government cheques will increase “national saving”. Is this plausible?

The official definition of “national saving” is total income, Y, less total consumption expenditure, C, (including government consumption). Since “saving” for each sector is sector income less sector consumption, “national saving” is also equal to private saving plus public saving. Manipulation of accounting definitions demonstrates that S = I + CA, where S is national saving, I is total investment (private and public) and CA is the current account surplus. For a closed economy, CA = 0 and S = I. For “national saving” to increase, either I or CA must increase.

Why would members of the public — rich or poor — depositing government cheques at banks increase national saving?

If the cheques are bond-financed, then private sector financial investors have handed over deposits in return for government bonds, while households have accepted deposits. The overall effect is an increase in bond holdings by the private sector, and a redistribution of private deposit holdings. Since private sector income has increased but consumption has not, private sector saving has increased.

But public sector saving has decreased by an equal amount. National saving is unchanged — as is total income. (The same is true for tax-financed cheques.)

Loanable funds

Noah then poses the question “do we really want to increase national saving?”

On a charitable reading, we can assume that, by “national saving”, Noah means “private sector saving”, and his question should be read accordingly.

To answer the question, Noah uses the loanable funds model. Before going on, we need a brief recap on why this model is incoherent, at least when used without care.

As already noted, S = Y – C = I + CA: “National saving” is just another way of saying “investment plus the current account”. There is no such thing as a “supply of savings”: households can choose to consume or not consume. They cannot decide on the size of S, because it equals Y – C. Households choose C but not Y, therefore they don’t choose S. A macro model which has “supply of saving” as an independent aggregate variable is incorrectly specified.

Noah uses this model to consider what happens when the “supply of saving” increases (which he apparently takes as equivalent to the “supply of” what he calls national saving).

He starts by noting that the usual configuration is such that an increase in the “supply of saving” causes “interest rates or stock returns or whatever” to fall and this in turn raises business investment. He then adjusts the model by asserting, “OK, suppose that the amount of business investment just doesn’t depend much on the rate of return”. (By “rate of return” he means “interest rates or stock returns or whatever”, i.e. the rate paid on loans by business, not the rate of profit on business investment.) This gives a diagram like so:

Now, here comes the punchline:

OK, now suppose that in this sort of world, you give someone $600 and they stick it in the bank. That increases the supply of savings. But it doesn’t do anything to the demand for business investment. Businesses invest the same amount. And the rate of return just goes down … in fact total saving doesn’t even go up!

What’s going on here? The supply of savings has increased yet total saving doesn’t change? To understand what Noah thinks he’s saying, let’s switch to apples briefly. Imagine the same supply-demand diagram as above with a vertical (inelastic) demand curve but this time for apples.

This model says that, assuming the quantity of apples consumed is fixed, if the cost of production of apples decreases (because that’s what the supply curve represents, at least in a competitive market), then the price of apples falls. A similar outcome arises if, instead of the cost of production falling, a magician appears, waves a wand, and a stack of extra apples magically appear all harvested and ready for market. At the marketplace, if nobody knows about the wizard, it just looks like the price of apples has fallen.

This is what Noah is doing with the “increase in supply of savings (apples)” arising from the $600 cheques (magic apples): since the “demand for savings” (apples) is fixed, apple sales (business investment/”national savings”) won’t change, but the price (“the rate of return on stocks or whatever”) falls. On the diagram, it looks like this:

This is incoherent in its own terms because, as already noted, a “supply of savings” doesn’t exist in the same way that a supply of apples does: apples are not one number minus another number.

But even putting this non-trivial issue aside, There is a another problem.

Where did the apples go?

Remember that the “supply of savings” has increased in the sense that the price per unit has fallen. But the actual quantity of “savings” is unchanged, according to Noah.

In apple world, the way this works is that when the magic apples appear, the orchard people, understanding the inelastic demand curve of the marketplace, save themselves some effort, harvest less apples, but take the right amount to the marketplace.

How does it work for the “supply of savings?” Don’t worry, Noah has an answer!

You give the $600 to one person, they stick it in the bank or in the markets, that lowers interest rates or stock returns or whatever, and then other people save $600 less as a result. No change.

Pretty neat. Every time someone banks a $600 cheque, another person responds by spending exactly $600 on consumption! In the aggregate, Noah tells us, every dollar is spent! It’s actually impossible for the private sector to save their cheques!


This kind of incoherence is where you end up when you read results from pairs of lines that do not represent the thing that you are trying to understand. The conclusion that total consumption expenditure increases by an amount exactly equal to the total value of the cheques arises as the result of a sequence of ill-defined concepts and inappropriate assumptions, all bolted together without much thought.

In reality, what will happen is the following. Some cheques will be saved, some will be spent on consumption. Those that are saved will have no effect on national saving and probably little effect on the rate of interest, although they might nudge asset prices up a bit. Higher consumption will lead to higher national income, employment and imports. National income will probably rise by more than the amount spent on consumption because of the multiplier. “National saving” is a residual — income less consumption — and is a priori indeterminate. None of this requires us to go anywhere near a loanable funds model.

Loose use of terminology and hand-waving at poorly-defined graphical models does not constitute macroeconomic analysis.

How pension funds shape financialisation in emerging economies in Colombia and Peru

Guest post: Bruno Bonizzi, Jennifer Churchill and Diego Guevara

In early spring 2020 emerging economies (EEs) were hit by the largest ever episode of portfolio outflows. Stock and bonds were sold as investors fled to safer investments in Europe and the United States, showing once again the fragile nature of EEs’ financial integration. To overcome this problem, one suggested solution is to allow for a larger base of domestic institutional investors, such as pension funds, which can stabilise financial markets. While having a large institutional investor base can be a source of demand for domestic financial securities, it is important to review the evidence from the experience of those EEs where pension funds have existed for more than two decades.

As we show in our forthcoming article, the experience of Colombia and Peru can be instructive. Their pension system, while maintaining a significant parallel public Pay-As-You-Go structure, has a sizeable funded private component with assets that have grown to over 20% of GDP. These were established as part of the Washington Consensus reforms in the 1990s, following the prior example of Chile.

However, more than two decades since the creation of private pension funds, capital markets in the two countries, as in the rest of Latin America, remain small and underdeveloped. It is perhaps for this reason that the experience of pension funds in Latin America remains under-researched by financialisation scholarship. However, recent literature has put forward the idea that financialisation patterns, while having common tendencies, can present “variegated” forms. Pension funds play a role in this process by exerting an important role in shaping the demand for financial assets, even if this does not occur, as in typical “Liberal Market Economies” by fuelling domestic capital markets.

Some key characteristics of Colombia and Peru’s political economy have acted as the distinct determinants of pension fund demand for assets, shaping a specific form of financialisation. Firstly, pension funds in these countries reflect the characteristics of Hierarchical Market Economies, the Latin American variety of capitalism. Workers and unions have very limited control over how pension fund assets are invested, as pension funds are provided by private companies as pure individual retirement accounts. Investment policy is therefore heavily shaped by the interest of the financial industry, which was also key in promoting their establishment and in shaping their regulation since.

But next to these considerations, pension fund asset demand in Colombia and Peru has been structurally constrained by the limited by limited effective space in domestic capital markets. These two countries have a highly “extraverted” growth regime, where commodity exports play a key role in determining aggregate demand. As a result of the 2000-2014 commodity price boom, companies had substantial financing coming from export proceeds and foreign direct investment, therefore limiting their issuance of securities in domestic capital markets. Governments too limited their net borrowing during this period, thanks to booming revenues and limited increases in public spending. Additionally, the countries have attracted considerable interest by foreign financial investors, whose weight in domestic bond and stock markets increased. These characteristics reflect the status of Colombia and Peru of as subordinate emerging economies in global financial markets.

Pension funds in Colombia and Peru have looked for other investments. Supported once again by the domestic and international financial industry, these have been found in “alternative assets”, most typically private equity, infrastructure and real-estate funds, as well as in foreign investment, which now account for more than a third and more than 40% of total assets in Colombia and Peru respectively. The latter have been important in stimulating a derivative market to hedge foreign currency positions, mostly vis-á-vis US dollars.

Therefore, pension funds have been important in shaping the financialisation trajectory in these two countries, despite the limited development of domestic capital markets. This can serve as an important lesson to calls for the promotion of private pensions to stabilise capital markets. In emerging economies subject to subordinate forms of economic and financial integration, and where the interests represented are those of a highly concentrated financial industry, pension funds may fail to act as catalysts for deep, liquid and stable domestic capital markets. They may instead contribute to finance privatised forms of infrastructure and real estate and reinforce the hierarchies of global finance.

Three myths about EU’s economic response to the COVID19 pandemic

Daniela Gabor

On Monday 15th, 2020, I took part in the Public Hearing on COVID19 responses at the European Parliament’s ECON committee. This is the text of my introductory remarks.


The COVID19 pandemic confronted EU members with symmetric shocks and profound deflationary forces. In response, governments are running large budget deficits. Their borrowing costs remain low because central banks have acted as public guarantors of confidence.

I would like to unpack three myths about the COVID19 response in Europe.

Myth 1: central banks have overstepped their mandate with disproportionate interventions in government bond markets, undermining fiscal rules.

This argument, as expressed in the Karlsruhe ruling, implies that it is imperative to return to the pre-crisis status quo: a division of macroeconomic labor whereby the ECB targets price-stability, whereas Member States conduct fiscal and economic policies in a manner consistent with European rules.

Through a macro-financial lens, this argument is simply wrong. If we ask how private financial structure and macroeconomic policies interact*, it becomes clear that evolutionary changes in European finance have joined monetary and fiscal policies at the hip. The pre-crisis division of macroeconomic labor is a fiction that we can no longer afford to sustain.

Consider the largest money market for European banks and institutional investors, the €7 trillion repo market. Two out of three euro borrowed through repos use sovereign bonds issued by euro-area members (Germany and Italy the largest) as collateral. Private credit creation —the bread and butter of the ECB’s operations —fundamentally relies on sovereign bonds, and so on fiscal policy. Higher sovereign yields make private credit more expensive. In turn, the repo market creates, and can easily destroy, liquidity for governments, influencing their borrowing conditions and, ultimately, fiscal-policy. In the Euroarea, it creates an exorbitant privilege for Germany: in crisis, banks run to German bunds because these preserve access to collateralised funding. This is why leaders of ‘periphery’ euro countries watch the spread to German bunds nervously.

The ECB did not intervene in sovereign-bond markets because it worried about debt sustainability. As President Lagarde noted in the European Parliament hearing in early June, intervention was needed to effectively support private credit creation, and the transmission mechanism of monetary policy. Improvements in financing conditions for governments, much decried in some European circles, are not a policy target but a side effect of the repo-based sovereign debt order that the founders of the Euro put in place.

But the Euro founders did so without appreciating its complex political ramifications, in particular the structural pressures on central banks to intervene in sovereign bond markets. Given the growing public debt/GDP ratios, and the possibility of renewed pressure on vulnerable sovereigns, it is imperative we rethink this order.

For this, we need to update the institutional framework that governs the relationship between central banks and governments. So far, central banks have improvised through unconventional policy measures, but on terms that they control. In so doing, they entrench a democratic deficit that encourages anti-European sentiment. In the Euroarea, monetary union needs to be accompanied by fiscal union not on grounds of ‘solidarity’, but because the alternative is a disorderly exit from the Euro, particularly if the chorus demanding post-pandemic austerity becomes stronger.

Myth 2 Europe has well-functioning institutions – like the ESM – to provide a safety net for sovereigns in times of crisis.

The Almunia Report on the EFSF/ESM programmes in Greece highlights serious weakness in the institutional mechanisms for backstopping Member States in times of crisis. The ESM put excessive emphasis on fiscal consolidation, with significant social costs for Greek citizens, lacked strategic objectives and prioritized the interests of ESM members over those of Greece. Harsh and counterproductive conditionality for sovereigns stands in clear contrast to the generous support for private finance, as for instance extended by the ECB.

Even if the Almunia recommendations would be enacted in a timely fashion, a reformed ESM can at best alleviate some of the burden of higher public debt. It cannot effectively respond to the cyclical liquidity pressures created by the financial structure described above, particularly as public debt burdens grow across Europe. Equally important, it would not create the fiscal space necessary for Member States to respond counter-cyclically to shocks, and to prioritize green public investments, including public health infrastructure.

This is why the European Commission’s plans for grants under the EU Next Generation are an important first step towards creating an effective European response. But are these enough.

Myth 3 The pandemic recovery plans of the European Commission are ambitious enough.

Bruegel estimates that only a quarter from the grants envisaged in the Next Generation EU will be spent over 2020-2022**. National fiscal policies will have to shoulder the burden of recovery. The EU can and should be more ambitious, prioritizing a green recovery.

It is encouraging that the Commission has reaffirmed its intentions to reserve 25% of EU spending for climate-friendly expenditure. Its efforts should be amplified by pre-crisis commitments to green central banks and to promote sustainable finance in Europe.

Take the ECB. Its support to market actors comes without environmental, tax- or payout-related conditionality. In practice, the ECB continues to subsidise high-carbon activities, and in doing so, it reinforces climate-related risks to financial stability. Its objectives can be recalibrated within the existing treaty framework, as follows***:

  • The ECB should start to love ‘brown inflation’. In its current version, the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices ignores the carbon footprint of goods and services. Greening the HICP would take the bite out of the price-stability mandate, while rendering it more consistent with the ECB’s secondary objective.
  • The ECB should green its monetary policy operations, by removing the preferential treatment to brown assets, and where it judges necessary, by promoting green financial instruments. These two measures should go hand in hand to avoid greenwashing, and would constitute an effective measure to reorient private finance towards sustainable activities.
  • The Euroarea should institute an open and recurrent process at the highest political level to specify which ‘general economic policies in the Union’ the ECB is required to support. Article 11 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union already mandates ‘environmental protection’. Specifying such protection in relation to the full portfolio of central-bank activities—considerably broader than monetary policy proper—would provide political legitimacy for an unconditional ECB backstop of green public investment. This circular arrangement would amount to a substantial gain in fiscal sovereignty in the euro area.

In parallel, the European Commission, with support from the European Parliament, should accelerate its work on the Renewed Sustainable Finance strategy. A well-defined taxonomy for green and brown activities, and prudential measures guided by the taxonomy, would ensure that private financing of brown activities does not undermine the public investments in the green recovery.

Thank you for your time.



* See Gabor, D. (2020) Critical macro-finance: a theoretical lens. Finance and Society 6(1): 45-55.

**See Darvas, Z. (2020) Three-quarters of Next Generation EU payments will have to wait until 2023.

*** See Braun, B., Gabor, D. and B. Lemoine (2020) Enlarging the ECB mandate for the common good and the planet. Social Europe.

Mercados emergentes precisam de controle de capital para evitar catástrofes financeiras


Traduzida por Carolina Alves.

Todos os países estão atualmente enfrentando a ameaça sem precedentes de uma crise global da saúde, recessão econômica e colapso financeiro, simultaneamente. Mas, ao contrário dos países ricos, os mercados emergentes (EMs) não têm autonomia política necessária para enfrentar essas crises. A hierarquia global de moedas coloca EMs na periferia dos mercados financeiros globais, expondo-os a paradas súbitas de fluxos de capital causadas por gatilhos como a crise COVID-19. Imediato controle de capital, coordenado pelo FMI,è necessário para evitar um desastre financeiro

Em uma crise financeira global, há uma pressa em manter ativos líquidos denominados em moedas seguras, especialmente dólares americanos. Isso permite ricos países responder a crises com as necessárias ferramentas fiscais e monetárias. O oposto é verdadeiro para os EMs. Desde o surto de COVID-19, investidores internacionais retiraram grandes quantias de ativos dos EMs, causando uma depreciação dramática da moeda, especialmente aqueles expostos à queda dos preços das commodities.

Na última década, ampla liquidez global impulsionada por bancos centrais de países ricos, juntamente com a demanda sustentada por ativos líquidos, levou a enormes fluxos de crédito e investimento de capital nos EMs, onde os títulos e as bolsas de valores cresceram por volta de 15 trilhões para 33 trilhões de dólares americanos entre 2008 e 2019. ‘Economias de fronteira’ e EMs corporações emitiram volumes substanciais de dívida em moeda estrangeira. Com o G20 incentivo, os EMs abriram seus mercados de títulos em moeda nacional para investidores internacionais. No que foi denominado a segunda fase da liquidez global, novos instrumentos e instituições financeiras, como fundos internacionais e fundos de investimento abertos negociados em bolsa (ETF), possibilitaram a fácil negociação global de EMs ativos, consolidando a ilusão de liquidez.

Os EMs agora são confrontados com uma parada repentina de capital, pois as condições globais de liquidez apertam e os investidores fogem do risco: a exposição aos EMs continua sendo uma estratégia de alto risco/alto retorno, a ser liquidada em tempo de crises. Consequentemente, os EMs enfrentam severo ajuste macroeconômico exatamente no momento em que todas as ferramentas disponíveis devem ser usadas para combater a crise de saúde pública apresentada pelo COVID-19. Alguns países podem ser forçados a implementar uma política monetária restritiva na tentativa de manter o acesso ao dólar, enquanto a ação fiscal pode ser restringida pelo medo de perder o acesso a mercados globais. É improvável que as reservas cambiais forneçam ‘colchão de segurança’ suficiente em todos os países.

Há uma necessidade urgente de ação para impedir que essa crise chegue a proporções catastróficas nos EMs. Apesar de pedidos de ação de longa data, ainda não existe credor internacional de última instância. Os únicos instrumentos atualmente disponíveis são empréstimos dos FMI e linhas de swap cambial temporárias entre bancos centrais. Os empréstimos do FMI normalmente impõem ajustes fiscais, o que seria desastroso nas condições atuais. Os Fed está pronto para fornecer dólares americanos a um punhado de bancos centrais: entre os EMs, apenas o México pode acessar as linhas de swap do Fed sob as disposições do NAFTA. Durante a crise financeira global de 2009, o acesso foi concedido apenas ao Brasil e à Coréia do Sul. Mas EMs, no G20 e além, são agora muito mais importantes para o económico crescimento mundial. O fracasso deles, ou de um grande quase-soberano tomador de empréstimo, poderia desencadear um contágio significativo.

Nos pedimos uma ação decisiva para restringir os fluxos financeiros atualmente transmitindo a crise aos EMs. Controles de capital devem ser introduzidos para reduzir a fuga de capitais, para reduzir a falta de liquidez causada por sell-offs nos EMs mercados, e para impedir quedas da moeda e preços dos ativos. A implementação deve ser coordenada pelo FMI para evitar estigma e evitar contágio. As linhas de swap cambial devem ser estendidas para incluir EMs, e então garantir o acesso ao dólar americano. Finalmente, concordamos com as recentes medidas fornecendo uma maior provisão de liquidez pelo FMI usando os Direitos de Saque Especiais (DSE) – mas isso deve ocorrer sem a imposição de ajuste fiscal pró-cíclico.

A crise que se desenrola é uma das mais graves na história econômica. Nós deve garantir que os governos possam fazer todo o possível para proteger seus cidadãos. Em nossa economia globalmente integrada, ações coordenadas são necessárias para minimizar as restrições externamente-impostas às economias emergentes, que por sinal enfrentam a tripla ameaça de pandemia, recessão e crise financeira.

Los Países Emergentes Y En Desarrollo Necesitan Controles De Capital Para Prevenir Una Catástrofe Financiera


Una version corta de esta carta fue publicada en  Financial Times, el 25 Marzo


Traducido al español por: Jimena Sierra y Federico Suárez

(con el apoyo de Daniela Gabor y Luis Eslava)

Actualmente, todos los países enfrentan una amenaza sin precedentes. Esta amenaza es tanto el producto de la crisis de salud global, como de sus efectos en términos de recesión económica y colapso financiero. A diferencia de las naciones ricas, sin embargo, los países emergentes y en desarrollo (PED) carecen de la autonomía política necesaria para enfrentar estas crisis. La jerarquía monetaria global coloca a los PED en la periferia de los mercados financieros globales, lo cual los sobreexpone a choques repentinos causados por fenómenos como la crisis del COVID-19. La Reserva Federal de los Estados Unidos ha anunciado que prestaría hasta USD 60 mil millones a los bancos centrales de México, Brasil, Corea del Sur y Singapur. Aunque bien recibidos, esta línea de crédito no es suficiente. Se necesitan controles inmediatos de capital, coordinados por el FMI, para evitar un desastre financiero.

En una crisis financiera global, hay una urgencia por mantener activos líquidos en monedas seguras, especialmente dólares estadounidenses. Los países ricos pueden responder a este reto con las herramientas fiscales y monetarias necesarias. Sin embargo, esto no es posible, para los PED. Desde el estallido de la crisis de COVID-19, los inversionistas internacionales han retirado grandes sumas de los activos de los PED, lo que ha llevado a una depreciación dramática de la moneda en estos países, especialmente en aquellos que están ya sobreexpuestos debido a la caída de los precios de sus commodities.

Durante la última década, la amplia liquidez a nivel global impulsada por los bancos centrales de los países ricos, junto a una demanda sostenida de activos líquidos, ha direccionado enormes flujos de crédito e inversión en acciones hacia los PED, donde los mercados de bonos y acciones crecieron aproximadamente de 15 billones a 33 billones de dólares entre 2008 y 2019. Las ‘economías de frontera‘ y las corporaciones de los PED han emitido cantidades sustanciales de deuda en moneda extranjera. Con el apoyo del G-20, los PED abrieron sus mercados debonos en moneda nacional a inversores internacionales. En el marco de lo que se ha llamado como la segunda fase de liquidez global, los nuevos instrumentos y las nuevas instituciones financieras, como los fondos internacionales y los fondos de inversión cotizados en bolsa (exchange-traded funds (ETFs) eninglés), han facilitado la negociación global de los activos de los PED, dando lugar a una ilusión de liquidez.

Los PED ahora se enfrentan a un choque repentino por el endurecimiento de las condiciones de liquidez global y debido a que los inversores buscan huir del riesgo: la exposición a los PED sigue siendo una estrategia de alto riesgo y alto retorno, que deja de ser tractiva en tiempos de crisis. En consecuencia, los PED se enfrentan hoy a un severo ajuste macroeconómico precisamente en el momento en que todas las herramientas disponibles deben usarse para contrarrestar la crisis de salud pública causada por el COVID-19. De esta manera, algunos países pueden verse obligados a endurecer su política monetaria en un intento por retener el acceso al dólar estadounidense, mientras que las acciones fiscales pueden verse limitadas por el miedo a perder el acceso a los mercados mundiales. Sin embargo, es poco probable, que las reservas de divisas amortigüen de manera suficiente a todos los países. Esto tendría profundas consecuencias para la economía global: los PED, tanto aquellos que están en el G-20 como fuera de este, son hoy en día mucho más importantes de lo que eran hace una década gracias al crecimiento económico y la expansión de los mercados a nivel global. Frente a estos retos, el fracaso de una acción internacional que facilite préstamos soberanos o cuasi-soberano podría desencadenar en un efecto dominó con consecuencias devastadoras a través del planeta.

Existe una necesidad urgente de actuar para evitar que esta crisis alcance proporciones catastróficas en los PED. A pesar de décadas de discusiones y advertencias, todavía no existe un prestamista internacional de última instancia. Los únicos instrumentos disponibles actualmente son los préstamos del FMI y las líneas de intercambio de divisas entre bancos centrales. Sin embargo, los préstamos del FMI suelen imponer ajustes fiscales, lo cual sería desastroso en las condiciones actuales. La Reserva Federal de los Estados Unidos, por otro lado, está lista para proporcionar dólares estadounidenses a un puñado de bancos centrales: el problema es que entre los PED solo México, Corea del Sur y Brasil pueden acceder a estas líneas de intercambio de la Reserva, por un monto de hasta USD 60bn. No obstante, estos acuerdos ad hoc excluyen una gran proporción de las necesidades de los PED de liquidez en dólares.

Debido a lo anterior, hacemos un llamado a tomar acciones decisivas para restringir los flujos financieros que actualmente están transfiriendo la crisis a los mercados emergentes. Deben introducirse controles de capital para restringir la salida repentina de flujos, reducir la falta de liquidez provocada por las ventas generalizadas de activos en los mercados de los PED y detener con esto las caídas de los precios de las monedas y de los activos nacionales. La implementación de las medidas que se adopten debe coordinarse por el FMI para evitar la estigmatización y prevenir un contagio generalizado. Las líneas de intercambio de divisas deben extenderse para incluir más PED, a fin de garantizar el acceso a dólares estadounidenses. Finalmente, coincidimos con los llamados recientes al FMI para proveer una mayor liquidez, utilizando derechos especiales de giro (DEG), sin generar con esto la imposición de ajustes fiscales pro-cíclicos.

La crisis que se esta desarrollando actualmente es una de las más graves en la historia económica. Debemos asegurarnos que los gobiernos puedan hacer todo lo posible para proteger a sus ciudadanos. En nuestra economía global e integrada, se necesita una acción coordinada para minimizar las restricciones impuestas externamente a los países en desarrollo y emergentes, ya que estos se enfrentan hoy a una crisis triple: la pandemia, la recesión económica y una crisis financiera.



Developing and emerging countries need capital controls to prevent financial catastrophe

A shorter version of this letter was published in the Financial Times on 25 March 2020.

All countries currently face the unprecedented threat of a simultaneous and global health crisis, economic recession and financial meltdown. But unlike rich nations, emerging and developing countries  (DECs) lack the policy autonomy needed to confront these crises. The global currency hierarchy places DECs in the periphery of global financial markets, exposing them to sudden stops caused by triggers such as the COVID-19 crisis. The US Federal Reserve announced it would lend up to USD 60bn to the central banks of Mexico, Brazil, South Korea and Singapore. But this is not enough. Immediate capital controls, coordinated by the IMF, are needed to prevent financial disaster.

In a global financial crisis, there is a rush to hold liquid assets denominated in safe currencies, especially US dollars. This enables rich countries to respond to crises with the necessary fiscal and monetary tools. The opposite is true for DECs. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis, international investors have withdrawn large sums from DEC assets, leading to dramatic currency depreciation, especially for those exposed to falling commodity prices.

Over the past decade, ample global liquidity driven by rich country central banks, alongside sustained demand for liquid assets, has led to enormous flows of credit and equity investment into DECs, where bond and stock markets grew from about 15 trillion to 33 trillion US dollars between 2008 and 2019. ‘Frontier economies’ and DECs corporations have issued substantial volumes of foreign currency debt. With G20 encouragement, DECs opened their domestic currency bond markets to international investors. In what has been termed the second phase of global liquidity, new financial instruments and institutions, such as international funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs), have enabled easy global trading of DECs assets, cementing the illusion of liquidity.

DECs are now confronted with a sudden stop as global liquidity conditions tighten and investors flee from risk: exposure to DECs remains a high-risk/high-return strategy, to be liquidated in times of crisis. In consequence, DECs face severe macroeconomic adjustment at precisely the moment when all available tools should be used to counter the public health crisis presented by COVID-19: some countries may be forced to tighten monetary policy in an attempt to retain access to the US dollar, while fiscal action may be constrained by fear of losing access to global markets. Foreign exchange reserves are unlikely to provide a sufficient buffer in all countries. This would have profound consequences for the global economy: DECs, both in the G20 and beyond, are now far more important for global growth and markets than even a decade ago. The failure of a large sovereign or quasi-sovereign borrower could trigger significant contagion.

There is an urgent need for action to prevent this crisis reaching catastrophic proportions in DECs. Despite long-standing calls for action, there is still no international lender of last resort. The only instruments currently available are IMF lending and foreign exchange (FX) swap lines between central banks. IMF loans typically impose fiscal tightening, which would be disastrous under current conditions. The US Federal Reserve stands ready to provide US dollars to a handful of major central banks: among DECs, only Mexico can access Fed and US Treasury swap lines under NAFTA provisions, and South Korea and Brazil have just had their arrangements re-opened. But these ad-hoc arrangements exclude a large proportion of DECs’ need for dollar liquidity.

We call for decisive action to constrain the financial flows currently transmitting the crisis to EMs. Capital controls should be introduced to curtail the surge in outflows, to reduce illiquidity driven by sell-offs in DECs’ markets, and to arrest declines in currency and asset prices. Implementation should be coordinated by the IMF to avoid stigma and prevent contagion. FX swap lines should be extended to include more DECs, in order to ensure access to US dollars. Finally, we concur with recent calls for greater provision of liquidity by the IMF using special drawing rights (SDRs) but this must take place without the imposition of pro-cyclical fiscal adjustment.

The unfolding crisis is one of the most serious in economic history. We must ensure that governments can do everything possible to protect their citizens. In our globally integrated economy, coordinated action is needed to minimise the externally-imposed constraints on developing and emerging countries as they face the triple threat of pandemic, recession and financial crisis.

Organising Signatories

Nelson Barbosa, Sao Paolo School of Economics

Richard Kozul-Wright, UNCTAD

Kevin Gallagher, Boston University

Jayati Ghosh, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Stephany Griffith-Jones, Columbia University

Adam Tooze, Columbia University

Bruno Bonizzi, University of Hertfordshire

Daniela Gabor, UWE Bristol

Annina Kaltenbrunner, University of Leeds

Jo Michell, UWE Bristol

Jeff Powell, University of Greenwich


Adam Aboobaker, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Kuat Akizhanov, University of Birmingham and University of Bath

Siobhán Airey, University College Dublin

Ilias Alami, Maastricht University

Alejandro Alvarez, UNAM, México

Donatella Alessandrini, University of Kent

Jeffrey Althouse, University of Sorbonne Paris Nord

Carolina Alves, Girton College – University of Cambridge

Paul Anand, Open University and CPNSS London School of Economics

Phil Armstrong, University of Southampton Solent and York College

Paul Auerbach, Kingston University

Basani Baloyi, South Africa 

Frauke Banse, University of Kassel, Germany

Benoît Barthelmess, Le Club Européen

Pritish Behuria, University of Manchester

Kinnari Bhatt, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Samuele Bibi, Goldsmiths University

Joerg Bibow, Skidmore College

Pablo Bortz, National University of San Martín

Alberto Botta, University of Greenwich

Benjamin Braun, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

Louison Cahen-Fourot, Vienna University of Economics and Business

Jimena Castillo, University of Leeds, UK

Eugenio Caverzasi, Università degli Studi dell’Insubria

Jennifer Churchill, Kingston University, London

M Kerem Coban, GLODEM, Koc University, Turkey

Andrea Coveri, University of Urbino, Italy

Moritz Cruz, UNAM, Mexico

Florence Dafe, HfP/TUM School of Governance, Munich

Yannis Dafermos, SOAS University of London

Daria Davitti, Lund University, Sweden

Adam Dixon, Maastricht University

Cédric Durand, Université Sorbonne Paris Nord

Chandni Dwarkasing, University of Siena, Italy

Gary Dymski, University of Leeds

Ilhan Dögüs, University of Rostock, Germany

Carlo D’Ippoliti, Sapienza University of Rome

Dirk Ehnts, Technical University of Chemnitz

Luis Eslava, Kent Law School, University of Kent

Trevor Evans, Berlin School of Economics and Law

Andreas Exner, University of Graz

Karina Patricio Ferreira Lima, Durham University

José Bruno Fevereiro, The Open University Business School

Andrew M. Fischer, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Giorgos Galanis, Goldsmiths, University of London

Santiago José Gahn, Università degli studi Roma Tre

Jorge Garcia-Arias, University of Leon, Spain and SOAS, University of London

Alicia Girón – UNAM-MEXICO

Thomas Goda, Universidad EAFIT, Colombia

Antoine Godin, University Sorbonne Paris Nord

Gabriel Gómez, UNAM, México

Jesse Griffiths, Overseas Development Institute

Diego Guevara, National University of Colombia

Alexander Guschanski, University of Greenwich

Sarah Hall, University of Nottingham

James Harrison, Prof, University of Warwick

Nicolas Hernan Zeolla, National University of San Martin, Argentina

Hansjörg Herr, Berlin School of Economics and Law

Elena Hofferberth, University of Leeds

Jens Holscher, Bournemouth University

Peter Howard-Jones, Bournemouth University

Bruno Höfig, SOAS, University of London

Roberto Iacono, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Stefanos Ioannou, University of Oxford

Andrew Jackson, University of of Surrey 

Juvaria Jafri, City University of London

Frederico G. Jayme, Jr, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil

Emily Jones, University of Oxford

Ewa Karwowski, University of Hertfordshire

Y.K. Kim, University of Massachusetts Boston

Stephen Kinsella, University of Limerick

Kai Koddenbrock, University of Frankfurt

George Krimpas, University of Athens

Sophia Kuehnlenz, Manchester Metropolitan University

Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven, University of York

Annamaria La Chimia, University of Nottingham

Dany Lang, Université Sorbonne Paris Nord

Jean Langlois, Le Club Européen

Christina Laskaridis, SOAS, University of London

Lyla Latif, University of Nairobi

Thibault Laurentjoye, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris

Dominik A. Leusder, London School of Economics

Noemi Levy-Orlik, UNAM, Mexico

Gilberto Libanio, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil

Duncan Lindo, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Lorena Lombardozzi, Open University

Anne Löscher, University of Siegen, Germany; University of Leeds

Birgit Mahnkopf, Prof.i.R., Berlin School of Economy and Law

Pedro Mendes Loureiro, University of Cambridge

Victor Isidro Luna, UNAM

Jonathan Marie, Université Sorbonne Paris Nord

Norberto Montani Martins, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Olivia Bullio Mattos, St. Francis College, New York, USA

Andrew Mearman, University of Leeds

Monika Meireles, UNAM

Thorvald Grung Moe, Levy Economics Institute

Lumkile Mondi, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Thanti Mthanti, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Susan Newman, Open University

Howard Nicholas, International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Maria Nikolaidi, University of Greenwich

Patricia Northover, University of the West Indies, Jamaica

Cem Oyvat, University of Greenwich

Oktay Özden, Marmara University, Turkey

Vishnu Padayachee, University of the Witwatersrand 

Rafael Palazzi, PUC-Rio, Brazil

José Gabriel Palma, Cambridge University and USACH

Marco Veronese Passarella, University of Leeds

Jonathan Perraton, University of Sheffield

Nicolás M. Perrone, Universidad Andres Bello, Viña del Mar

Keston K. Perry, UWE Bristol

Mate Pesti, UWE Bristol

Karl Petrick, Western New England University

Christos Pierros, University of Athens

Leonhard Plank, TU Wien

Jose Pérez-Montiel, University of the Balearic Islands, Spain

Hao Qi, Renmin University of China

Mzukisi Qobo, Wits Business School, University of Witwarsrand

Joel Rabinovich, University of Leeds

Dubravko Radosevic, University of Zagreb

Miriam Rehm, University of Duisburg-Essen

Marco Flávio da Cunha Resende, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil

Lena Rethel, University of Warwick

Sergio Rossi, C University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Maria Jose Romero, Eurodad

Roy Rotheim, Skidmore College

Josh Ryan-Collins, UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Alfredo Saad Filho, King’s College London

Lino Sau, University of Torino, Italy

Malcolm Sawyer. Emeritus Professor of Economics, University of Leeds

Anil Shah, University of Kassel

Dawa Sherpa, Jawaharlal Nehru University 

Hee-Young Shin, Wright State University

Farwa Sial, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester

Crystal Simeoni, FEMNET, Nairobi, Kenya

Engelbert Stockhammer, King’s College London

Ndongo Samba Sylla, Dakar

Carolyn Sissoko, UWE Bristol

Celine Tan, University of Warwick

Gyekye Tanoh, Accra

Daniela Tavasci, School of Economics and Finance, Queen Mary University of London

Andrea Terzi, Franklin University Switzerland 

Daniele Tori, Open University Business School

Gamze Erdem Türkelli, University of Antwerp

Esra Ugurlu, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Ezgi Unsal, Kadir Has University

Tara Van Ho, University of Essex 

Sophie Van Huellen, SOAS University of London

Frank Van Lerven, New Economics Foundation

Elisa Van Waeyenberge, SOAS University of London

Paolo Vargiu, University of Leicester

Luigi Ventimiglia, School of Economics and Finance, Queen Mary University of London

Apostolos Vetsikas, University of Thessaly, Greece

Davide Villani, The Open University and Goldsmiths, University of London

Camila Villard Duran, University of Sao Paulo

Pablo Wahren, University of Buenos Aires

Neil Warner, London School of Economics

Mary Wrenn, UWE Bristol

Joscha Wullweber, University of Witten/Herdecke

Devrim Yilmaz, Université Sorbonne Paris Nord

MMT: History, theory and politics

Originally published in Spanish as “¿De dónde viene el dinero?” by Política Exterior

Modern monetary theory, or MMT as it is widely known, has achieved remarkable visibility in recent years. Despite the title, MMT can resemble a political campaign as much as a monetary theory, characterised by activists promoting job guarantee schemes alongside more scholarly activity. The core ideas of MMT coalesced in the early 1990s, developed and promoted by a small group who largely bypassed academia, instead using blogs to accumulate a dedicated band of followers. As Bill Mitchell, one of the founders of MMT, said at the recent “International MMT Conference” in New York, “This is the first body of economic theory that has grown through activists”. In recent years that following has expanded substantially, leading to global prominence for key MMT figures, and widespread media coverage and commentary.

The main propositions of MMT are derived from one simple observation: a country with its own currency cannot run out of that currency. The U.S. government cannot run out of dollars because dollars are issued by the Federal Reserve, which is controlled by the U.S government. As a result, the U.S. government will never face a situation in which it cannot find the money to pay the interest on its debt, to hire workers, or to purchase goods and services. This, MMT proponents argue, turns conventional thinking on its head: mainstream economics promotes misconceptions about public debt, imposing false barriers to public spending. In contrast, it is claimed, MMT identifies the true constraints faced by currency-issuing governments, liberating policy-makers from misguided concerns about “finding the money” to pay for government spending.

The reality, as we shall see, is a bit more complicated. But first, some history. The MMT story starts with Warren Mosler, an ex-Wall Street trader who, in the 1980s, founded both a hedge fund and a supercar manufacturer, before relocating to the Virgin Islands, a Caribbean tax haven. In the early 1990s, Mosler took his ideas on sovereign debt to Donald Rumsfeld who sent him to Arthur Laffer (of “Laffer Curve” fame). Laffer told Mosler that the high priests of economic orthodoxy were unlikely to be interested in his ideas, and suggested he instead try the Post-Keynesians: a group of left-leaning non-mainstream economists. Mosler joined a Post-Keynesian email discussion list and found common ground with academics such as L. Randall Wray and his colleagues in the US, and Bill Mitchell in Australia. The group embarked on the project of developing a new synthesis of ideas on monetary economics.

Mosler convinced the group that the commonly held view that taxes provide the funds required for government spending is false. Instead, when a currency-issuing government spends, it creates new money: when the U.S. government makes a payment, new dollars are brought into existence at the point of expenditure. Discussions framed in terms such as “where will the government find the money?” are therefore based on a flawed understanding of the monetary system, Mosler argues.

According to Mosler, the purpose of taxation is instead to create the demand for government-issued currency. In the absence of taxes, Mosler contends, there would be no demand for essentially worthless pieces of paper. But in declaring and imposing the unit (the dollar) in which tax obligations must be discharged, the government ensures widespread use and acceptability of its currency.

These ideas turned out to be compatible with those of Randall Wray, an academic who was working on “Chartalist” ideas concerning the role of the state in defining and enforcing what is used as money. In the Chartalist view, money is not and has never been a commodity such as gold. Instead, money is essentially a system of IOUs that keeps track of credit and debit positions across a society too large and complex to rely on direct credit relationships. While credit theories of money have a longstanding tradition, the novelty of Chartalism lies with the claim that “money is a creature of the state”. By imposing the use of its own currency, Chartalists argue, the government, as monopoly issuer of that currency, attains powers not available to any other economic actor.

The core of MMT is a synthesis of Mosler and Wray’s ideas about government money with elements such as Abba Lerner’s “functional finance”. Lerner argues that government finances are not appropriate targets for government policy. Instead, the government should judge its actions on the basis of real outcomes, such as the level of employment. When combined with Mosler’s assertion that a currency-issuing government is never unable to service its debt, the claim that the appropriate target for macroeconomic policy is full employment appears logical. For MMT, the limit to government spending is therefore not financial but real, imposed by the physical capacity of the economic system to produce goods and services. The limit to fiscal activism is therefore the “inflation barrier” – the point at which increases in government spending generate rising prices, rather than higher employment and production.

The last piece of the MMT puzzle is the “employer of last resort” policy. Functional finance says that government spending should be used to eliminate unemployment – but there is a catch. As unemployment is reduced, inflation is likely to strengthen. It is unlikely that true zero unemployment can be achieved simply by raising government spending: at some point inflation will set in.

The employer of last resort (ELR) is MMT’s proposed solution to this problem. The policy is deceptively simple: the government should stand ready to employ all those who want work, offering a wage set at a level below the prevailing private sector wage rate. The justification claimed is twofold. First the policy will eliminate the social ill of unemployment: all those who want work will have it. Second, by setting wages below the level in the private sector, the ELR will create a “nominal anchor”: the below-market-rate ELR wage will restrain wage demands across the economy, preventing inflation, even in the absence of unemployment. When inflation sets in, the government should respond by reducing total spending, leading to lay-offs in the private sector. These laid off workers will be picked up by the ELR, at lower wages than the private sector. This increase in the “buffer stock” of ELR workers will serve to dampen wage demands in the private sector, reducing inflationary pressure.

These three elements: sovereign money, functional finance and the employer of last resort comprise the theoretical and policy core of MMT.

Before assessing whether this provides a sound basis for policy, we need to first briefly consider some history of the relationship between economic theory and macroeconomic policy. In the advanced economic nations, the post-war years were characterised by rapid growth and very low unemployment rates. By the middle of 1970s, this benign macroeconomic environment had given way to oil price hikes, the breakdown of the Bretton Woods managed exchange rate system and rising labour militancy. Policy-makers switched their focus from employment to inflation: the influence of Milton Friedman’s monetarism led to a growing belief that using macroeconomic policy for anything other than controlling inflation was futile, and that employment should be abandoned as a policy target. Through the 1980s and 1990s, academic economics coalesced around an increasingly mathematical formalisation of Friedman’s ideas (confusingly, this acquired the title of “New Keynesian economics”). While mathematically complex, this boils down to three main propositions.

First, total spending by households and businesses – what economists refer to as aggregate demand – is determined, in the short run, by the rate of interest. Since the rate of interest is assumed to be under the control of the central bank, total spending is therefore under direct policy control. Second, inflation is determined by two factors: firstly by total spending relative to the productive capacity of the economy and, secondly, by expectations about future inflation. In this view, if inflation is too high, the central bank should raise the rate of interest, reducing total spending and thus reducing inflationary pressure. The speed at which inflation will return to target will depend on the “credibility” of the central bank: if households and businesses believe that the central bank is serious about getting inflation under control, even at the cost of higher short-run unemployment, then inflation will adjust quickly. The conclusion – the third proposition – is that the optimal way to implement macroeconomic policy is for an independent central bank to adopt a policy rule, explicitly stating how it will adjust interest rates when inflation is above target. This, it is argued, is the most effective way to ensure that the central bank is credible – and is not susceptible to politicians seeking to temporarily lower unemployment as a way to improve their electoral prospects.

A small group of dissenting “heterodox” economists maintained a position of opposition to the ascendancy of monetarist ideas, arguing that Friedman’s diagnosis relied on an over-simplified view of inflation as the result of “too much money chasing too few goods”. Drawing inspiration from Keynes and his contemporaries Michal Kalecki, Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor, this group adopted the term “Post-Keynesian” to distinguish their position from that of the mainstream. The Post-Keynesians rejected the key monetarist assertion that the central bank can always influence economic activity by adjusting either the quantity of money or the policy rate of interest. As Keynes put it, monetary policy is like “pushing on a string”: tighter policy will dampen economic activity, but looser policy will not automatically act as a stimulus. Fiscal policy is therefore required for macroeconomic stabilisation.

From around the mid-1970s, Post-Keynesian economics was characterised by a transatlantic division of labour. In the UK, with Cambridge at the centre, much attention was focused on growth and distribution. In the US, a closer interest was taken in monetary and financial issues. It was with members of this group of US Post-Keynesians that Mosler formed an alliance in the 1990s. Mosler’s financial backing enabled institutional support at the University of Missouri-Kansas, where several prominent MMT developers gained employment, including a PhD training programme to incubate the next generation of MMT advocates.

While the theoretical core of MMT is close to the ideas of Post-Keynesian economics, MMT stole a march on their Post-Keynesians colleagues in exploiting social media and non-academic activism. With hindsight, however, these tactics turn out to be something of a double-edged sword: success relied on the use of slogans such as “money doesn’t grow on rich people”, “taxes don’t pay for spending” and “money is no object”. These slogans, and the zeal with which advocates adopted them, arguably serve to obscure the underlying ideas, making MMT claims appear more groundbreaking than is really the case.

Take the claim that “taxes don’t pay for spending”. It has long been taught in elementary macroeconomics classes that government spending adds to total national expenditure, while taxes are a deduction. The two variables are treated as moving independently of one another: taxation doesn’t constrain government spending. Since at least the time of Keynes, it has been understood that tax plays an important macroeconomic role in limiting total private sector spending, thus ensuring that economic capacity is available for government programmes. Whether this function should be characterised as taxes “paying for” spending is perhaps semantic.

Textbooks usually explain that the gap between government spending and taxation is covered by issuance of government bonds. MMT goes further, claiming that government spending is not financed by either taxes or bond issuance: Governments first spend, creating new money, then withdraw money from circulation by imposing taxes or issuing bonds. As a result, MMT proponents claim, taxes can be cut dramatically, without affecting the ability of government to spend, while bond issuance can be eliminated entirely.

Does MMT provide a good guide for policy? MMT proponents tend to deny that MMT provides policy proposals. Instead, it is claimed, MMT is a “lens” through which one comprehends the true nature of the monetary system. MMT is not a policy package, it is argued, because MMT is simply a description of how the system already works.

This claim stretches credibility. Putting the ELR proposal aside, MMT proponents do make policy proposals (such as those already noted). The common feature of such proposals is the use of deficit monetisation: issuing central bank money directly to pay for government programmes. For example, Warren Mosler proposes abolishing all payroll taxes, while Stephanie Kelton has argued that the Green New Deal, a massive public spending programme championed by the left of Democratic Party, can be implemented without needing to tax the wealthy.

Complaints by proponents that MMT is mischaracterised as “printing money” are therefore misplaced. The suggestion that MMT claims “deficits don’t matter” likewise causes protest: MMT proponents respond that deficits matter, but what matters is the so-called “real resource constraint”. As a result, as MMT proponents correctly note, deficits can be too small as well as too large – an obvious current example is Germany, where demand clearly falls short of real constraints, and there is substantial capacity for fiscal expansion. Despits this, MMT complaints are again misleading: MMT does argue that there is no financial constraint to government deficits. While it is almost certainly the case that the US and other advanced nations still have substantial fiscal space, despite running large deficits in some cases, the MMT claim is too extreme; at some point, fiscal limits will be reached even in rich nations. For countries further down the international currency hierarchy which face binding externally-imposed constraints related to foreign exchange needs, fiscal limits are very real.

Further, despite MMT proponents emphasising the “inflation barrier” as the true limit to deficit spending, little effort is devoted to the crucial questions of how real resources are to be mobilised: how to ensure that large government spending programmes such as the Green New Deal can be implemented without hitting supply side bottlenecks, capacity limits and political resistance. In framing everything in monetary terms, rather than real economic activity, MMT therefore obscures rather than illuminates important macroeconomic relationships.

Once the esoteric use of language and the more extreme claims are stripped away, there is arguably a rather conventional core to MMT. US economists JW Mason and Arun Jayadev argue that, in policy terms, MMT effectively amounts to a reversal of the “consensus assignment”. This refers to the idea that the two main tools of macroeconomic management, fiscal policy and monetary policy, should each be assigned a single target. The consensus assignment is that monetary policy (setting interest rates and, more recently, quantitative easing) should be used to manage aggregate demand, while fiscal policy is used to maintain sustainable debt-to-GDP ratios. In contrast, MMT proposes the use of fiscal policy to manage demand, and monetary policy (in the form of deficit monetisation and zero interest rates) to manage the public finances.

MMT is usually portrayed as a left-wing economic programme: Stephanie Kelton is an economic advisor to Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said that MMT should be “part of the conversation”. But although much of the MMT activist base is on the left, the relationship between MMT and politics is more complex. The line that “money doesn’t grow on rich people” can potentially play well on the right, as much as the left. As already noted, Mosler, a self-described “Tea Party Democrat” proposes the abolition of payroll taxes. Bill Mitchell argues that MMT is politically neutral, and MMT insights can inform either left- or right-wing political programmes. Care therefore needs to be taken when associating government deficits with the political left: US Republicans use deficit scaremongering to constrain public spending by Democrat administrations, but Republican governments are often less fiscally cautious in office — Trump’s tax cuts provide a recent example. Similarly, in the UK, after nearly a decade of government cuts premised on the false threat of a run on bond markets, the Conservative government has decided to embrace deficits, cutting taxes and making eye-catching spending claims.

The ideas of MMT could also be adopted by political groups that combine socially right-wing ideas with activist fiscal policy. In their recent book, “Reclaiming The State”, Bill Mitchell and his co-author Thomas Fazi note the successful use of deficit monetisation in Nazi Germany, while decrying the “tragedy” of the Left’s focus in recent decades on “identity politics”: opposition to racism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry. This, Mitchell argues, serves to radicalise the “ethnocentrism of the proletariat”. This framing of MMT in terms of national sovereignty will have obvious appeal to those wishing to implement nativist policies, such as restricting migration, while using deficit spending to ensure employment for those on the inside.

MMT has had remarkable success in opposing needless deficit hysteria and in popularising more enlightened ideas on macroeconomic management than those prevailing since the rise of monetarism in the 1970s. Recent events have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of monetary policy as a demand management tool: it is now widely accepted that fiscal policy must play a more active role. MMT activists should therefore be commended: they have succeeded where other heterodox economists have failed in popularising these important ideas. But the use of obscurantist language, oversimplification of complex issues and the tendency to make excessive claims ultimately undermines their case.

Time will tell if MMT is destined to become a passing phase or a more permanent “part of the conversation”. What seems more certain is that the days of reliance on monetary policy as the sole macroeconomic stabilisation tool are over: fiscal policy is back on the agenda.

Brexit voting patterns, education and geography

Rob Calvert Jump and Jo Michell

We have a “featured graphic” article on Brexit voting patterns and education forthcoming in Environment and Planning A. The electronic version is here, and an ungated pre-print is here.

It is by now well established that education is one of the most statistically important demographic factors in “explaining” the Brexit vote. It also has substantial predictive power. What has not been explored, to our knowledge, is the extent to which educational attainment and geography interact: scatter plots and regressions tell us how variables move together, but they don’t (usually) include information about geographical patterns.

The figure below demonstrates why such information might be important (hi-res version here). The maps show colour-coded Leave vote percentages by local authority. Black outlines denote authorities for which the proportion of the population with less than five GCSEs is below the national average of around 36%. The match between low GCSE attainment and Brexit votes is striking: only 4 of the 85 local authorities that voted Remain had lower than average high school educational attainment: Liverpool, Sefton, the Wirral, and Leicester (researchers have recently speculated that Liverpool’s Remain vote was influenced by the city’s boycott of The Sun) Conversely, there is only a single local authority, North Kesteven in the East Midlands, with better than average educational attainment and a Leave vote share of 60% or higher.

Map of Leave votes and educational attainment

Choropleth map and cartogram hex map of Leave vote share and educational attainment in England and Wales by local authority.

Areas of below-average educational attainment and strong Leave voting show a clear geographical structure: clusters extend from the east coast into Essex and Kent in the south, and into the West Midlands and the north west of England in the north. The correlation does not hold so well in Wales, Cumbria, Northumberland and County Durham, where several local authorities with below-average GCSE attainment returned Leave votes between 50% and 60%.

Simple bivariate correlations like this are of course likely to be confounded by other factors that covary with aggregate educational attainment: age is the most obvious. To test the extent to which this may be driving the result, we construct a measure of age-adjusted educational attainment, which adjusts for the age and sex structure of the local authority – the details are in the paper. The figure below shows how this measure correlates with Leave voting (hi-res version).

Map of Leave votes shares and age-adjusted educational attainment

Choropleth map and cartogram hex map of Leave vote share and age-adjusted educational attainment in England and Wales by local authority

Once age and sex are adjusted for, the extent to which low GSCE attainment is clustered strongly among parts of the east coast, the West Midlands and the North West is even more apparent. Again the match with strong Leave votes is striking. Adjusting for age and sex removes many of the local authorities returning Leave votes between 50% and 60% from the “below average” educational attainment category, although parts of Wales are still apparent “outliers”. The area of below average (adjusted) educational attainment also extends into Remain-voting East London and Manchester.

How should these patterns be interpreted in light of the various narratives seeking explain the Brexit vote? These can broadly be divided into those emphasising cultural divergence between socially liberal Remain voters and socially conservative Leave voters, and those emphasising economic drivers such as inequality, austerity, and the effects of globalisation. Since educational attainment is closely correlated with both social attitudes and economic success, our results could be invoked in favour of either set of narratives. We therefore caution against drawing any firm conclusions on the basis of these results. The distribution of strong Brexit votes and below average educational attainment does raise potential problems, however, for narratives of the vote based on an assumed North-South divide. More on this soon.


Kelton and Krugman on IS-LM and MMT

The MMT debates continue apace. New critiques — the good, the bad and the ugly — appear daily. Amidst the chaos, a guest post on Alphaville from three MMT authors stood out: the piece responded directly to various criticisms while discussing the policy challenges associated with controlling demand and inflation when fiscal policy is the primary macro stabilisation tool. These are the debates we should be having.

Unfortunately, it is one step forward, two steps backwards: elsewhere Stephanie Kelton and Paul Krugman have been debating across the pages of the Bloomberg and the New York Times websites. The debate is, to put it politely, a mess.

Krugman opened proceedings with a critique of Abba Lerner’s Functional Finance: the doctrine that fiscal policy should be judged by its macroeconomic outcomes, not on whether the financing is “sound”. Lerner argued that fiscal policy should be set at a position consistent with full employment, while interest rates should be set at a rate that ensures “the most desirable level of investment”. Krugman correctly notes the lack of  precision in Lerner’s statement on interest rates. He then argues that, “Lerner neglected the tradeoff between monetary and fiscal policy”, and that if the rate of interest on government debt exceeds the rate of growth, either the debt to GDP ratio spirals out of control or the government is forced to tighten fiscal policy.

Kelton hit back, arguing that Krugman’s concerns are misplaced because interest rates are a policy variable: the central bank can set them at whatever level it likes. Kelton points out that Krugman is assuming a “crowding out” effect: higher deficits lead to higher interest rates. Kelton argues that instead of “crowding out”, Lerner was concerned about “crowding in”: the “danger” that government deficits would push down the rate of interest, stimulating too much investment. Putting aside whether this is an accurate description of Lerner’s view, MMT does diverge from Lerner on this issue: since MMT rejects a clear link between interest rates and investment,  the MMT proposal is simply to set interest rates at a low level, or even zero, and leave them there.

So far, this looks like a straightforward disagreement about the relationship between government deficits and interest rates: Krugman says deficits cause higher interest rates, Kelton says they cause lower interest rates (although she also says interest rates are a policy variable — this apparent tension in Kelton’s position is resolved later on)

Krugman responded. This is where the debate starts to get messy. Krugman takes issue with the claim that the deficit should be set at the level consistent with full employment. He argues that at different rates of interest there will be different levels of private sector spending, implying that the fiscal position consistent with full employment varies with the rate of interest. As a result, the rate of interest isn’t a pure policy variable: there is a tradeoff between monetary and fiscal policy: with a larger deficit, interest rates must be higher, “crowding out” private investment spending.

Krugman’s argument involves two assumptions: 1) there exists a direct causal relationship between the rate of interest and the level of private investment expenditure, and, 2) the central bank will react to employment above “full employment” with higher interest rates. He illustrates this using an IS curve and a vertical “full employment” line (see below). He declares that “this all seems clear to me, and hard to argue with”.


At this point the debate still appears to remain focused on the core question: do government deficits raise or lower the rate of interest? By now, Krugman is baffled with Kelton’s responses:

It seems as if she’s saying that deficits necessarily lead to an increase in the monetary base, that expansionary fiscal policy is automatically expansionary monetary policy. But that is so obviously untrue – think of the loose fiscal/tight money combination in the 1980s – that I hope she means something different. Yet I can’t figure out what that different thing might be.

This highlights two issues: first, how little of MMT Krugman has bothered to absorb, and, second, how little MMTers appear to care about engaging others in a clear debate. Kelton, following the MMT line, is tacitly assuming that all deficits are monetised and that issuing bonds is an additional, and possibly unnecessary, “sterilisation” operation. Under these assumptions, deficits will automatically lead to an increase in central bank reserves and therefore to a fall in the money market rate of interest. But Kelton at no point makes these assumptions explicit. To most people, a government deficit implicitly means bond issuance, in correspondence with the historical facts.

So Krugman and Kelton have two differences in assumptions that matter here. First, Krugman assumes a mechanical relationship between interest rates and investment and thus a downward sloping IS curve, while Kelton rejects this relationship. Second, they are assuming different central bank behaviour. Krugman assumes that the central bank will react to fiscal expansion with tighter monetary policy in the form of higher interest rates: the central bank won’t allow employment to exceed the “full employment” level. Kelton assumes, firstly, that fiscal policy can be set at the “full employment” level, without any direct implications for interest rates and, secondly, that deficits are monetised so that money market rates fall as the deficit expands.

The “debate” heads downhill from here. Krugman asks several direct questions, including “[does] expansionary fiscal policy actually reduce interest rates?”. Kelton responds, “Answer: Yes. Pumping money into the economy increases bank reserves and reduces banks’ bids for federal funds. Any banker will tell you this.” Even now,  neither party seems to have identified the difference in assumptions about central bank behaviour.

The debate then shifts to IS-LM. Krugman asks if Kelton accepts the overall framework of discussion — the one he previously noted “all seems clear to me, and hard to argue with”. Kelton responds that, no, MMT rejects IS-LM because it is “not stock-flow consistent”, while also correctly noting that Krugman simply assumes that investment is a mechanical function of the rate of interest.

In fact, Krugman isn’t even using an IS-LM model — he has no LM curve — so the “not stock flow consistent” response is off target. The stock-flow issue in IS-LM derives from the fact that the model solves for an equilibrium between equations for the stock of money (LM), and investment and saving (IS) which are flow variables. But without the LM curve it is a pure flow model: Krugman is assuming, as does Kelton, that the central bank sets the rate of interest directly. So Kelton’s claim that “his model assumes a fixed money supply, which paves the way for the crowding-out effect!” is incorrect.

Similarly, Kelton’s earlier statement that Krugman “subscribes to the idea that monetary policy should target an invisible ‘neutral rate'” makes little sense in the context of Krugman’s IS model: there is no “invisible” r* in a simple IS model of the type Krugman is using: the full employment rate of interest can be read straight off the diagram for any given fiscal position.

Krugman then took to Twitter, calling Kelton’s response “a mess”, while still apparently failing to spot that they are talking at cross purposes. Kelton hit back again arguing that,

The crude, IS-LM interpretation of Keynes demonstrates that, under normal conditions, an increase in deficit spending will push up interest rates and lead to some crowding-out of investment spending. There is no room for a technical analysis of monetary operations in that framework.

Can this discussion be rescued? Can MMT and IS-LM be reconciled? The answer, I think, turns out to be, “yes, sort of”.

I wasn’t the only person pondering this question: several people on Twitter went back to this post by Nick Rowe where he tries to “reverse engineer” MMT using the IS-LM model, and comes up with the following diagram:

Does this help? I think it does. In fact, this is exactly the diagram used by Victoria Chick in 1973, in The Theory of Monetary Policy, to describe what she calls the “extreme Keynesian model” (bottom right):


So how do we use this diagram to resolve the Krugman-Kelton debate? Before answering, it should be noted that MMTers are correct to point out problems with the IS-LM framework. Some are listed in this article by Mario Seccareccia and Marc Lavoie who conclude that IS-LM should be rejected, but “if one were to hold one’s nose,” the “least worst” configuration is what Chick calls the “extreme Keynesian” version.

To see how we resolve the debate, and at the risk of repeating myself, recall that Krugman and Kelton are talking about two different central bank reactions. In Krugman’s IS model, the central bank reacts to looser fiscal policy with higher interest rates. Kelton, on the other hand, is talking about how deficit monetisation lowers the overnight money market rate. Kelton’s claim that a government deficit reduces “interest rates” is largely meaningless: it is just a truism. Flooding the overnight markets with liquidity will quickly push the rate of interest to zero, or whatever rate of interest the central bank pays on reserve balances. It is a central bank policy choice: the opposite of the one assumed by Krugman.

But what effect will this have on the interest rates which really matter for investment and debt sustainability: the rates on corporate and government debt? The answer is “it depends” — there are far too many factors involved to posit a direct mechanical relationship.

This brings a problem that is lurking in the background into sight. Both Kelton and Krugman are talking about “interest rates” or “the interest rate” as if there were a single rate of interest, or that all rates move together — the yield curve shifts bodily with movements of the policy rate. As the chart below shows, even for government debt alone this is a problematic assumption.


Now, in the original IS-LM model, the LM curve is supposed to show how changes in the government controlled “money supply” affects the long term bond rate of interest. This is because, for Keynes, the rate of interest is the price of liquidity: by giving up liquidity (money) in favour of bonds, investors are rewarded with interest payments. But the problem with this is that we know that central banks don’t set the “money supply”: they set a rate of interest. So, it has become customary to draw a horizontal MP curve, allegedly representing an elastic supply of money at the rate of interest set by the central bank. But note that in switching from a sloping to a horizontal LM curve, the “interest rate” has switched from the long bond rate to the rate set by the central bank.

So how is the long bond rate determined in the horizontal MP model? The answer is it isn’t. As in the more contemporary three-equation IS-AS-MP formulation, it is just assumed that the central bank fixes the rate of interest that determines total spending. In switching from the upward sloping LM curve to a horizontal MP curve, the crude approximation to the yield curve in the older model is eliminated.

What of the IS curve? Kelton is right that a mechanical relationship between interest rates and investment (and saving) behaviour is highly dubious. If we assume that demand is completely interest-inelastic, then we arrive at the “extreme Keynesian” vertical IS curve. But does Kelton really think that sharp Fed rate hikes will have no effect on total spending? I doubt it. As Seccareccia and Lavoie note, once the effects of interest rates on the housing market are included, a sloping-but-steep IS curve seems plausible.

Now, does the “extreme Keynesian” IS-LM model, all the heroic assumptions notwithstanding, represent the MMT assumptions? I think, very crudely, it does. The government can set fiscal policy wherever it likes, both irrespective of interest rates and without affecting interest rates: the IS curve can be placed anywhere along the horizontal axis. Likewise, the central bank can set interest rates to anything it likes, again without having any effect on total expenditure. This seems a reasonable, if highly simplified approximation to the standard MMT assumptions that fiscal policy and monetary policy can be set entirely independently of each other.

But is it useful? Not really, other than perhaps in showing the limitations of IS-LM. The only real takeaway is that we deserve a better quality of economic debate. People with the visibility and status of Kelton and Krugman should be able to identify the assumptions driving their opponent’s conclusions and hold a meaningful debate about whether these assumptions hold — without requiring some blogger to pick up the pieces.

Misunderstanding MMT

MMT continues to generate debate. Recent contributions include Jonathan Portes’ critique in Prospect and Stephanie Kelton’s Bloomberg op-ed downplaying the AOC and Warren tax proposals.

Something that caught my eye in Jonathans’ discussion was this quote from Richard Murphy: “A government with a balanced budget necessarily denies an economy the funds it needs to function.” This is an odd claim, and not something that follows from MMT.

Richard has responded to Jonathan’s article, predictably enough with straw man accusations, and declaring, somewhat grandiosely, that “the left and Labour really do need to adopt the core ideas of modern monetary theory … This debate is now at the heart of what it is to be on the left”

Richard included a six-point definition of what he regards to be the core propositions of MMT. Paraphrasing in some cases, these are:

  1. All money is created by the state or other banks acting under state licence
  2. Money only has value because the government promises to back it …
  3. … because taxes must be paid in government-issued money
  4. Therefore government spending comes before taxation
  5. Government deficits are necessary and good because without them the means to make settlement would not exist in our economy
  6. This liberates us to think entirely afresh about fiscal policy

Of these, I’d say the first is true, with some caveats, the second and third are partially true, and the fourth is sort of true but also not particularly interesting. I’ll leave further elaboration for another time, because I want to focus on point five, which is almost a restatement of the quote in Jonathan’s Prospect piece.

This claim is neither correct nor part of MMT. I don’t believe that any of the core MMT scholars would argue that deficits are required to ensure that there is sufficient money in circulation. (Since Richard uses the term “funds” in the first quote and “means [of] settlement” in the second, I’m going to assume he means money).

To see why, consider what makes up “money” in a modern monetary system. Bank deposits are the bulk of the money we use. These are issued by private banks when they make loans. Bank notes, issued by the Bank of England make up a much smaller proportion of the money in the hands of the public. Finally, there are the balances that private banks hold at the Bank of England, called reserves.

What is the relationship between these types of money and the government surplus or deficit? The figure below shows how both deposits and reserves have changed over time, alongside the deficit.


Can you spot a connection between the deficit and either of the two money measures? No, that’s because there isn’t one — and there is no reason to expect one.

Reserves increase when the Bank of England lends to commercial banks or purchases assets from the private sector. Deposits increase when commercial banks lend to households or firms. Until 2008, the Bank of England’s inflation targeting framework meant it aimed to keep the amount of reserves in the system low — it ran a tight balance sheet. Following the crisis, QE was introduced and the Bank rapidly increased reserves by purchasing government debt from private financial institutions. Over this period, and despite the increase in reserves, the ratio of deposits to GDP remained pretty stable.

The quantity of neither reserves nor deposits have any direct relationship with the government deficit. This is because the deficit is financed using bonds. For every £1bn of reserves and deposits created when the government spends in excess of taxation, £1bn of reserves and deposits are withdrawn when the Treasury sells bonds to finance that deficit.

This is exactly what MMT says will happen (although MMT also argues that these bond sales may not always be necessary). So MMT nowhere makes the claim that deficits are required to ensure that the system has enough money to function.

It is true that the smooth operation of the banking and financial system relies on well-functioning markets in government bonds. During the Clinton Presidency there were concerns that budget surpluses might lead the government to pay back all debt, thus leaving the financial system high and dry.

But the UK is not in any danger of running out of government debt. Government surpluses or deficits thus have no bearing on the ability of the monetary system to function.

The macroeconomic reason for running a deficit is straightforward and has nothing to do with money. The government should run a deficit when the desired saving of the private sector exceeds the sum of private investment expenditure and the surplus with the rest of the world. This is not an insight of MMT: it was stated by Kalecki and Keynes in the 1930s.

If a debate about MMT really is at “the heart of what it is to be on the left” then Richard might want to take a break to get up to speed on MMT (and monetary economics) before that debate continues.