...Archive for March 2011

The MMT solvency constraint

It is good to see Paul Krugman prominently discussing “modern monetary theory”, although I don’t think his characterization is quite fair.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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).

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

Update History:

  • 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.

The meaning of “socialism” in American politics

So, call me a philistine, but I really think that the Tea Party types have gotten a bum rap over their whole “Keep Government Out Of My Medicare” slogan. Yes, Medicare is a government benefit. One’s Medicare card represents a claim on the government that can be redeemed for goods and services, usually delivered by private sector providers.

You know what else is a claim on government that can be surrendered for goods and services from private sector providers? Money. Yet there is no part of the political spectrum that considers it incoherent to say “Keep Government Out Of My Pocketbook”, even though the only relevant thing your pocketbook contains is government scrip. If the money analogy seems to forced, consider a retirement account chock-full of government bonds. The account contains nothing more or less than government promises to pay, but that doesn’t render it incoherent to object to the government’s altering the terms of the bundle of promises, whether by restructuring the debt or more aggressive taxation.

What the Tea Partiers are accurately if not artfully expressing is that Medicare feels a lot like a property right. Our most important property rights are often claims on people or institutions. This includes all financial wealth — dollar bills, stocks and bonds, pensions and 401-K plans, every form of insurance we buy for ourselves or others provide for us. Medicare and Social Security are, from users’ perspective, property, no different from a privately funded health or pension plan. Why should users think of them as “government benefits” any more than they think of interest payments on a Treasury bond that way? Human beings are notoriously territorial about property. All it takes to turn a human being into a urinating canine is the combination of 1) a readily comprehensible set of nonuniversal rights; and 2) some account that legitimizes differential claims to those rights. Medicare and Social Security have all that in spades. They provide rights to tangible, extraordinarily valuable, transfers and services. People endowed with those rights believe themselves to have earned them, by virtue of having contributed to the programs specifically and to society generally in a quasicontractual arrangement. People consider themselves “entitled” to their entitlements because they view them as property.

Matt Yglesias writes:

Any effort to reduce government spending on health care for the elderly is intolerable socialism, and any effort to increase government spending on health care for the non-elderly is also intolerable socialism. That’s cynical, but it also reflects the objective difference in the age structure between the parties.

I think it’s fair to point out that it’s cynically exploited, but I think the underlying feeling is not really so cynical. The meaning of socialism in American politics is government action to redistribute property rights. It is socialism in America to tax the rich and it is socialism in America to give to the poor. Similarly, it is socialism for the government to change the terms of the extraordinarily valuable set of rights that constitute property to Medicare incumbents, and it is socialism to extend those extraordinarily valuable rights to people who haven’t “earned” them. That may be objectively bizarre for a program that is universal after age 65. But the median Medicare recipient has worked and paid taxes most of those 65 years, views her benefits as earned, and takes herself as representative of Medicare recipients as a class.

Americans, for better and for worse, are unreasonably — almost limitlessly — respectful of what they understand to be property rights. That’s just a fact on the ground. Some interest groups get this: Consider the decades long project of recasting copyright, patent, trademark, and trade-secret protection into “intellectual property” that can be “stolen”, rather than narrow government dispensations intended to advance specific social purposes. People trying to design policy that will actually work in America have to keep this property fetish in mind. It creates both constraints and opportunities, but it is there.

The changing private value of oil in the ground

So oil prices are rising, and, inevitably, a debate is heating up about the role of speculation versus that of “fundamentals”. Ryan Avent makes a point that was commonplace last time our collective heads were on fire about oil prices and it was all the speculators’ fault:

[T]he easiest and most effective way to speculate on the price of oil is to leave the stuff in the ground, and there’s not a thing the American government can do about that.

I thought this was a good point in 2008, the best rejoinder to Paul Krugman’s recurring query that, if it’s speculation, where was the inventory build? But it strikes me as a less compelling point now.

Suppose you are the House of Saud. Like anyone with a position in a traded asset, you face a sell or hold decision. If you expect that the real value of your asset will rise faster than the real value of financial investments you could make at equivalent risk if you sold, then you should hold. Otherwise, you should sell.

But there’s a wrinkle. The House of Saud really must compare the private value of oil in the ground to the private value of alternative investments. Like a middle American muni investor maximizing after tax returns, the House is looking to maximize the value it can actually appropriate. Ordinary taxes aren’t that big a deal to the Saud’s, who after all run the state. But the House of Saud faces a different sort of “tax” on future oil: the possibility that by the time it is exhumed from the desert, it will no longer be theirs to sell. The expected private value of future oil to the House is proportional to the expected future oil price and inversely proportional to the probability of revolution. I’d guess that events of the last few months have significantly reduced their expected private value of oil in the ground, the current oil price spike notwithstanding.

One might even argue that current circumstances amount to a natural experiment by which we might test the question of whether Saudi Arabia in fact has 3.5M barrels a day of spare capacity they can easily bring on line, or whether they’ve basically been running full tilt already. As the probability of revolution — or else a permanent increase in wealth-sharing to forestall revolution — increases, the private value of oil in the ground falls. If flows don’t increase, that could be taken as evidence that the Saudi Arabia is pumping at capacity.

Of course, life is messy, and natural experiments are never perfect. Lots of caveats: The pump-or-store decision should be based on the relative private values of oil and financial investment. If the princes think that, after a revolution, their financial wealth would be frozen by fair-weather patrons in the West, that would tilt things in the opposite direction. The princes might believe that defending their claim to oil in the ground is a better bet than relying upon recently less than reliable Swiss bankers to protect the interests of unpopular clients. (A strange corollary of all this is that if the West wants to maximize current oil flow, it should credibly promise to recognize the House of Saud’s claims on private and sovereign wealth, come what may on the Peninsula. I do not advocate this — I think we should put longer-term interests before concerns about the moment’s oil price. But the logic is clear.)

Also, the princes would have to be mindful of potential backwards causality from pumping decisions to revolution. If it looks like the rulers are ramping production in a panic, that might signal fear and undermine the government’s legitimacy, aiding the revolutionaries’ cause. However, the current price spike and concerns of oil consumers would provide cover. There are lots of reasons besides fear of regime change why the Saudi government might choose to increase production now, if they can.

Obviously, all of this is, um, speculation. Interfluidity is not the The Oil Drum. I know little about the details of oil production or of Saudi politics. But from the perspective of several Middle Eastern regimes, I’d guess that “oil in the ground” seems less of a safe bet than it might have a few years ago.

The case for film subsidies (and other goodies)

Last week, Michael Kinsley published a jeremiad against film subsidies in the LA Times. Two of my fave Economist-oids, Ryan Avent and Will Wilkinson, follow up, Wilkinson with an endorsement of Kinsley’s piece, Avent with a more nuanced but ultimately very radical comment.

Film subsidies and other state and local programs intended to promote economic and cultural activity are sometimes smart policy and sometimes corrupt boondoggles. I certainly don’t wish to argue that they are always and everywhere good. But Kinsley argues that they are always and everywhere bad, via arguments that are as compelling as they are false. Let’s try to understand the economics a bit.

The most widely quoted, and most plainly wrong, bit of Kinsley’s piece is this:

New Mexico under [former Governor] Richardson was a pioneer in this field. In 2002, it began offering a credit of 15% — later raised to 25% — toward the cost of making a movie in New Mexico… Now, 42 states have followed its lead… In less than a decade, the absurd notion of welfare for movie producers has evolved from the kind of weird thing they do in France to an unshakable American tradition… Richardson says that the film and TV subsidy has brought “nearly $4 billion into our economy over eight years” and has created 10,000 jobs. By “our,” he means New Mexico. He says every state should emulate this success.

But of course every state cannot do that because it essentially is a “beggar thy neighbor” strategy.

Ryan Avent is not ultimately willing to endorse film subsidies. But he is too good an economist to let this go by. He writes

A subsidy allows a business to cut prices and artificially raise demand. Given generous enough subsidies, many more movies would be made, and each state could, potentially, have a thriving film industry.

To put the same point differently, film subsidies reduce the cost of production and thereby increase risk-adjusted expected returns to investors. In a world thick with aspiring directors and clever screenplays, there are always hundreds of potential films getting ranked, accepted, but mostly rejected by investors willing to support film production. At the margin, there are films — perhaps quite a lot of films, it’s an empirical question — that investors would deem almost but not quite worth funding in the absence of subsidies. These films get funded and produced when governments sweeten the pot.

Film subsidies are not entirely or even predominantly a “beggar thy neighbor” strategy. They are certainly not, as Wilkinson asserts, a zero-sum game. In many countries, a large fraction of production depends upon state subsidies, and many films would not have been produced without them. The elasticity of film production to subsidy is far from zero.

Still, this is “welfare for movie producers”, as Kinsley puts it, right? Avent describes the excess demand as “artificial”. To which I say, huh?

Kinsley’s “France” is not nearly communistic enough to discredit this pernicious practice. If we really want to drive home the idea that film subsidies are a booger floating in the soup of red-blooded capitalism, we should associate them with that most Bolshevik of all institutions, the, um, suburban American shopping mall.

The economics of a well-designed film subsidy and the economics of suburban shopping malls are identical. State governments offer film subsidies on the theory that film-making within the state will generate ancillary economic activity that will more than offset the cost of the subsidy. Suburban shopping mall developers offer what are effectively rent subsidies to stores they expect to generate extra traffic and sales for the shopping mall. Many of the “anchor stores” — the big, national-brand department stores — at your local mall pay no rent at all, despite occupying vast territories of prime space for which their specialty store neighbors pay dearly. This phenomenon has been carefully studied. Gould, Pashigian, and Prendergast write

[T]he differential contracts offered to the anchor and nonanchor stores appear to not only offset some of the externalities generated by the anchor, but do so in an efficient fashion, at least on the dimension of total sales and rent in the mall. If this were not the case, the result would likely be a misallocation of space: a failure to internalize the benefits of the anchor stores would imply too little space allocated to anchors, because anchors themselves would not consider the external benefits their presence has on the other stores when deciding how much space to lease.

The arrangement that has evolved among private parties via consensual, contractual negotiation is that shopping mall developers effectively tax non-anchor stores with high rents in order to subsidize anchor stores with mostly free rents. Far from “artificial”, if developers did not do this there would be a deadweight cost. If rents were held homogenous within shopping malls, there would be a lot fewer anchor stores, which would deprive smaller stores of the foot-traffic and sales those anchors generate, which would then deprive shopping malls of a lot of potential rent.

Still, the Macy’s, Sears, and Nieman Marcuses of the world have to live somewhere, right? And it’s got to rankle shopping mall developers — you know it does — that a substantial fraction of their hard-built space is given away for trivial or even zero rent. Suppose that all of America’s shopping mall magnates gathered in a smoke-filled room and decided to ban the practice of subsidizing rent to anchor stores. What would we call that? It turns out we have names: “price fixing”, “cartel”, “conspiracy in restraint of trade”.

If shopping mall developers could pull off such a scheme — or really if they could have pulled off such a scheme years ago — they might narrowly have benefited. There would have been fewer anchor stores and therefore fewer shopping malls, but the loss of scale might have been offset by developers ability to, um, extract rents from anchor chains, leading to increased profitability. But that extra profitability would have been an ordinary monopoly rent, of the sort we typically condemn and even criminalize, wherein higher prices are extracted by virtue of a monopolist’s power to enforce underprovision of goods. We’d have the FTC or the Department of Justice all over their asses if shopping mall developers tried to pull something like that.

Similarly, if it is true that film production generates positive externalities for local and state economies, it still might be true that having local governments band together and refuse to provide film subsidies would lead to greater overall tax receipts. The reduction of taxable economic activity due to cartelized subsidy refusal could be offset by the savings realized from withholding the subsidy. If this is so, then state and local governments (in aggregate) profit only by forcing a reduction of activity below the level economists would ordinarily call “efficient”. By not permitting filmmakers to recover some share of the value of the positive externalities they generate, we force a lot of them to take their ball and go home, leaving us all poorer in aggregate.

I don’t think it’s likely, either with respect to shopping malls or with respect to films, that “local governments” would in fact benefit by forming a cartel. In both industries, I think the externalities are real, and despite some “beggar thy neighbor” competition — between shopping malls as between states — these “governments” come out ahead by rebating some of the external benefit back to those who create it and getting a smaller piece of a bigger pie.

Kinsley, in his column, implicitly recognizes that he is calling for a cartel of state governments. “Government, in order to work, must be a monopoly,” he asserts, without explanation or justification. Governments do maintain certain monopolies within their territories, but must the fifty state governments band together and become an uber-monopoly as well? Isn’t much of the justification for federalism the notion that multiple governments experiment and compete, generating creativity and dynamism that wouldn’t exist in a monopoly public sector? How does the fact that “the landlord” is a government alter the economic logic of efficient contracting within competitive shopping malls, which is precisely the same logic that justifies film subsidy?

Distributional issues arise when subsidizing externalities. The local gag store is more sympathetic than a national chain, but the gag store ends up paying the anchor store’s rent. Local taxpayers are more sympathetic than Hollywood studios, yet local taxpayers end up funding Hollywood studio returns. With respect to private sector shopping malls, there’s little we can do about these distributional concerns. In the local government sector, however, it is perfectly legitimate to discriminate by, for example, offering the subsidies only to local filmmakers, however defined. That choice is full of trade-offs: Restricting subsidies to local filmmakers arguably implies that, from a global perspective, some less valuable films get produced in preference to more valuable films. The restriction also reduces the power of the subsidy to generate activity, both in absolute and bang-for-the-buck terms, as there are fewer films locally than globally. But local films may contribute to local culture in ways that taxpayers value, local subsidies go to people more likely to respend money in state (increasing tax recoveries), and distributional concerns are legitimate and serious. These are tradeoffs for taxpayers and their representatives to make based on particularities.

The most serious case against film subsidies, emphasized both by Kinsley and Wilkinson, is the public choice argument. Wilkinson claims that “the film and TV incentives racket is a hotbed of corruption.” That may or may not be a fair characterization, but the point is well taken. The economic logic behind subsidies is iron-clad, given activities that generate net positive externalities whose value is known to be more than the cost of the subsidy. But the externalities of future projects can only be estimated, and estimates by potential recipients of subsidies are rationally overoptimistic. If politicians, perhaps blinded by “personal friendships” with campaign contributors, fail to form independent and conservative estimates of public benefits, then they may offer excessive subsidies, which destroy value while transferring funds from taxpayers to the subsidized.

This is a very serious issue. But it needn’t be insurmountable. Subsidies can be and sometimes are attached to contractual obligations to generate promised activity. Localities do this routinely, and sometimes sue to recover the subsidies if public benefits fail to appear. There is always a lot of uncertainty surrounding indirect public benefits that may result from various activities. But, as Matt Yglesias reminds us:

Life is full of situations that demand you to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty. In almost all cases, the right thing to do is to try your best, not to simply give up.

It is conceivable that we are simply unable to organize governments capable of resisting corrupt inducements, and therefore our best option in a bad world is simply to forego all subsidies. I’m pretty cynical about government, but I don’t think we’re there yet. If that is your position, however, at least get the economics right. Don’t imagine that a blanket prohibition of subsidies, to film or any other activity with positive externalities, is “efficient”. On the contrary, a blanket prohibition is guaranteed to result in underprovision, and likely to result in lower total tax receipts than an optimal subsidy regime. You can argue that in a third-best world, we’re better off accepting very large deadweight costs than the corruption that attends differential taxation schemes. But there is nothing efficient in either of those choices.

In the real world, all successful governments subsidize activities with putative positive externalities. All unsuccessful governments do so as well. In the history of the world, I doubt there ever was a government which has not differentially taxed or subsidized in order to promote allegedly valuable activity. Under the circumstances, I think we should take Yglesias’ advice and try our best to do subsidy well. If we do it right, both theory and evidence suggest that subsidy can do a lot of good. If we do it poorly, we’ll destroy a lot of value and generate corruption. Not doing it at all, in a practical sense, is not an option. I think the case for positive externalities associated with film production is pretty strong. If so, then the right thing to do is to keep the subsidies but to administer them as wisely and as noncorruptly as we can. Distributional concerns matter a lot to me, so my preference as a taxpayer is to support subsidies that discriminate in favor of local and/or “independent” filmmaking (although that invites its own corruption in the form of “definition arbitrage”). More generally, a world without state subsidy is not a world to strive for. It would be as much a libertarian paradise as a ghost shopping mall.

FD: My wife is a film student, aspiring to become an aspiring filmmaker. Perhaps that colors my view of film subsidies.

Update History:

  • 5-March-2011, 11:15 a.m. EST: Changed “Kinsey” to “Kinsley” throughout. Thanks to Leigh Caldwell for pointing out the error, and my apologies to Michael Kinsley for making it.