Is there a ‘magic money tree’? Is it desirable for central banks to create money to finance government deficits?
The standard thinking of conservative governments around the world is that creating money to finance deficits will be inflationary. Rather, governments should attempt to reduce deficits. This will reduce the problem of government expenditure crowding out private expenditure and reduce the burden placed on future generations of having to finance higher government debt.
If deficits rise because of government response to an emergency, such as supporting people and businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic, then, as soon as the problem begins to wane, governments should attempt to reduce the higher deficits by raising taxes or cutting government expenditure. This was the approach of many governments, including the Coalition and Conservative governments in the UK from 2010, as econommies began to recover from the 2007/8 financial crisis.
‘Modern Monetary Theory‘ challenges these arguments. Advocates of the theory support the use of higher deficits financed by monetary expansion if the money is spent on things that increase potential output as well as actual output. Examples include spending on R&D, education, infrastructure, health and housing.
Modern monetary theorists still accept that excess demand will lead to inflation. Governments should therefore avoid excessive deficits and central banks should avoid creating excessive amounts of money. But, they argue that inflation caused by excess demand has not been a problem for many years in most countries. Instead, we have a problem of too little investment and too little spending generally. There is plenty of scope, they maintain, for expanding demand. This, if carefully directed, can lead to productivity growth and an expansion of aggregate supply to match the rise in aggregate demand.
Government deficits, they argue, are not intrinsically bad. Government debt is someone else’s assets, whether in the form of government bonds, savings certificates, Treasury bills or other instruments. Provided the debt can be serviced at low interest rates, there is no problem for the government and the spending it generates can be managed to allow economies to function at near full capacity.
The following videos and articles look at modern monetary theory and assess its relevance. Not surprisingly, they differ in their support of the theory!
- Modern monetary theory: the rise of economists who say huge government debt is not a problem
The Conversation, John Whittaker (7/7/20)
- Modern Monetary Theory: How MMT is challenging the economic establishment
ABC News, Gareth Hutchens (20/7/20)
- What is Modern Monetary Theory and is it THE answer?
Sydney Morning Herald, Jessica Irvine (2/7/20)
- MMT: what is modern monetary theory and will it work?
MoneyWeek, Stuart Watkins (14/7/20)
- MMT: the magic money tree bears fruit
MoneyWeek, Stuart Watkins (17/7/20)
- Modern Monetary Theory is no Magic Money Tree
Adam Smith Institute, Matt Kilcoyne (20/5/20)
- “Modern Monetary Theory” Goes Mainstream
Forbes, Nathan Lewis (10/7/20)
- How Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have become Magic Money Tree huggers
The Scotsman, Bill Jamieson (16/7/20)
- Ignore the impacts of debt-fuelled stimulus at your peril
Livewire, David Rosenbloom (14/7/20)
- Modern Monetary Theory, explained
Vox.com, Dylan Matthews (16/4/19)
- Compare traditional Keynesian economics and modern monetary theory.
- Using the equation of exchange, MV = PY, what would a modern monetary theorist say about the effect of an expansion of M on the other variables?
- What is the role of fiscal policy in modern monetary theory?
- What evidence might suggest that money supply has been unduly restricted?
- When, according to modern monetary theory, is a rising government deficit (a) not a problem; (b) a problem?
- Is there any truth in the saying, ‘There’s no such thing as a magic money tree’?
- Provide a critique of modern monetary theory.
The first article below, from The Economist, examines likely macroeconomic policy under Donald Trump. He has stated that he plans to cut taxes, including reducing the top rates of income tax and reducing taxes on corporate income and capital gains. At the same time he has pledged to increase infrastructure spending.
This expansionary fiscal policy is unlikely to be accompanied by accommodating monetary policy. Interest rates would therefore rise to tackle the inflationary pressures from the fiscal policy. One effect of this would be to drive up the dollar and therein lies significant risks.
The first is that the value of dollar-denominated debt would rise in foreign currency terms, thereby making it difficult for countries with high levels of dollar debt to service those debts, possibly leading to default and resulting international instability. At the same time, a rising dollar may encourage capital flight from weaker countries to the US (see The Economist article, ‘Emerging markets: Reversal of fortune’).
The second risk is that a rising dollar would worsen the US balance of trade account as US exports became less competitive and imports became more so. This may encourage Donald Trump to impose tariffs on various imports – something alluded to in campaign speeches. But, as we saw in the blog, Trump and Trade, “With complex modern supply chains, many products use components and services, such as design and logistics, from many different countries. Imposing restrictions on imports may lead to damage to products which are seen as US products”.
The third risk is that the main beneficiaries of Trump’s likely fiscal measures will be the rich, who would end up paying significantly less tax. With all the concerns from poor Americans, including people who voted for Trump, about growing inequality, measures that increase this inequality are unlikely to prove popular.
That Eighties show The Economist, Free Exchange (19/11/16)
The unbearable lightness of a stronger dollar Financial Times (18/11/16)
- What should the Fed’s response be to an expansionary fiscal policy?
- Which is likely to have the larger multiplier effect: (a) tax revenue reductions from cuts in the top rates of income; (b) increased government spending on infrastructure projects? Explain your answer.
- Could Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal policy lead to crowding out? Explain.
- What would protectionist policies do to (a) the US current account and (b) dollar exchange rates?
- Why might trying to protect US industries from imports prove difficult?
- Why might Trump’s proposed fiscal policy lead to capital flight from certain developing countries? Which types of country are most likely to lose from this process?
- Go though each of the three risks referred to in The Economist article and identify things that the US administration could do to mitigate these risks.
- Why may the rise in the US currency since the election be reversed?
The article below looks at the economy of Brazil. The statistics do not look good. Real output fell last year by 3.8% and this year it is expected to fall by another 3.3%. Inflation this year is expected to be 9.0% and unemployment 11.2%, with the government deficit expected to be 10.4% of GDP.
The article considers Keynesian economics in the light of the case of Brazil, which is suffering from declining potential supply, but excess demand. It compares Brazil with the case of most developed countries in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Here countries have suffered from a lack of demand, made worse by austerity policies, and only helped by expansionary monetary policy. But the effect of the monetary policy has generally been weak, as much of the extra money has been used to purchase assets rather than funding a growth in aggregate demand.
Different policy prescriptions are proposed in the article. For developed countries struggling to grow, the solution would seem to be expansionary fiscal policy, made easy to fund by lower interest rates. For Brazil, by contrast, the solution proposed is one of austerity. Fiscal policy should be tightened. As the article states:
Spending restraint might well prove painful for some members of Brazilian society. But hyperinflation and default are hardly a walk in the park for those struggling to get by. Generally speaking, austerity has been a misguided policy approach in recent years. But Brazil is a special case. For now, anyway.
The tight fiscal policies could be accompanied by supply-side policies aimed at reducing bureaucracy and inefficiency.
Brazil and the new old normal: There is more than one kind of economic mess to be in The Economist, Free Exchange Economics (12/10/16)
- Explain what is meant by ‘crowding out’.
- What is meant by the ‘liquidity trap’? Why are many countries in the developed world currently in a liquidity trap?
- Why have central banks in the developed world found it difficult to stimulate growth with policies of quantitative easing?
- Under what circumstances would austerity policies be valuable in the developed world?
- Why is crowding out of fiscal policy unlikely to occur to any great extent in Europe, but is highly likely to occur in Brazil?
- What has happened to potential GDP in Brazil in the past couple of years?
- What is meant by the ‘terms of trade’? Why have Brazil’s terms of trade deteriorated?
- What sort of policies could the Brazilian government pursue to raise growth rates? Are these demand-side or supply-side policies?
- Should Brazil pursue austerity policies and, if so, what form should they take?
First the IMF in its World Economic Outlook, then the European Commission in its Economic Forecasts (see also) and now the OECD in its Economic Outlook (see also) – all three organisations in the latest issues of their 6-monthly publications are predicting slower global economic growth than they did 6 months previously. This applies both to the current year and to 2016. The OECD’s forecast for global growth this year is now 2.9%, down from the 3.7% it was forecasting a year ago. Its latest growth forecast for 2016 is 3.3%, down from the 3.9% it was forecasting a year ago.
Various reasons are given for the gloomier outlook. These include: a dramatic slowdown in global trade growth; slowing economic growth in China and fears over structural weaknesses in China; falling commodity prices (linked to slowing demand but also as a result of increased supply); austerity policies as governments attempt to deal with the hangover of debt from the financial crisis of 2007/8; low investment leading to low rates of productivity growth despite technological progress; and general fears about low growth leading to low spending as people become more cautious about their future incomes.
The slowdown in trade growth (forecast to be just 2% in 2015) is perhaps the most worrying for future global growth. As Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, states in his remarks at the launch of the latest OECD Economic Outlook:
‘Global trade, which was already growing slowly over the past few years, appears to have stagnated and even declined since late 2014, with the weakness centering increasingly on emerging markets, particularly China. This is deeply concerning as robust trade and global growth go hand in hand. In 2015 global trade is expected to grow by a disappointing 2%. Over the past five decades there have been only five other years in which trade growth has been 2% or less, all of which coincided with a marked downturn of global growth.’
So what policies should governments pursue to stimulate economic growth? According to Angel Gurría:
‘Short-term demand needs to be supported and structural reforms to be pursued with greater ambition than is currently the case. Three specific actions are key:
||First, we need to resist and turn back rising protectionism. Trade strengthens competition and investment and revs up the “diffusion machine” – the spread of new technologies throughout the economy – which will ultimately lift productivity.
||Second, we need to step up structural reform efforts, which have weakened in recent years. And here, I mean the whole range of structural reforms – education, innovation, competition, labour and product market regulation, R&D, taxes, etc.
||Third, there is scope to adjust public spending towards investment. If done collectively by all countries, if the sector and projects chosen have high multipliers, and if combined with serious structural reforms, stronger public investment can give a boost to growth and employment and not increase the relative debt burden.’
On this third point, the OECD Economic Outlook argues that ‘the rationale for such investments is that they could help to push economies onto a higher growth path than might otherwise be the case, at a time when private investment growth remains modest.’
‘Collective action to increase public investment can be expected to boost the initial domestic multiplier effects from the stimulus, since private investment and exports in each economy will benefit from stronger demand in other economies. …the multiplier effects from an investment-led stimulus are likely to be a little larger than from other forms of fiscal stimulus, since the former also has small, but positive, supply-side effects.
In other words, the OECD is calling for a relaxation of austerity policies, with public investment being used to provide a stimulus to growth. The higher growth will then lead to increased potential output, as well as actual output, and an increase in tax revenues.
These policy recommendations are very much in line with those of the IMF.
Videos and Webcasts
OECD warns of global trade slowdown, trims growth outlook again Reuters (9/11/15)
OECD returns to revisionism with growth downgrade Euronews, Robert Hackwill (9/11/15)
OECD: Weak China Import Growth Leads Trade Slowdown Bloomberg, Catherine L Mann, OECD Chief Economist (9/11/15)
OECD Economic Outlook: Moving forward in difficult times OECD PowerPoint presentation, Catherine L Mann, OECD Chief Economist (9/11/15)
Press Conference OECD, Angel Gurría and Álvaro Pereira (9/11/15)
OECD cuts world growth forecast Financial Times, Ferdinando Giugliano (9/11/15)
OECD rings alarm bell over threat of global growth recession thanks to China slowdown Independent, Ben Chu (10/11/15)
OECD cuts global growth forecasts amid ‘deep concern’ over slowdown BBC News (9/11/15)
OECD fears slowdown in global trade amid China woes The Guardian, Katie Allen (9/11/15)
The global economy is slowing down. But is it recession – or protectionism? The Observer, Heather Stewart and Fergus Ryan (14/11/15)
Global growth is struggling, but it is not all bad news The Telegraph, Andrew Sentance (13/11/15)
Economic Outlook Annex Tables OCED (9/11/15)
Press Release: Emerging market slowdown and drop in trade clouding global outlook OCED (9/11/15)
Data handout for press OECD (9/11/15)
OECD Economic Outlook, Chapter 3: Lifting Investment for Higher Sustainable Growth OCED (9/11/15)
OECD Economic Outlook: Full Report OECD (9/11/15)
- Is a slowdown in international trade a cause of slower economic growth or simply an indicator of slower economic growth? Examine the causal connections between trade and growth.
- How worried should we be about disappointing growth in the global economy?
- What determines the size of the multiplier effects of an increase in public investment?
- Why are the multiplier effects of an increase in public-sector investment likely to be larger in the USA and Japan than in the UK, the eurozone and Canada?
- How can monetary policy be supportive of fiscal policy to stimulate economic growth?
- Under what circumstances would public-sector investment (a) stimulate and (b) crowd out private-sector investment?
- How would a Keynesian economist respond to the recommendations of the OECD?
- How would a neoclassical/neoliberal economist respond to the recommendations?
- Are the OECD’s recommendations in line with the Japanese government’s ‘three arrows‘?
- What structural reforms are recommended by the OECD? Are these ‘market orientated’ or ‘interventionist’ reforms, or both? Explain.
The French economy is flatlining. It has just recorded the second quarter of zero economic growth, with growth averaging just 0.02% over the past 12 months. What is more, the budget deficit is rising, not falling. In April this year, the French finance minister said that the deficit would fall from 4.3% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2014 and to the eurozone ceiling of 3% in 2015. He is now predicting that it will rise this year to 4.4% and not reach the 3% target until 2017.
The deficit is rising because a flatlining economy is not generating sufficient tax revenues. What is more, expenditure on unemployment benefits and other social protection is rising as unemployment has risen, now standing at a record 10.3%.
And it is not just the current economic situation that is poor; the outlook is poor too. The confidence of French companies is low and falling, and investment plans are muted. President Hollande has pledged to cut payroll taxes to help firms, but so far this has not encouraged firms to invest more.
So what can the French government do? And what can the EU as a whole do to help revive not just the French economy but most of the rest of the eurozone, which is also suffering from zero, or near zero, growth?
There are two quite different sets of remedies being proposed.
The first comes from the German government and increasingly from the French government too. This is to stick to the austerity plans: to get the deficit down; to reduce the size of government in order to prevent crowding out; and to institute market-orientated supply-side policies that are business friendly, such as reducing business regulation. Business leaders in France, who generally back this approach, have called for reducing the number of public holidays and scrapping the maximum 35-hour working week. They are also seeking reduced business taxes, financed by reducing various benefits.
Increasingly President Hollande is moving towards a more business-friendly set of policies. Under his government’s ‘Responsibility Pact’, a €40 billion package of tax breaks for business will be financed through €50 billion of cuts in public spending. To carry through these policies he has appointed an ex-investment banker, Emmanuel Macron, as economy minister. He replaces Arnaud Montebourg, who roundly criticised government austerity policy and called for policies to boost aggregate demand.
This brings us to the alternative set of remedies. These focus on stimulating aggregate demand through greater infrastructure investment and cutting taxes more generally (not just for business). The central argument is that growth must come first and that this will then generate the tax revenues and reductions in unemployment that will then allow the deficit to be brought down. Only when economic growth is firmly established should measures be taken to cut government expenditure in an attempt to reduce the structural deficit.
There are also compromise policies being proposed from the centre. These include measures to stimulate aggregate demand, mainly through tax cuts, accompanied by supply-side policies, whether market orientated or interventionist.
As Europe continues to struggle to achieve recovery, so the debate is getting harsher. Monetary policy alone may not be sufficient to bring recovery. Although the ECB has taken a number of measures to stimulate demand, so far they have been to little avail. As long as business confidence remains low, making increased liquidity available to banks at interest rates close to zero will not make banks more willing to lend to business, or businesses more willing to borrow. Calls for an end, or at least a temporary halt, to austerity are thus getting louder. At the same time, calls for sticking to austerity and tackling excessive government spending are also getting louder.
Hollande entrusts French economy to ex-banker Macron Reuters, Ingrid Melander and Jean-Baptiste Vey (26/8/14)
France’s new Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron described by left-wingers as a ‘copy-and-paste Tony Blair’ Independent, John Lichfield (28/8/14)
Merkel praises France’s economic reform plans after Berlin talks with PM Valls Deutsche Welle (22/9/14)
French economy flat-lines as business activity falters Reuters, Leigh Thomas (23/9/14)
French public finances: Rétropédalage The Economist (13/9/14)
French employer group urges ‘shock therapy’ for economy Reuters (24/9/14)
Last chance to save France: loosen 35-hour week and cut public holidays, say bosses The Telegraph (24/9/14)
‘Sick’ France’s economy is stricken by unemployment ‘fever’ The Telegraph (17/9/14)
France’s economics ills worsen but all remedies appear unpalatable The Observer, Larry Elliott and Anne Penketh (31/8/14)
The Fall of France The New York Times, Paul Krugman (28/8/14)
Why Europe is terrified of deflation Salon, Paul Ames (20/9/14)
Europe’s Greater Depression is worse than the 1930s The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (14/8/14)
Worse than the 1930s: Europe’s recession is really a depression The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (20/8/14)
Eurozone business growth slows in September, PMI survey finds BBC News (23/9/14)
Europe must ‘boost demand’ to revive economy, US warns BBC News (21/9/14)
Valls says France would never ask Germany to solve its problems Reuters, Annika Breidthardt and Michelle Martin (23/9/14)
The euro-zone economy: Asset-backed indolence The Economist (11/9/14)
Annual macro-economic database (AMECO) Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
Business and Consumer Surveys Times Series Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
Statistics database European Central Bank
- What types of supply-side reforms would be consistent with the German government’s vision of solving Europe’s low growth problem?
- How could a Keynesian policy of reflation be consistent with getting France’s deficit down to the 3% of GDP limit as specified in the Stability and Growth Pact (see)?
- What is meant by (a) financial crowding out and (b) resource crowding out? Would reflationary fiscal policy in France lead to either form of crowding out? How would it be affected by the monetary stance of the ECB?
- Give examples of market-orientated and interventionist supply-side policies.
- What is meant by the terms ‘cyclical budget deficit’ and ‘structural budget deficit’. Could demand-side policy affect the structural deficit?
- Using the European Commission’s Business and Consumer Surveys find our what has happened to business and consumer confidence in France over the past few months.
- How important is business and consumer confidence in determining economic growth in (a) the short term and (b) the long term?