Nearly all of human life has always passed far from hot baths

January 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

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We are now in a position to demonstrate our proposition: the natural rate of interest is zero. First, to reiterate the argument thus far: Under a state money system with flexible exchange rates, the monetary system is tax driven. The federal government, as issuer of the currency, is not revenue constrained. Taxes do not finance spending, but taxation serves to create a notional demand for state money. Spending logically precedes tax collection, and total spending will normally exceed tax revenues. The government budget, from inception, will therefore normally be in deficit, which also allows the nongovernment sector to “net save” state money (this in fact has been observed in all state currencies).

The Natural Rate of Interest Is Zero
If spending is not revenue constrained, why does the government (conceived here as a consolidated Treasury and Central Bank) borrow (sell securities)? As spending logically precedes tax collection, the government must likewise spend sufficiently before it can borrow. Thus, government spending must also, as a point of logic, precede security sales. To cite a “real world” example, market participants recognize that when Treasury securities are paid for, increasing Treasury balances at the Fed, the Fed does “repos” on the same day; the Fed must “add” so the Treasury can get paid.

Since the currency issuer does not need to borrow its own money to spend, security sales, like taxes, must have some other purpose. That purpose in a typical state money system is to manage aggregate bank reserves and control short-term interest rates (over night interbank lending rate, or Fed funds rate in the United States).

In the contemporary economy, government “money” includes currency and central bank accounts known as member bank reserves. Government spending and lending adds reserves to the banking system. Government taxing and security sales drain (subtract) reserves from the banking system. When the government realizes a budget deficit, there is a net reserve add to the banking system. That is, government deficit spending results in net credits to member bank reserve accounts. If these net credits lead to excess reserve positions, overnight interest rates will be bid down by the member banks with excess reserves to the interest rate paid on reserves by the central bank (zero percent in the case of the USA and Japan, for example). If the central bank has a positive target for the overnight lending rate, either the central bank must pay interest on reserves or otherwise provide an interest-bearing alternative to non-interest-bearing reserve accounts. This is typically done by offering securities for sale in the open market to drain the excess reserves. Central Bank officials and traders recognize this as “offsetting operating factors,” since the sales are intended to offset the impact of the likes of fiscal policy, float, and so forth on reserves that would cause the Fed funds rate to move away from the Fed’s target rate.

Our main point is, in nations that include the USA, Japan, and others where interest is not paid on central bank reserves, the “penalty” for deficit spending and not issuing securities is not (apart from various self-imposed constraints) “bounced” government checks but a zero percent interbank rate, as in Japan today.

The overnight lending rate is the most important benchmark interest rate for many other important rates, including banks’ prime rates, mortgage rates, and consumer loan rates, and therefore the Fed funds rate serves as the “base rate” of interest in the economy. In a state money system with flexible exchange rates running a budget deficit—in other words, under the “normal” conditions or operations of the specified institutional context—without government intervention either to pay interest on reserves or to offer securities to drain excess reserves to actively support a nonzero, positive interest rate, thenatural or normal rate of interest of such a system is zero.

This analysis is supported by both recent research and experience.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Pixy Yijun Liao

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The cessation was glibly attributed to the Great Fire: but in every other city in England the Plague ceased at about the same time

November 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

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While virtually all mainstream economists believe in a long-term Say’s Law (supply creates demand, so the ultimate constraint on long term growth comes from the supply side), the real constraint on long-term growth in a developed capitalist economy is always on the demand side. (Note that there’s nothing new in the Summers/Krugman recognition of secular stagnation; David Levy called it a “contained depression” in 1991; Wallace Peterson announced a “silent depression” in 1994; and I demonstrated in 1999 that the problem is chronically constrained demand. At a recent Levy Institute conference in Rio, Paul McCulley laid out what he called a fundamental economic principle: Microeconomics and Macroeconomics are inherently different disciplines. Macro is demand-side; micro is supply-side. For any practical time horizon, demand always drives supply.)

I know what I’m saying is heretical, even though it is fully backed by all the data. And this stagnation is not due to a liquidity trap, or to a negative “natural” rate of interest. It is in the nature of the productivity of capitalist investment in plant and equipment. To put it in simple terms, the problem is that investment is just too damned productive.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Antonio Olmos

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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