money

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”.

250219krugman1-jumbo

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:

Rowe-IS-LM
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):

Chick-Theory-Monetary-Policy-scaled

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.

yc

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.

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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.

uk-money-supply-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.

MMT meets Rey’s dilemma: a balance sheet view of capital flight (coming soon to an EM country near you)

Recently, a colleague emailed with the following set of questions: ‘a balance sheet approach to defending currencies. Do you know literature that explains in detail the globally interlocking balance sheets between central banks, commercial banks and what happens when a national government has to defend its currency? What is the role of national and foreign reserves and how do they travel these balance sheets in the process of trying to defend a currency? I came back to this question when discussing the Swedish fight to defend the Dollar-pegged Krona in the early 90s and the promise of MMT? Most particularly we wondered to what extent national governments can just issue Krona and use them to buy foreign reserves or what sets the limits exactly to this attempt?’

My MMT friends do have answers to these questions (and they do spend a lot of time defending MMT from critiques that it doesnt consider balance of payment constraints to monetary sovereignty). I thought I would answer these questions a la Minsky, with balance sheets, since that’s how I teach my undegrad students about exchange rate management in emerging/developing countries. I teach by setting those questions within the broader conversations about global liquidity, global financial cycles and Rey’s dilemma – independent monetary policy is only possible if countries manage capital flows (capital controls).

  1. Start with an economy in autarchy: central bank issues reserves to banking sector for settlement purposes (banks pay each other in reserves), banks lend, create bank deposits in the process.

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2a. Commercial bank borrows abroad from parent bank/interbank market (USD/EUR/JPY)

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(this scenario played out in Eastern Europe before Lehman, when foreign-owned banks would borrow from parent/interbank markets – ending up with the Vienna Initiative)

2.b Commercial bank funding via fx swap with non-residents

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Step 1 occurs where local banks are allowed to lend retail in foreign currency. If it looks like MMT 2.0, it is not exactly that – without legal restrictions, the only constraint on banks creating foreign money (eurodollars) is their foreign currency reserves (an exogenous money story a la monetarism).

Even with restrictions on the lending in foreign currency (skipping steps 1&2), banks typically intermediate non-resident demand for local currency bonds via fx swaps (see my paper here on growing appetite for EM securities as part of shadow banking reform agenda). This is big enough that BIS has recently proposed to approach fx swaps as missing debt. Note that this is a global liquidity story:  without capital controls, non-resident demand/bank borrowing abroad reflects funding conditions in US money markets (see Bruno and Shin’s risk taking channel of monetary policy).

3. Rey’s dilemma kicks in: central bank intervenes to stem currency appreciation (for mercantilist or macroprudential reasons)

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For this commercial bank, the central bank’s policy rate is no longer a binding constraint, since it obtains local base money (reserves) by selling its fx liquidity to the central bank, rather than in the local interbank money market. When interest rate differentials are significant, this eases cost of funding (in the macro literature, this is part of the debate on the effect of financial globalisation on the effectiveness of inflation targeting central banks).  It’s global liquidity, not domestic liquidity, that determines short-term money market rates.

4. To regain monetary control, central banks issue own debt.

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This operation is known as sterilisation: that is, ‘sterilising’ the impact of fx market interventions on domestic money market rates. Central bank issues own securities (or sells government bonds, or takes deposits) in order to absorb back the reserves it created when it paid for the fx liquidity it bought from banks. Note here that this does not solve Rey’s dilemma, since banks have full discretion over how much to place in central bank securities. Rather, for banks this is an attractive carry – borrowing cheap abroad, placing it in risk-free local securities (banks can hedge fx risk).

If you think this is a theoretical exercise, think again.

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5. The limits to monetary sovereignty: global liquidity conditions tighten, capital flight ensues.

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In step 1, non-residents sell local securities – potentially triggering liquidity spirals if large, unregulated local repo market exists.  Note that by step 5, local banks with no direct links to global finance also start to suffer as interbank liquidity tightens. Cant the central bank mitigate this by reverse sterilisations, that is, by again insulating fx market interventions from domestic money market dynamics? The lessons from the 1997 Asian crisis, according to the IMF, is to segment domestic money markets, that is, to prevent local banks from lending to (non-resident) speculators:

Because a speculative attack requires the establishment of a net short position in the domestic currency, countries have employed a number of tactics to raise the costs of short positions. When sterilized intervention fails to stem capital outflows, short-term interest rates are allowed to rise, tightening conditions in financial markets and making it more costly for speculators to obtain a net short position by borrowing domestic currency. Frequently, however, an increase in short-term money market rates is transmitted quickly to the rest of the economy; it may therefore be difficult to sustain for an extended period, especially if there are weaknesses in either the financial system or the nonfinancial sector. When high short-term interest rates impose an unacceptable burden on domestic residents, countries may “split” the markets for domestic currency by requesting that domestic financial institutions not lend to speculators. Foreign exchange transactions associated with trade flows, foreign direct investment, and equity investments are usually excluded from such restrictions. In essence, a two-tier system is created that prevents speculators from getting domestic credit while allowing nonspeculative domestic credit demand to be satisfied at normal market rates. (IMF 1997)

Even if the central bank successfully protects local banks  from cross-border volatility triggered by global financial cycles, it can only defend the currency to the extent that it has foreign reserves. It will most likely not wait until it runs out. In the happy scenario, it draws on its swap lines to weather capital flight – but few central banks have that luxury (and ask yourself, how many will actually have it when Donald Trump needs to be consulted on this). The worst case scenario:  IMF/Troika/whoever will lend  – with heavy conditionality.

Austerity and household debt: a macro link?

For some time now I’ve been arguing that not only does austerity have real effects but also financial implications.

When the government runs a deficit, it produces a flow supply of safe assets: government bonds. If the desired saving of the private sector exceeds the level of capital investment, it will absorb these assets without government spending inducing inflationary tendencies.

This was the situation in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. Attempted deleveraging led to increased household saving, reduced spending and lower aggregate demand. Had the government not run a deficit of the size it did, the recession would have been more severe and prolonged.

When the coalition came to power in 2010 and austerity was introduced, the flow supply of safe assets began to contract. What happens if those who want to accumulate financial assets — wealthy households for the most part — are not willing to reduce their saving rate? If there is an unchanged flow demand for financial assets at the same time as the government reduces the supply, what is the result?

Broadly speaking there are two possible outcomes: one is lower demand and output: a recession. If growth is to be maintained, the only option is that some other group must issue a growing volume of financial liabilities, to offset the reduction in supply by the government.

In the UK, since 2010, this group has been households — mostly households on lower incomes. As the government cut spending, incomes fell and public services were rolled back. Unsurprisingly, many households fell back on borrowing to make ends meet.

The graph below shows the relationship between the government deficit and the annual increase in gross household debt (both series are four quarter rolling sums deflated to 2015 prices).

hh2

From 2010 onwards, steady reduction in the government deficit was accompanied by a steady increase in the rate of accumulation of household debt. The ratio is surprisingly steady: every £2bn of deficit reduction has been accompanied by an additional £1bn per annum increase in the accumulation of household debt.

Note that this is the rate at which gross household debt is accumulated — not the “net financial balance” of the household sector. The latter is highlighted in discussions of “sectoral balances”, and in particular the accounting requirement that a reduction in the government deficit be accompanied by either an increase in the deficit of the private sector or a reduction in the deficit with the foreign sector.

Critics of the sectoral balances argument make the point that the net financial balance of the household sector is not the relevant indicator. Most household borrowing takes place within the household sector, mediated by the financial system. Savers hold bank deposits and pension fund claims, while other households borrow from the banks. The gross indebtedness of the household sector can therefore either increase or decrease without any change in the net position. Critics therefore see the sectoral balances argument argue as incoherent because it displays a failure to understand basic national accounting. This view has been articulated by Chris Giles and Andrew Lilico, among others.

For the UK, at least, this criticism appears misplaced. The chart below plots four measures of the household sector financial position along with the government deficit. The indicators for the household sector are the net financial balance, gross household debt as a share of both GDP and household disposable income, and the household saving ratio. The correlation between the series is evident.

hh3

The relationship between the government deficit and the change in gross household debt is surprisingly stable. The figure below plots the series for the full period for which data are available from the ONS: from 1987 until 2017. With the exception of the period 2001-2008, where there is a clear structural break, the relationship is persistent.

hh1

Why should this be the case? One needs to be careful with apparently stable relationships between macroeconomic variables — they have a habit of breaking down. One reason for caution is that the composition of household debt has changed over the period shown: in the pre-2008 period most of the increase was mortgage borrowing, while post-crisis, consumer debt in the form of credit cards, car loans and so on has played an increasing role. Nonetheless, a hypothesis can be advanced:

If one group of households saves a relatively constant share of income — and this represents the majority of total saving in the household sector — then variance in the supply of assets issued by public sector must be matched either by variations in output and employment or by variance in the issuance of financial liabilities by other sectors. If monetary policy is used to maintain steady inflation and therefore relatively stable output and employment, changes in the cost of borrowing may induce other (non-saver) households to adjust their consumption decisions in such a way that stabilises output.

Put another way, if the contribution of government deficit spending to total demand varies and saving among some households is relatively inelastic, avoiding recessions requires another sector (or sub-sector) to go into deficit in order that total demand be maintained.

This hypothesis fits with the observation that the household saving ratio falls as the rate of gross debt accumulation increases. Paradoxically, the problem is not too little household saving but too much, given the volume of investment. If inelastic savers were willing to reduce their saving and increase consumption in response to lower government spending, then recession could be avoided without an increase in household debt. A better solution would be an increase in the business investment of the private sector: it is the difference between saving and investment that matters.

There is a clear structural break in the relationship between the deficit and household debt, starting around 2001. This is likely the result of the global credit boom which gathered pace after Alan Greenspan cut the target federal funds rate from 6.5% in 1999 to 1% in 2001. During this period, the financial position of the corporate sector shifted from deficit to surplus, matched by large rises in the accumulation of household debt. With the outbreak of crisis in 2008, the previous relationship appears to re-emerge.

Careful econometrics work is required to try and disentangle the drivers of rising household debt. But relationships between macroeconomic variables with this degree of stability are unusual. Something interesting is going on here.

EDIT: 22 November

Toby Nangle left a comment suggesting that it would be good to show the data on borrowing by different income levels. It’s a good point, and raises a complex issue about the distribution of lending and borrowing within the household sector. This is something that J. W. Mason and others have been discussing. I need another post to fully explain my thinking on this, but for now, I’ll include the following graph:

hh4

This is calculated using an experimental new dataset compiled by the ONS which uses micro data source to try and produce disaggregated macro datasets. Data are currently only available for three years — 2008, 2012, and 2013 — but I understand that the ONS are working on a more complete dataset.

What this shows is that in 2008, at the end of the 2000s credit boom, only the top two income quintiles were saving: the bottom 60% of the population was dissaving. In 2012 and 2013, the household saving ratio and financial balance had increased substantially and this shows up in the disaggregated figures as positive saving for all but the bottom quintile.

I suspect that as the saving ratio and net financial balance have subsequently declined, and gross debt has increased, the distributional pattern is reverting to what it looked like in 2008: saving at the top of the income distribution and dissaving in the lower quintiles.

Full Reserve Banking: The Wrong Cure for the Wrong Disease

Towards the end of last year, the Guardian published an opinion piece arguing there is a link between climate change and the monetary system. The author, Jason Hickel, claims our current monetary system induces a need for continuous economic growth – and is therefore an important cause of global warming. As a solution, Hickel endorses the full reserve banking proposals put forward by the pressure group Positive Money (PM).

This is an argument I encounter regularly. It appears to have become the default position among many environmental activists: it is official Green Party policy. This is unfortunate because both the diagnosis of the problem and the proposed remedy are mistaken. It is one element of a broader set of arguments about money and banking put forward by PM. (Hickel is not part of PM, but his article was promoted by PM on social media, and similar arguments can be found on the PM website.)

The PM analysis starts from the observation that money in modern economies is mostly issued by private banks: most of what we think of as money is not physical cash but customer deposits at retail banks. Further, for a bank to make a loan, it does not require someone to first make a cash deposit. Instead, when a bank makes a loan it creates money ‘out of thin air’. Bank lending increases the amount of money in the system.

This is true. And, as Positive Money rightly note, neither the mechanism nor the implications are widely understood. But Positive Money do little to increase public understanding – instead of explaining the issues clearly, they imbue this money creation process with an unnecessary air of mysticism.

This isn’t difficult. As J. K. Galbraith famously observed: ‘The process by which banks create money is so simple the mind is repelled. With something so important, a deeper mystery seems only decent.’

To the average person, money appears as something solid, tangible, concrete. For most, money – or lack of it – is an important (if not overwhelming) constraint on their lives. How can money be something which is just created out of thin air? What awful joke is this?

This leads to what Perry Mehrling calls the ‘fetish of the real’ and ‘alchemy resistance’ – people instinctively feel they have been duped and look for a route back to solid ground. Positive Money exploit this unease but deepen the confusion by providing an inaccurate account of the functioning of the monetary and financial system.

There is nothing new about the ‘fetish of the real’. Economists have been trying to separate the ‘real’ economy from the financial system for centuries. Restrictive ‘tight money’ proposals have more commonly been associated with free-market economists on the political right, while economists inclined towards collectivism have favoured less monetary restriction. One reason is that the right tends to view inflation as the key macroeconomic danger while the left is more concerned with unemployment.

The original blueprint for the Positive Money proposal is known as the Chicago Plan, named after a group of University of Chicago economists who argued for the replacement of ‘fractional reserve’ banking with ‘full reserve banking’. To understand what this means, look at the balance sheet below.

bs1

The table shows a stylised list of the assets and liabilities on a bank balance sheet. On the asset side, banks hold loans made to customers and ‘reserve balances’ (or ‘reserves’ for short). The latter item is a claim on the Central Bank – for example, the Bank of England in the UK. These reserve balances are used when banks make payments among themselves. Reserves can also be swapped on demand for physical cash at the Central Bank. Since only the Central Bank can create and issue these reserves, alongside physical cash, they form the part of the ‘money supply’ which is under direct state control.

For banks, reserves therefore play a role similar to that of deposits for the general public – they allow them to obtain cash on demand or to make payments directly between their individual accounts at the Bank of England

The only thing on the liability side is customer deposits – what we think of as ‘money’. These deposits can increase for two reasons. If customers decide to ‘deposit’ cash with the bank, the bank accepts the cash (which it will probably swap for reserves at the Central Bank) and adds a deposit balance for that customer. Both sides of the bank balance sheet increase by the same amount: a deposit of £100 cash will lead to an increase in reserves of £100 and an increase in deposits of £100.

Most increases in deposits happen a different way, however. When a bank makes a loan, both sides of its balance sheet increase as in the above example – except this time ‘loans’ not ‘reserves’ increases on the asset side. When a bank lends £100 to a customer, both ‘loans’ and ‘deposits’ increase by £100. Absent any other changes, the amount of money in the world increases by £100: money has been created ’out of nothing’.

The Positive Money proposal – like the Chicago Plan of the 1930s – would outlaw this money-creating power. Under the proposal, banks would not be allowed to make loans: the only asset allowed on their balance sheet would be ‘reserves’ – hence the name ‘full reserve banking’. Since reserves can only be issued by the Central Bank, private banks would lose their ability to create new money when they make loans.

What’s wrong with the PM proposal? To answer, we first need to ask what problem PM are trying to solve. They list several issues on their website: environmental degradation, inequality, financial instability and a lack of decent jobs. How does Positive Money think the monetary system contributes to these problems? The following quote and diagram, taken from the Positive Money website, give the crux of the argument:

The ‘real’ (non-financial), productive economy needs money to function, but because all money is created as debt, that sector also has to pay interest to the banks in order to function. This means that the real-economy businesses – shops, offices, factories etc – end up subsidising the banking sector. The more private debt in the economy, the more money is sucked out of the real economy and into the financial sector.

positive-money-1

This illustrates the central misconception in PM’s description of money and banking. The ‘real economy’ needs money to operate – so individuals and business can make payments. This is correct. But PM imply that in order to obtain this money, the ‘real economy’ must borrow from the banks. And because the banks charge interest on this lending, they then end up sucking money back out of the ‘real economy’ as interest payments. In order to cover these payments, the ‘real economy’ must obtain more money – which it has to borrow at interest! And so on.

If this were a genuine description of the monetary system, the debts of the ‘real economy’ to the banks would grow uncontrollably and the system would have collapsed decades ago – PM essentially describes a pyramid scheme. The connection to the ‘infinite growth’ narrative is also clear – the ‘real economy’ is forced to produce ever more output just to feed the banks, destroying the environment in the process.

But neither the quote nor the diagram is accurate. To illustrate, look at the diagram below. It shows a bank, with a balance sheet as above, along with two individuals, Jack and Jill. Two steps are shown. In the first step, Jill takes out a loan from the bank – the bank creates new money as it lends. In the second step, Jill uses this money to buy something from Jack. Jack ends up holding a deposit while Jill is left with a loan to the bank outstanding. The bank sits between the two individuals.

frb1
The point here is twofold. First, the ultimate creditor – the person providing credit to Jill – is not the bank, but Jack. Jack has lent to Jill, with the bank acting as a ‘middleman’. The bank is not a net lender, but an intermediary between Jill and Jack – albeit one with a very important function: it guarantees Jill’s loan. If Jill doesn’t make good on her promise to pay, the bank will take the hit – not Jack. Second, the initial decision to lend wasn’t made by Jack – it was made by the bank. By inserting itself between Jack and Jill, and substituting Jill’s guarantee with its own, the bank allows Jill to borrow and spend without Jack first choosing to lend. But in accepting a deposit as a payment, Jack also makes a loan – to the bank. As well as acting as ‘money’, a bank deposit is a credit relationship: a loan from the deposit-holder to the bank.

A more accurate depiction of the outcome of bank lending is therefore the following:

positive-money-2

Jill will be charged interest on her loan – but Jack will also receive interest on his deposit. Interest payments don’t flow in only one direction – to the bank – as in the PM diagram. Instead interest flows both in and out of the bank, which makes its profits on the ‘spread’, (the difference) between the two interest rates: it will charge Jill a higher rate than it pays Jack. This is not to argue that there aren’t deep problems with the ways the banking system is able to generate large profits, often through unproductive or even fraudulent activity – but rather that money creation by banks does not cause the problems suggested by Positive Money.

So the banks don’t endlessly siphon off income from the ‘real economy’ – but isn’t it still the case that in order to obtain money for payments, someone has to borrow at interest and someone else has to lend?

To see why this is misleading, we need to consider not only how money is created but also how it is destroyed. We’ve already seen how new money is created when a bank makes a loan. The process also happens in reverse: money is destroyed when loans are repaid. For example, if after the steps above, Jack were to subsequently buy something from Jill, the deposit will return to her ownership and she can pay off her loan – extinguishing money in the process.

One possibility is that instead of selling goods to Jack – for example a phone or a bike – Jill ‘sells’ Jack an IOU: a private loan agreement between the two of them. In this case Jill can pay off her loan to the bank and replace it with a direct loan from Jack. This would leave the balance sheets looking as follows:

frb2

Note that after Jill repays her loan, the bank is no longer involved – there is only a direct credit relationship between Jack and Jill.

This mechanism operates constantly in the modern economy – individuals swap bank deposits for other financial assets, or pay a proportion of their wages into a pension scheme. In fact, the volume of non-bank financial intermediation outweighs the volume of bank lending. The implication is that the demand from individuals for interest-bearing financial instruments is greater than the demand for bank deposits as a means of payment. Rather than banks being able to force loans on people because of their need for money to make payments, the opposite is true: people save for their future by getting rid of money and swapping it for other financial assets.

The quantity of money in the system isn’t determined by bank lending, as in the PM account. Instead it is a residual – the amount of deposits remaining in customer accounts after firms borrow, hire and invest; workers receive wages, consume and save; and the financial systems matches savers to borrower directly through equity and bond markets, pension funds and other non-bank mechanisms.

So the monetary argument is wrong. What of the argument that lending at interest requires endless economic growth?

Economic growth can be broken down into two components: population increase and growth in output per person. For around the last 100 years, global GDP growth of around 3 per cent per year has been split evenly between these two factors: about 1.5 per cent was due to population growth. The economy is growing because there are more people in it. This is not caused by bank lending. Further, projections suggest that the global population will peak by around 2050 then begin to fall as a result of falling fertility rates.

What about growth of output per head? Again, the answer is no. There is simply no mechanistic link between lending at interest and economic growth. Interest flows distribute income from one group of people to another – from borrowers to lenders. Government taxation and social security payments play a similar role. Among other functions, lending and borrowing at interest provides a mechanism by which people can accumulate financial claims during their working life which allow them to receive an income after retirement when they consume out of previously acquired wealth.  This mechanism is perfectly compatible with zero or negative growth.

If anything, excessive lending is likely to cause lower growth in the long run: in the aftermath of big credit expansions and busts, economic growth declines as households and firms reduce spending in an attempt to pay down debt.

Even if we did want to reduce growth rates, history teaches us that using monetary means to do so is a very bad idea. During the monetarist experiment of the early 1980s, the Thatcher government tried exactly this: they restricted growth of the money supply, ostensibly in an attempt to reduce inflation. The result was a recession in which 3 million people were out of work.

Oddly, despite the environmental argument, we can also find arguments from PM about ways that monetary mechanisms can be used to induce higher output and employment. These proposals, which go by titles such as ‘Green QE’ and ‘People’s QE’, argue that the government should issue new money and use it to pay for infrastructure spending.

An increase in government infrastructure spending is undoubtedly a good idea. But we don’t need to change the monetary system to achieve it. The public sector can do what it has always done and issue bonds to finance expenditures. (This sentence will inevitably raise the ire of the Modern Money Theory crowd, but I don’t want to get sidetracked by that debate here.)

Further, the conflation of QE with the use of newly printed money for government spending is another example of sleight of hand by Positive Money. QE involves swapping one sort of financial asset for another – the central bank swaps reserves for government bonds. This is a different type of operation to government investment spending – but Positive Money present the case as if it were a straight choice between handing free money to banks and spending money on health and education.  It is not. It should also be emphasised that printing money to pay for government spending is an entirely distinct policy proposal to full reserve banking – which do would nothing in itself to raise infrastructure spending – but this is obfuscated because PM labels both proposals ‘Sovereign Money’.

The same is true of other issues raised by PM: inequality, excessive debt, and financial instability. All are serious issues which urgently need to be addressed. But PM is wrong to promise a simple fix for these problems. None would be solved by full reserve banking – on the contrary, it is likely to exacerbate some. For example, by narrowing the focus to the deposit-issuing banks, PM excludes the rest of the financial system – investment banks, hedge funds, insurance companies, money market funds and many others – from consideration. The relationship between retail banks and these ‘shadow’ banking institutions is complex, but in narrowing the focus of ‘financial stability’ to only the former, the PM proposals would potentially shift risk-taking activity away from the more regulated retail banking system to the less regulated sector.

Another justification PM provide for full reserve banking is that issuing money generates profits in itself. By stripping the banks of money creation powers, the government could instead gain this profit (known as ‘seigniorage’):

Government finances would receive a boost, as the Treasury would earn the profit on creating electronic money, instead of only on the creation of bank notes. The profit on the creation of bank notes has raised £16.7bn for the Treasury over the past decade. But by allowing banks to create electronic money, it has lost hundreds of billions of potential revenue – and taxpayers have ended up making up the difference.

This is incorrect. As explained above, banks make a profit on the ‘spread’ between rates of interest on deposits and loans. There is simply no reason why the act of issuing money generates profits in itself. It’s not clear where the £16.7bn figure is taken from in the above quote since no source is given. (While Martin Wolf appears to support this position, he instead seems to be referring to general banking profits from interest spreads, fees etc.)

None of the above should be taken to imply that there are not problems with the current system – there are many. The banks are too big, too systemically important and too powerful. Part of their power arises from the guarantees and backstops provided by the state: deposit insurance, central bank ‘lender of last resort’ facilities and, ultimately, tax-payer bailouts when losses arise as a result of banks taking on too much risk in the search for profits. QE is insufficient as a macroeconomic tool to deal with on-going repercussions of the 2008 crisis – government spending is needed – and has pernicious side effects such as widening wealth inequality. The state should use the guarantees proved to the banks as leverage to force much more substantial changes of behaviour.

Milton Friedman was a proponent of the original Chicago Plan, and the intellectual force behind the monetarist experiment of the early 1980s. He was also deeply opposed to Roosevelt’s New Deal – a programme of government borrowing and spending aimed at reviving the economy during the Great Depression. Friedman describing the New Deal as ‘the wrong cure for the wrong disease’ – in his view the problems of the 1930s were caused by a shrinking money supply due to bank failures. Like PM, he favoured a simple monetary solution: the Fed should print money to counteract the effect of bank failures.

He was wrong about the New Deal. But his description is fitting for Positive Money’s Friedman-inspired monetary solutions to an array of complex issues: lack of decent jobs, inequality, financial instability and environmental degradation. The causes of these problems run deeper than a faulty monetary system. There are no simple quick-fix solutions.

PM wrongly diagnose the problem when they focus on the monetary system – so their prescription is also faulty. Full reserve banking is the wrong cure for the wrong disease.