It is well known in economics that the net sum of private, public and foreign sector balances is zero. Thus if the foreign sector is equally balanced by imports and exports, then a federal government deficit implies a private sector surplus. Likewise if the government aims to go into surplus, it must remove money from business, industry and households through increased fees, taxes, etc.
A private industry surplus (public sector deficit) is good policy because it allows further development and expansion and the economy can grow. Thus, arguably, the federal government should always aim to run at least a small deficit. Running a deficit means the government spends more than it receives from taxation, and the net result is that the private sector’s savings (financial wealth) increases. This allows more investment and growth in national income. But if the government runs a surplus, income to the private sector is reduced, thus reducing its ability to purchase goods and services and to finance desired business plans, and so national income falls.
If the private sector reverts to financing its plans through increased debt, sometimes on the assumption that its assets will continue to increase in value (as it did in the decade prior to the Global Financial Crisis), then in the short term productivity and employment will increase, the government will possibly go into surplus (at least temporarily), and the government of the day will bask in glory, as we have seen and continue to see today.
But this debt is fundamentally unsustainable: last-minute financial restructuring and panic debt swaps inevitably produce a dramatic collapse and surpluses are invariably followed by recessions. This process has been spelled out in many well-informed publications, including those of Economic Reform Australia.
Recalling the glory days of a government surplus is mischievous in the extreme, for those days, if repeated, will result in the same disasters that we have seen in the past.
Government surpluses must be generally avoided. Government deficits will always be necessary on average, if we are to grow and avoid similar crises in the future.
Following the advent of the global economic crisis, there has been a growing recognition and understanding of the claims made by a relatively recent school of economic thought known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which is a development of what used to be called Chartalism. Considering that there are ongoing economic crises within both Europe and North America which relate directly to the issues addressed by MMT, it seems timely to look at some of MMT’s claims and how an MMT perspective might assist in resolving those crises. Firstly we will review money and government debt.
Two types of money
There are two widely used forms of money: (a) State fiat money, which is money created by a sovereign monetary authority (usually a central bank) and acceptable for the payment of taxes. The main forms being currency (coins & notes, which have been declared to be legal tender) and creditary banking reserves (exchange settlement funds); and (b) Bank credit money, which is money created by commercial depositories (banking institutions) as retail deposits, and exchangeable with legal tender.
There is an important subdivision of state fiat money, known as banking reserves, which is the conjunction of currency held by banking institutions and their deposits in the central bank. The two components of banking reserves are interchangeable. Currency held by the public is usually referred to as currency in circulation.
Central (sovereign) government debt
A government which is economically sovereign creates and issues the currency used by its citizens. And traditionally it also creates and issues securities, which are instruments of debt sold to the private sector on the open market. When government securities are sold to the non-bank private sector, money is extracted from the economy in exchange for another (generally liquid) financial asset, so that the financial wealth of the private sector remains unchanged.
MMT asserts that such public debt is fundamentally different to private debt, in that it is always possible for a government which issues currency to roll the debt over – in perpetuity – and to pay any interest due on that debt. According to MMT there is no constraint, at least in principle, on the ability of a sovereign government to effect such payment. For a sovereign government there is no “central government debt problem” as such, the latter term indicating a misunderstanding held by those with a poor understanding of macroeconomic principles.
Spending, taxing and borrowing
Contrary to what many neoclassical economists believe (and would have others believe), a sovereign government engages in taxing and borrowing only ostensibly for the purpose of raising revenue. Although central governments behave as if taxing and borrowing is undertaken in order to raise revenue, the MMT interpretation is that this is not what really happens. Thus government does not need to raise revenue for the purpose of funding specific cost items, because new money is injected into the economy whenever it spends.
Spending introduces new money into the economy, while taxing and borrowing remove money from the economy. Although at first sight there might appear to be a chicken-and-egg relationship in these fiscal flows, MMT asserts that the causal relationship is for spending to come first, and for taxing and borrowing to follow. If this relationship postulated by MMT is accepted, then it follows that the real and largely hidden purpose of taxing and borrowing is to recapture the money which a central (sovereign) government spends into the economy, in order (a) to keep a lid on inflation, and (b) to ensure that money moves around the economy with sufficient velocity.
Central government and the lower levels of government
The lower levels of government (state, provincial and municipal) do not issue their own currencies and – in Australia at least – do not impose income taxes on those whom they govern, although they are accustomed to imposing a range of other taxes, duties and levies. Their fiscal constraints are therefore quite different to those of the central government. A lower level of government – in common with the private sector – is obliged to be more careful in its budgeting than is a (sovereign) central government, which may safely run a budget deficit in perpetuity (and arguably should do so, according to MMT ideas).
Deficits are the norm
A graph of the U.S. federal budget balance over 82 years (care of a blog by Bill Mitchell — http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=22551) reveals that budgets have been in deficit for around 85% of the time. In other words, deficits are the norm and surpluses are the exception. I suspect that much the same picture would emerge with a more extended time-span. The history of budget balances indicates that the oft-held belief that running a sequence of budget deficits will have dire inflationary consequences for the economy is not grounded in reality. And MMT advocates insist that any drive to achieve a budget surplus in circumstances where there are idle resources and reduced aggregate demand is economic vandalism, because it leads to unnecessary austerity and can only hinder economic recovery.
Banking operates according to a set of accounting conventions, which are rules designed to match the receipt/loss of a certain type of asset by a banking institution (depository) with the receipt/loss of a liability of equal magnitude. The asset of particular concern is newly created bank credit money, which arises when a bank advances a new retail loan or when a cheque drawn on the central bank is deposited.
It is generally held by economists that banking reserves should be regarded as central bank liabilities. On the other hand, it may be argued also that it is inappropriate to attempt to make a central bank, as the creator and destroyer of state fiat money, conform to the accounting rules which apply to commercial banks.
Central government’s account with the central bank
Every central government maintains one or more accounts with its central bank. In Australia for example the federal government does its banking with the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA). Thus the cheques written by an Australian government department are drawn on the RBA. The situation in New Zealand is a little different, as revealed by the following statement found in a part of the RBNZ website (http://www.rbnz.govt.nz/education/0114246.html):
” Although the government ultimately does all of its banking with the Reserve Bank (via its Crown settlement account, or CSA), it uses an account held at Westpac for its transactions with the public. That’s why payments from the government, e.g. unemployment benefits, are paid using Westpac cheques. The transactions in this account are totalled up and the balance is transferred to the CSA at the end of the banking day. “
The general account of a central government with its own central bank records in monetary terms the government’s various fiscal operations – specifically spending, borrowing from the private sector, tax receipts, and all other receipts. When a central government spends, its general account is debited accordingly. And when it borrows from the private sector or acquires tax (or other) receipts, its general account is credited accordingly.
There is general agreement that central government spending entails the creation of new retail demand deposits and an increase in the money supply (as measured by the monetary aggregate M1), while central government borrowing, taxing and the receipt of other income entails a reduction in the money supply. A more interesting issue is the fate of the banking reserves, which generally tag along with retail deposits in the broader economy. While the precise mechanics differs from country to country, in each case there exists some combination of (a) immediate removal of those reserves, in exchange for an increase in the government’s general account, (b) use of the reserves to temporarily purchase highly liquid (risk free) financial assets, and (c) use of the reserves to temporarily create deposits in commercial banks (which deposits, however, lie outside the money supply M1). Items (b) and (c) are holding options, and those reserves are retrieved in a piecemeal manner as and when required according to the need to offset government spending operations, once again involving the removal of those reserves whenever the general account requires to be increased. The practice of maintaining holding investments and/or commercial bank deposits exists only for the purpose of regulating (minimising fluctuations in) the volume of banking reserves during the course of a financial year.
Are government deposits in the central bank money?
The economic mainstream hold that government entries or “deposits” in its own central bank account are a form of state fiat money, moreover one which is interchangeable with reserves. There is an alternative viewpoint, which is consistent with MMT ideas, which holds that such “deposits” are not money in any real sense of the word, but are merely accumulated credits in an operating account. An operating account records a financial reality, but it does not need to be regarded as a form of money. The rationale for this perspective is:
(a) One of the essential requirements of any entity which acts as money is that it is used by (traded, loaned and borrowed between) a sufficiently large number of marketplace players who have similar status and objectives in regard to those operations. Banking deposits in the central bank satisfy this criterion, since all of the players are in competition with each other with the common objective of maximising financial profit. In contrast, a central government maintains an account with its central bank for a quite different purpose, and its spending has a different objective, to that pertaining to commercial banks; and
(b) There are other examples within the financial system of accounts which are not regarded as being stores of spendable money, such as commercial banks’ internal operating accounts.
On this basis it may be held that the central government stands alone – that is, not in competition with any other entities possessing accounts with the central bank. Indicators of this difference lie in the fact that a central government sells bonds but never needs to buy bonds, and also borrows money but never needs to lend money. If all of this is held to be true then arguably the entries in the government’s general account are not money.
It’s accepted that oil and minerals in the ground are owned by Australians.
So how do we transfer ownership to mining companies? “Gifting” them and then applying taxation and royalties is, as we will see below, a poor commercial practice that is now creating problems with public disclosure and accountability.
It’s time that the government accepted its management responsibility for our resources. Rather than gifting and then applying taxation and royalties as an afterthought, it should be selling the minerals in the ground to mining companies at a price based on the undeveloped mineral value plus the cost of monitoring the extraction according to publicly-acceptable standards, subsequent remediation and any additional infrastructure requirements.
A simple domestic parallel is when the contents of a house are for sale. Buyers choose to come and explore but the owner will determine what they can take and will also estimate the value, which is usually a preset (contract) figure or negotiated at the gate. For expensive items, buyers may even travel from interstate: they take into account the potential value and explore at their own risk.
But under the current Australian taxation and royalty systems, the buyer takes first and then may make some recompense. This discourages public disclosure and accountability, and the analogy of selling home contents shows the commercial nonsense of this approach. A sale, on the other hand, allows the owner to manage the transaction, as any respectable owner must.
Mining directly affects local conditions and must be balanced against other options and opportunity costs. A domestic buyer may have an eye on the piano but another member of the family may not want to sell that particular item. But if a sale is agreed, the buyer isn’t allowed to damage the house when taking it out.
Independent cross-discipline and intra-government assessment is essential for resource extraction. Individual industries and companies can only assess opportunities within their own market, whereas mineral extraction has impacts well beyond the minerals themselves.
At a broader level, Australia should promote the establishment of international bodies for marine resources and ocean health to develop standards and monitor international waters so that explorers and miners do not move to less regulated and easier-to-pollute areas, as this is likely to damage Australia’s opportunities and destabilise international waters with adverse long-term political, environmental and economic impacts.
It all comes back to proper, accountable commercial practice. The government is putting Australia at a disadvantage if it does not follow this simple due process of responsible ownership transfer.
In this electronic age, money virtually comes from nowhere. If you happen to be a currency-issuing central government – that is, a central government that owns and issues the nation’s currency – you can always find the money required to make purchases. You and I can get hold of money, but we have to produce something of value and exchange it with someone or some entity already in possession of money. You and I can’t create money out of nothing. That’s counterfeiting, and it’s illegal. Banks can create money out of nothing, but they always create a financial liability of the same value. Hence, banks don’t create ‘net’ financial assets (i.e., financial assets over and above financial liabilities). They just create new financial assets that are always matched by new financial liabilities. A currency-issuing consolidated central government (incorporating Treasury and Central Bank) is in a league of its own. It can create ‘net’ financial assets because when it creates money for itself in order to spend, it doesn’t create a financial liability against itself in the sense that the ability of the consolidated central government to create and spend more money into existence is not reduced. If the Federal Government creates $100 million for its own spending purposes (i.e., to acquire $100 million of real stuff), it doesn’t owe $100 million to anyone or anything. It may have to use some real resources to create the $100 million. If the value of the resources is $1 million, it will have acquired $99 million of real stuff. The $99 million of real stuff acquired is called ‘seigniorage’. It’s an old term. It’s not a term used to mislead or trick people. Yet it’s a term that even economists don’t know about, let alone our Federal Treasurer and his advisors.
Remember the eastern states floods of 2009 and 2010? The Federal Government had to acquire around $9 billion worth of real stuff to undertake flood reconstruction projects. People then said, including our Prime Minister, that the cost to the Federal Government of flood reconstruction was $9 billion. They were all wrong. The true cost to the Federal Government was the market value of the real stuff that the Federal Government had to expend to: (i) acquire $9 billion of spending power (negligible in an electronic age); (ii) determine how best to spend it (bureaucratic planning); and (iii) then spend it (i.e., put the $9 billion worth of real stuff to appropriate use). Even if the value of the real stuff expended was $1 billion (it would have been much less), the cost to the Federal Government would only have been $1 billion. The $8 billion difference would have been the Federal Government’s seigniorage.
You can now see the extremely privileged position enjoyed by a currency-issuing central government that is not enjoyed by you, me, or other entities (including state and local governments). Everybody but the Federal Government uses the nation’s currency and are therefore subject to a budget constraint. The only constraint faced by the Federal Government is the real stuff available for sale, which is always limited by the fact that we live in a world of scarce resources and a limited technical capacity to convert some of these resources into real goods and services (which means every national economy has a limited productive capacity). So when I say that the Federal Government has no budget constraint, what I’m saying is that they can spend as much as they like, but they can’t purchase as much as they like. The Federal Government might have access to a bottomless pit of Australian dollars, but it does not operate in a Garden of Eden. There’s only so much stuff available for sale no matter how much money the Federal Government can create for itself.
What happens if the Federal Government spends too much – i.e., it pushes total spending within the economy beyond the economy’s productive capacity? It’s spending becomes inflationary. In this situation, it can reduce its own spending or, if it is determined to maintain high spending levels (e.g., in order to ensure an adequate provision of health and education services), it can reduce the private sector’s spending. It does the latter by taxing the private sector. Indeed, from a macroeconomic perspective, taxation by a currency-issuing central government does nothing but enable it to spend in a manner that is not unduly inflationary. It’s not done to finance its own spending because a currency-issuing central government has unlimited access to the nation’s currency. It has absolutely no need to impose taxes to finance its spending.
What if the electorate doesn’t like having some its spending power reduced in order to allow the Federal Government to provide critical infrastructure in a non-inflationary manner (i.e., doesn’t like being less able to afford more and more useless gadgets in order to ensure adequate health and education services)? It can always vote it out of office. But that’s a political issue, not an economic issue. It has also become an ideological issue for some small-minded people who believe that the economic role of government should be as small as possible (whatever that means). Thanks to them, we have more consumer junk in our houses than ever while at the same time governments close hospital wards, run-down the nation’s education infrastructure (Gonski Review), and leave 648,000 Australians on the unemployment scrapheap (as at November 2012). Sadly, a lot of these small-minded people happen to be economists, despite the fact that economics is supposedly “the study of how to efficiently allocate society’s scarce resources”. It is plain to see that much of the economics profession wouldn’t know ‘allocative efficiency’ if it fell over it, let alone ‘ecological sustainability’ and ‘distributional equity’. It is also plain to see that mainstream economics is driven by ideology – indeed, by people who have no interest in studying the world as it is, but the world as they would like it to be.
Foreign investment is not critical for Australia’s agribusiness, and existing savings are only one part of our potential capital. During the Global Financial Crisis the impromptu network of financial transactions was hundreds of times greater than savings.
Money can be added to the economy by government transfers, banks creating money by lending it, government securities, quantitative easing, and so on, and the expertise brought in by foreign investment can be purchased without compromising national security.
The Federal government could fund the basic research we need and allow enterprises to decide how to run the projects for the benefit of Australia. The assets are the key, not money, and trade – the province of everyone – is the best mechanism for managing them.
The owner controls the asset. Cubbie Station is strategic for Australia’s food and water security. It’s not just a simplistic money-is-money issue. The land is not going to be exported but the control, and hence use, can be.
Coordination between government and private enterprise would facilitate our strategic opportunities and make Australian industry a world leader. We just have to get over our cringe about it.
The sectoral accounting equation is (I – S) + (G – T) + (X – M) = 0
where (I – S) = private sector balance, (G – T) = public sector balance, (X – M) = foreign sector balance.
The term (I-S) represents productive investments (I is total investment, S is total savings). In monetary terms it may be identified with transaction money M1, which is the money used within the productive economy.
All newly created bank money appears firstly as an increase in M1 (i.e., it is created within transaction deposits). However a large part of that money migrates into savings deposits (on an ongoing basis). Available statistics reveal that in times of economic growth (characterised by a modest level of inflation) an influx of new money increases I and S at about the same rate.
However in times of economic contraction, production will be diminished and savings will increase, and there will be less demand for credit by the productive sector. In these circumstances (I-S) will decrease. Assuming for the sake of argument that the level of imports and exports does not change significantly (i.e., assuming that an export-led recovery is unlikely), we find that in order to avoid a period of deep and protracted recession the ONLY solution is for the government to spend money into the economy.
Attempting to run a budget surplus in these circumstances is grossly irresponsible — perhaps insane would be a better description.
The influential U.S. economist Paul Krugman may think that he understands banking, however his comments in two very recent articles – in response to Steve Keen’s criticism of him – reveals that he does not.
For example Paul writes: ” If I decide to cut back on my spending and stash the funds in a bank, which lends them out to someone else, this doesn’t have to represent a net increase in demand. “
The simple fact is than none of a bank’s retail deposits are ever loaned out, nor are the associated reserves ever loaned out to retail customers. Banks create new credit money when they advance retail loans. It amazes me that Paul does not understand this.