If the revolution ain’t gonna be televised then, fuck, I’ll probably miss it

May 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Niall Ferguson has apologized for his offensive suggestion that Keynes’ phrase on being dead in the long run was somehow related to his sexuality or the fact that he was childless. Good for him. Note, however, that in that famous phrase from the Tract on Monetary Reform, from 1923, Keynes was still very much a conventional Marshallian author who thought that full employment would reassert itself, and that the Quantity Theory of Money (QTM) worked pretty well. In fact, it is often said that the Tract was Milton Friedman’s favorite among all of Keynes’ books.

The full quote says:

“But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”

The point of the quote is that in the long run everything would be fine, since markets do get to full employment, and so, even without intervention, deflation and inflation do its magic, but the process is too long and painful, so it would be more reasonable to act in the short run. This was typical of the Cambridge version of Marginalism, which was very much in favor of government intervention to deal with market imperfections in the short run. This is true of Marshal and Pigou, as well as Robertson, and certainly Keynes, before the General Theory. Note that this does not mean, as most people think, that one should only be concerned with the short run. The point is that action in the short run facilitates the road towards the fully adjusted equilibrium in the long run.

This was still essentially Keynes’ view by 1930, when he published the Treatise on Money, a book that is essentially Wicksellian [so at least he got rid of the QTM in this book], and that suggests that unemployment results from a monetary rate of interest that is too high with respect to the natural rate, in practice as a result from the Gold Standard rules, which Keynes wanted to abandon. [This precedes the modern views that the Gold Standard caused the Depression, by the way, as say defended by Barry Eichengreen]. This was a cyclical crisis that could be solved by reducing the monetary rate of interest, and in the short run employment programs, something Keynes defended in Can Lloyd George Do It?

The point of the General Theory (GT) is that there is no natural rate of interest, meaning that reducing the rate of interest would not bring investment to the full employment level of savings, and that the crisis was caused by lack of demand. The equilibrium between investment and savings was determined by variations in the level of output, and in the long run we are not self adjusted to full employment. Hence, the very logic of the phrase above is debunked by Keynes, when he became Keynesian, so to speak, and got rid of the old modes of thinking.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Ryan McGinley

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It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referrible either to accident or intuition — that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem

March 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Modern money is is state money. Taxation today functions to create demand for state currencies in order for the money-issuing authority to purchase requisite goods and services from the private sector. Taxation, in a sense, is a vehicle for moving resources from the private to the public domain. Government spending in sovereign currency systems is not limited by the ability of the state to ‘raise’ revenue. In fact, as it will be explained below, sovereign governments face no operational financial constraints.

To fully grasp the logic of sovereign financing, one must make the analytic distinction between the government and non-government sectors. For the private sector, spending is indeed restricted by its capacity to earn revenue or to borrow. This is not the case for the public sector, which ‘finances’ its expenditures in its own money. This is a reflection of its single supplier (monopoly) status. For example, in the USA, the dollar is not a ‘limited resource of the government’. Rather it is a tax credit to the population which is confronted with a dollar-denominated tax liability. Thus government spending provides to the population that which is necessary to pay taxes (dollars). The government need not collect taxes in order to spend; rather it is the private sector, which must earn dollars to settle its tax debt. The consolidated government (including the Treasury and the central bank) is never revenue constrained in its own currency.

If the purpose of taxation is to create demand for state money, then logically and operationally, tax collections cannot occur before the government has provided that which it demands for payment of taxes. In other words, spending comes first and taxation follows later. Another way of seeing this causality is to say that government spending ‘finances’ private sector ‘tax payments’ and not vice versa. Several other implications follow.

Deficits and surpluses
Government spending supplies high-powered money to the population. If the private sector wishes to hoard some of it – a normal condition of the system – deficits necessarily result as a matter of accounting logic. Furthermore, the government cannot collect more in taxes than it has previously spent; thus balanced budgets are the theoretical minimum that can be achieved. But the private sector’s desire to net save ensures that deficits are generated. The market demand for currency, therefore, determines the size of the deficit.

In a given year, of course, surpluses are possible, but they are always limited by the amount of deficit spending in previous years. If during the accounting period government spending falls short of tax collections, private sector holdings of net financial assets necessarily decline. The implication is that surpluses always reduce private sector net savings, while deficits replenish them. It should also be noted that, when governments run surpluses, they do not ‘get’ anything because tax collections ‘destroy’ high-powered money.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Hans-Peter Feldmann

Now hold on. I can hear you counting. One two three four. I know you’re coming around me. What I propose is that we move out together. Count it out together. That was always the plan

February 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

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So what would happen if a sovereign, currency-issuing government (with a flexible exchange rate) ran a budget deficit without issuing debt?

Like all government spending, the Treasury would credit the reserve accounts held by the commercial bank at the central bank. The commercial bank in question would be where the target of the spending had an account. So the commercial bank’s assets rise and its liabilities also increase because a deposit would be made.

The transactions are clear: The commercial bank’s assets rise and its liabilities also increase because a new deposit has been made. Further, the target of the fiscal initiative enjoys increased assets (bank deposit) and net worth (a liability/equity entry on their balance sheet).

Taxation does the opposite and so a deficit (spending greater than taxation) means that reserves increase and private net worth increases.

This means that there are likely to be excess reserves in the “cash system” which then raises issues for the central bank about its liquidity management. The aim of the central bank is to “hit” a target interest rate and so it has to ensure that competitive forces in the interbank market do not compromise that target.

When there are excess reserves there is downward pressure on the overnight interest rate (as banks scurry to seek interest-earning opportunities), the central bank then has to sell government bonds to the banks to soak the excess up and maintain liquidity at a level consistent with the target. Some central banks offer a return on overnight reserves which reduces the need to sell debt as a liquidity management operation.

There is no sense that these debt sales have anything to do with “financing” government net spending. The sales are a monetary operation aimed at interest-rate maintenance. So M1 (deposits in the non-government sector) rise as a result of the deficit without a corresponding increase in liabilities. It is this result that leads to the conclusion that that deficits increase net financial assets in the non-government sector.

What happens when there are bond sales? All that happens is that the bank reserves are reduced by the bond sales but this does not reduce the deposits created by the net spending. So net worth is not altered. What is changed is the composition of the asset portfolio held in the non-government sector.

The only difference between the Treasury “borrowing from the central bank” and issuing debt to the private sector is that the central bank has to use different operations to pursue its policy interest rate target. If it debt is not issued to match the deficit then it has to either pay interest on excess reserves (which most central banks are doing now anyway) or let the target rate fall to zero (the Japan solution).

There is no difference to the impact of the deficits on net worth in the non-government sector.

Mainstream economists would say that by draining the reserves, the central bank has reduced the ability of banks to lend which then, via the money multiplier, expands the money supply.

However, the reality is that:

• Building bank reserves does not increase the ability of the banks to lend.
• The money multiplier process so loved by the mainstream does not describe the way in which banks make loans.
• Inflation is caused by aggregate demand growing faster than real output capacity. The reserve position of the banks is not functionally related with that process.

So the banks are able to create as much credit as they can find credit-worthy customers to hold irrespective of the operations that accompany government net spending.

This doesn’t lead to the conclusion that deficits do not carry an inflation risk. All components of aggregate demand carry an inflation risk if they become excessive, which can only be defined in terms of the relation between spending and productive capacity.

But it is totally fallacious to think that private placement of debt reduces the inflation risk. It does not.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Inès

You know, kids were very different then. They didn’t have their heads filled with all this Cartesian dualism

December 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

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Why on earth would Washington deliberately throw the US into yet another recession when we haven’t even recovered from the last one? They are doing so because of the so called long-term costs of the debt. They (both the Democrats and Republicans, albeit to different degrees) believe that unless we reduce the debt and deficit now, we will pay a price in the years to come, a price that outweighs the higher unemployment their actions will cause today. They are, however, dead wrong. Not only are their fears either completely unfounded or irrelevant given current circumstances, but trying to cut the deficit now would actually leave us in a situation where we would need an even larger one to extricate ourselves from the deep economic slump it will create.

To explain this, let me briefly review the long-run costs typically used to support the current efforts at deficit/debt reduction and show how each is much ado about nothing:

1. Higher debt levels raise the possibility of US default
Let’s get this one off the table right away. The US cannot possibly be forced to default on debt denominated in its own currency. This is a cold, hard fact, not a theory or conjecture. This should not be any part of the discussion whatsoever.

2. Debt burdens future generations
Not true. Government debt is a private sector asset and government deficits create private sector surpluses. Think about it this way: if there were only two people in the economy and one spent more than she earned, giving her a deficit, what must be true about the other? He must have earned more than he spent and thus has a surplus. Now replace “she” with “federal government” and “he” with “private sector” and you’ll see. Nor is there a day of reckoning when federal government debt must be reduced to zero. Thus, it will NOT be necessary to tax future generations in order to finance today’s deficit. Reducing the budget deficit reduces the private sector surplus and reducing debt destroys private sector assets.

3. Debt makes us slaves to foreign interests
First, see point 1. We cannot be forced to default. Second, when a country has net debt with respect to another nation, it’s because of a trade deficit not a budget deficit. Note further that if China does not buy our financial assets, they will no longer have a trade surplus because they will not have provided the credit necessary for us to buy more than we sold. It is therefore in their best interests to do so. And, to reiterate, debt to foreign nations has nothing to do with the budget deficit. Lowering the latter will not lower the former.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: liluna

reading it carelessly as if to tell you your fears were justified

November 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

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Governments are not households.  watch

PHOTOGRAPH: Dara Scully

punk was indeed a sort of secret society, dedicated not to the guarding of a secret but to its pursuit

November 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

If the government undertakes public investment (e.g. builds schools, hospitals, and highways) or subsidizes mass consumption (by family allowances, reduction of indirect taxation, or subsidies to keep down the prices of necessities), and if, moreover, this expenditure is financed by borrowing and not by taxation (which could affect adversely private investment and consumption), the effective demand for goods and services may be increased up to a point where full employment is achieved. Such government expenditure increases employment, be it noted, not only directly but indirectly as well, since the higher incomes caused by it result in a secondary increase in demand for consumer and investment goods.

It may be asked where the public will get the money to lend to the government if they do not curtail their investment and consumption. To understand this process it is best, I think, to imagine for a moment that the government pays its suppliers in government securities. The suppliers will, in general, not retain these securities but put them into circulation while buying other goods and services, and so on, until finally these securities will reach persons or firms which retain them as interest-yielding assets. In any period of time the total increase in government securities in the possession (transitory or final) of persons and firms will be equal to the goods and services sold to the government. Thus what the economy lends to the government are goods and services whose production is ‘financed’ by government securities. In reality the government pays for the services, not in securities, but in cash, but it simultaneously issues securities and so drains the cash off; and this is equivalent to the imaginary process described above.

What happens, however, if the public is unwilling to absorb all the increase in government securities? It will offer them finally to banks to get cash (notes or deposits) in exchange. If the banks accept these offers, the rate of interest will be maintained. If not, the prices of securities will fall, which means a rise in the rate of interest, and this will encourage the public to hold more securities in relation to deposits. It follows that the rate of interest depends on banking policy, in particular on that of the central bank. If this policy aims at maintaining the rate of interest at a certain level, that may be easily achieved, however large the amount of government borrowing. Such was and is the position in the present war. In spite of astronomical budget deficits, the rate of interest has shown no rise since the beginning of 1940.

It may be objected that government expenditure financed by borrowing will cause inflation. To this it may be replied that the effective demand created by the government acts like any other increase in demand. If labour, plants, and foreign raw materials are in ample supply, the increase in demand is met by an increase in production. But if the point of full employment of resources is reached and effective demand continues to increase, prices will rise so as to equilibrate the demand for and the supply of goods and services. (In the state of over-employment of resources such as we witness at present in the war economy, an inflationary rise in prices has been avoided only to the extent to which effective demand for consumer goods has been curtailed by rationing and direct taxation.) It follows that if the government intervention aims at achieving full employment but stops short of increasing effective demand over the full employment mark, there is no need to be afraid of inflation.  read more

ART: Wyndham Lewis

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