I am an MMT dilettante, so I’ll apologize in advance for my own mischaracterizations. But I think the MMT view of stabilization policy can be summed up pretty quickly:
The central macroeconomic policy instrument available to governments is regulating the flow of “net financial assets” to and from the private sector. The government creates private sector assets by issuing money or bonds in exchange for current goods or services, or else for nothing at all via simple transfers. Governments destroy private sector financial assets via taxation. MMT-ers tend to view financial asset swaps, whereunder the government issues money or debt to buy financial assets already held by the private sector (“conventional monetary policy”) as second order and less effective, although they might acknowledge some impact.
A government that borrows in its own currency cannot be insolvent in the same way as private businesses. That is, such a government will never face a sharp threshold where it cannot meet promised payments, leading to a socially unanimous or even legal declaration of insolvency and an almost certain run on its liabilities.
However, the value of money and government claims in real terms is absolutely variable. Governments do and properly should manage their flow of obligations with an eye to supporting that value, among other competing objectives (such as, especially, full employment).
The real value of money and government debt is not reliably related to any theory of government balance sheets. In particular, the stock of outstanding government obligations is largely irrelevant. The value of government obligations is a function of financial flows. Government claims will retain their value so long as the private and foreign sectors wish to expand their holdings of those claims at the current price level, that is so long as agents are willing to sacrifice real goods and services today to reduce their indebtedness, improve their financial position, or stimulate their export sectors. The value of government claims will come under pressure when agents, on net, seek to increase indebtedness or redeem existing claims for real goods and services.
The “solvency” of a government is best understood as its capacity over time to manage the economy in a manner that avoids net outflows. “Net outflows” here means attempts by nongovernment actors in aggregate to redeem government paper for current goods and services.
Avoiding net outflows is easy in times like the present, when i) low quality and difficult to service debt in the private sector leaves many agents eager to reduce indebtedness and increase their holdings of financial assets; ii) there has been little inflation or devaluation in the recent past; and iii) resource utilization is slack, as evidenced especially by high unemployment. Avoiding net outflows is more difficult when private sector agents’ balance sheets are healthy, or when agents come to expect inflation or devaluation, or when real resources (especially humans) are fully employed.
However, a sovereign government can always create demand for its money and debt via its coercive ability to tax. That is, if optimistic agents with strong balance sheets start up a spending spree, or if gold bugs fearful of devaluation ditch government paper for commodities, a government can reverse those flows by forcing private agents to surrender real goods and services for the money they will owe in taxes.
Therefore, a government’s “solvency constraint” is not a function of any accounting relationship or theories about the present value of future surpluses. A government’s solvency constraint ultimately lies in its political capacity to levy and and enforce the payment of taxes.
I think this is a clever and coherent view of the world. I do not fully subscribe to it — in my next post, I’ll offer point-by-point critiques. But first, let’s see where I think Paul Krugman is a bit off in his characterization:
As I understand the MMT position, it is that the only thing we need to consider is whether the deficit creates excess demand to such an extent to be inflationary. The perceived future solvency of the government is not an issue.
I disagree. A 6 percent deficit would, under normal conditions, be very expansionary; but it could be offset with tight monetary policy, so that it need not be inflationary. But if the U.S. government has lost access to the bond market, the Fed can’t pursue a tight-money policy — on the contrary, it has to increase the monetary base fast enough to finance the revenue hole. And so a deficit that would be manageable with capital-market access becomes disastrous without.
The real question here is why a deficit that would be inconsistent with price stability with “loose money” would be transformed into something sustainable with “tight money”. From an MMT-perspective, it is the flow of net financial assets from public sector to private, relative to the private sector’s willingness to absorb, that matters. Whether those net financial assets take the form of liquid cash or still very liquid Treasury securities is second order. As Krugman himself has pointed out, conventional monetary policy is just a shift in the maturity of government obligations. If the private sector is unwilling to hold the expanding stock of dollar-denominated obligations at prices (in terms of real goods and services) consistent with our definition of price stability, the private sector will be unwilling to hold those obligations whether they are bonds or money.
An obvious objection is that bonds pay yields that might induce private sector agents to hold government paper at current prices (again in terms of real goods and services), while money historically did not. Krugman’s sustainable “tight money, loose fiscal” scenario basically amounts to pointing out that the private sector can be induced to hold more paper if the public sector promises to make large ongoing transfers to holders of its paper. MMT-ers have mixed feelings about using interest payments to increase the willingness of the private sector to hold government paper. Regardless, since most central banks now pay interest on reserves, these payments no longer serve to demarcate “fiscal” obligations of the Treasury and “monetary” obligations of the central bank. Rather than being divided into “fiscal” and “monetary” policy, we end up with “flow” policy and “yield” policy. In order to stabilize the price level and real spending in the face of changes in private sector demand for government paper, the public sector can either modulate supply (by adjusting the size of the deficit / surplus), or modulate demand via the yield (by altering the interest paid on reserves or selling term bonds). As MMT-er Bill Mitchell puts it, “Our preferred position is a natural rate of zero and no bond sales. Then allow fiscal policy to make all the adjustments. It is much cleaner that way.”
MMT-ers view the size of the flow itself — that “6 percent deficit” — as the primary instrument of stabilization policy. By holding the deficit constant in his thought experiment, Krugman deprives MMT of the means by which it would manage demand. MMT-ers do not claim that fiscal policy can ignore private willingness to hold government assets. On the contrary, they take from Wynne Godley’s sectoral balance analysis that fiscal policy should do a jujitsu to accommodate the changing net demand of the private and external sectors. MMT-ers very much agree that it is important not to lose access to the bond market, broadly construed. But they suggest that the government’s power to tax is sufficient to maintain the private sector’s appetite to hold government paper, whether in the form of bonds or of money. Therefore, there is little need to fret about “confidence” and undead theories of government solvency. The government can issue paper — make transfers, deficit spend, whatever — when the private and external sectors are willing to buy, and reduce deficits or even run a surplus when those appetites have been sated.
Anyway, this is long enough. I’ll post critiques of the view I have summarized later.
Much of my understanding of MMT comes from conversations with the excellent Winterspeak. Obviously, any mischaracterizations are my own and any insights due him. I owe Winterspeak a contentious post highlighting our argument about whether it is detestable for wealthy people to maintain large holdings of money and government debt. I say, for the most part, that it is. If you want to read that argument in raw, unhighlighted form, see the comments here. I’ve also learned a lot from the mysterious JKH.
Some writers of note about MMT include Marshall Auerback, Scott Fullwiler, James Galbraith, Bill Mitchell, Warren Mosler, Rob Parenteau, Pavlina R. Tcherneva, Eric Tymoigne, and L. Randall Wray. You can find the writing of several of these authors in Levy Institute’s working paper series and at Economic Perspectives from Kansas City. Some blogs that occasionally offer an MMT perspective include Credit Writedowns, Naked Capitalism, New Deal 2.0, and Pragmatic Capitalism. See also the related links below.
- 27-March-2011, 7:30 p.m. EDT: Fixed misspelling of Marshall Auerback’s name (sorry!). Added lots of MMT resources and related links, many thanks to commenters Sennex and Tom Hickey as well as Winterspeak for some links. One change to the piece itself (pre-acknowledgements): Changed “modulate the yield” to “modulate demand via the yield”
- 27-March-2011, 7:45 p.m. EDT: Changed “effects” to “impact” in Point #1, to avoid repetition of “effective” and “effects”…
- 27-March-2011, 8:45 p.m. EDT: Obsessively removed the “i.e” before “conventional monetary policy”. Also changed “in the present and recent past” to “in the recent past”, just because the latter reads less awkwardly.