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.
With the UK parliament in Brexit gridlock, the Labour opposition is calling for a general election. Although its policy over Brexit and a second referendum is causing splits in the party, the Labour party is generally agreed that pubic expenditure on health, education and transport infrastructure needs to increase – that there needs to be an end to fiscal austerity. However, to fund extra public expenditure would require an increase in taxes and/or an increase in government borrowing.
One of the arguments against increasing government borrowing is that it will increase public-sector debt. The desire to get public-sector debt down as a percentage of GDP has been central to both the Coalition and Conservative governments’ economic strategy. Austerity policies have been based on this desire.
But, in the annual presidential address to the American Economics Association, former chief economist at the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, criticised this position. He has argued for several years that cutting government deficits may weaken already weak economies and that this may significantly reduce tax revenues and potential national income, thereby harming recovery and doing long-term economic damage. Indeed, the IMF has criticised excessively tight fiscal policies for this reason.
In his presidential address, he expanded the argument to consider whether an increase in government borrowing will necessarily increase the cost of servicing government debt. When the (nominal) interest rate (r) on government borrowing is below the nominal rate of economic growth (gn), (r < gn), then even if total debt is not reduced, it is likely that the growth in tax revenues will exceed the growth in the cost of servicing the debt. Debt as a proportion of GDP will fall. The forecast nominal growth rate exceeds the 10-year nominal rate on government bonds by 1.3% in the USA, 2.2% in the UK and 1.8% in the eurozone. In fact, with the exception of a short period in the 1980s, nominal growth (gn) has typically exceeded the nominal interest rate on government borrowing (r) for decades.
When r < gn, this then gives scope for increasing government borrowing to fund additional government spending without increasing the debt/GDP ratio. Indeed, if that fiscal expansion increases both actual and potential income, then growth over time could increase, giving even more scope for public investment.
But, of course, that scope is not unlimited.
- What do you understand by ‘fiscal illusion’?
- What is the justification for reducing government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- What are the arguments against reducing government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- Explain the significance of the relationship between r and gn for fiscal policy and the levels of government debt, government borrowing and the government debt/GDP ratio.
- Under what circumstances would a rise in the budget deficit not lead to a rise in government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- Does Blanchard’s analysis suggest that a combination of both loose monetary policy and loose fiscal policy is desirable?
- Under Blanchard’s analysis, what would limit the amount that governments should increase spending?
Now here’s a gloomy article from Robert Peston. He’s been looking at investors’ views about the coming years and sees a general pessimism about the prospects for long-term economic growth. And that pessimism is becoming deeper.
It is true that both the UK and the USA have recorded reasonable growth rates in recent months and do seem, at least on the surface, to be recovering from recession. But, according to investor behaviour, they:
seem to be saying, in how they place their money, that the UK’s and USA’s current reasonably rapid growth will turn out to be a short-lived period of catch-up, following the deep recession of 2008-9.
So what is it about investor behaviour that implies a deep pessimism and are investors right to be pessimistic? The article explores these issues. It does also look at an alternative explanation that investors may merely be being cautious until a clearer picture emerges about long-term growth prospects – which may turn out to be better that many currently now predict.
The article finishes by looking at a possible solution to the problem (if you regard low or zero growth as a problem). That would be for the government to ‘throw money at investment in infrastructure – to generate both short-term growth and enhance long-term productive potential.’
Note that Elizabeth also looks at this article in her blog The end of growth in the west?.
The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)
- What is meant by the ’25-year yield curve for government bonds’? Why does this yield curve imply a deep level of business pessimism about the long-term prospects for UK economic growth?
- What are the determinants of long-term economic growth?
- Looking at these determinants, which ones suggest that long-term economic growth may be low?
- Are there any determinants which might suggest that economic growth will be maintained over the long term at historical levels of around 2.6%?
- Do demand-side policies affect potential GDP and, if so, how?
- What policies could government pursue to increase the rate of growth in potential GDP?
- What current ‘dramas’ affecting the world economy could have long-term implications for economic growth? How does uncertainty about the long-term implications for the global economy of such dramas itself affect economic growth?
- Is long-term growth in real GDP an appropriate indicator of (a) economic development and (b) long-term growth in general well-being?
The growth rates of the Western world have been somewhat volatile for the past decade, with negative growth sending economies into recession and then varying degrees of economic recovery. Growth rates elsewhere have been very high, in particular in countries such as China and India. The future of economic growth in the west is hotly debated and whether the western world has been forever changed by the credit crunch remains to be seen.
The article below from the BBC, written by Robert Peston, the Economics Editor, addresses the question of the future of the western world. Opinions differ as to whether the west is finally recovering from the recession and financial instability or if the credit crunch and subsequent recession is just the beginning of many years of economic stagnation. The article in particular focuses on the yield curve and the trends in government debt or gilts. This tends to be a key indicator of the expectations of the future of an economy and how confident investors are in its likely trajectory. Though technical in places, this article provides some interesting stances on what we might expect in the coming 2-3 decades for economic performance in the West.
Note that John also looks at this article in his blog Cloudy Skies Ahead?
The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)
- Which factors affect the economic growth of a nation?
- Confidence from consumers, firms and investors is always argued to be crucial to the future economic growth and in many cases, the recovery of an economy. Explain why this factor is so important.
- What is the yield curve and what does it show?
- How can the yield curve be used to offer predictions about the future strength of an economy?
- Why are governments seen as the safest place to lend?
- If Larry Summers is correct in saying that it is a negative equilibrium interest rate that is needed to generate full employment growth, what does this suggest about the future economic performance of the western world?
- In the article, there is a list of some of the key things that make investors anxious. Review each of these factors and explain why it is so important in generating anxiety.
Nearly two years ago, France lost its triple A credit-rating and the news has only got worse. Unemployment has risen and economic growth in France has remained low and this is one of the reasons why France’s credit rating has been downgraded further from AA+ to AA. A high credit rating doesn’t guarantee market confidence, but it does help to keep the cost of borrowing for the government low. Thus, this downgrading could spell trouble for French borrowing costs.
Standard and Poor’s (S&P), who downgraded the French credit rating, is expecting government debt to rise to 86% of gross domestic product and believes that unemployment will remain above 10% until 2016. While the French government has put various reforms in place to boost the struggling economy, S&P don’t believe they are sufficient and have been very public in criticising the government’s effort. They were quoted as saying:
We believe the French government’s reforms to taxation, as well as to product, services and labour markets, will not substantially raise France’s medium-term growth prospects and that on-going high unemployment is weakening support for further significant fiscal and structural policy measures.
Following the downgrading, the return for those investors purchasing French debt did begin to rise, echoing the theory that the cost of borrowing would rise. The yield on French government 10-year bonds increased from 2.158% to 2.389%. The outlook given to France by S&P was ‘stable’, implying that there is a relatively low chance that S&P would change France’s credit-rating again in the next two years.
Many were surprised at the downgrading of France’s credit rating, but this may be the nudge that President Hollande needs to push through extensive labour market reforms with the aim of reducing unemployment and generating growth in the economy. Despite this latest move by S&P, the other credit rating agencies have yet to take similar action. Perhaps they are more convinced by the Finance Minister, Pierre Moscovici who claims that France’s debt is ‘one of the safest and most liquid in the world.’ He commented that:
They are underestimating France’s ability to reform, to pull itself up … During the last 18 months the government has implemented major reforms aimed at improving the French economic situation, restoring its public finances and its competitiveness.
It will take some time for the full impact of this development in France’s economy to become apparent. The cost of borrowing has already risen only time will tell what will happen to market confidence over the coming weeks. However, what is certain is that pressure is already mounting on Francois Hollande. The following articles consider the French economy.
France told to reform labour market after second credit rating downgrade The Guardian, Phillip Inman (8/13/13)
France’s credit rating cut by S&P to AA BBC News (8/11/13)
S&P lowers France rating on reform doubts, markets unfazed Reuters, Nicholas Vinocur (8/11/13)
Hollande approval rating slumps as France downgraded The Telegraph, James Titcomb (8/11/13)
S&P cuts France’s credit rating by one notch to double-A Wall Street Journal, William Horobin (8/11/13)
Five charts that show the state of the French economy The Telegraph (8/11/13)
France rating downgrade heaps pressure on Francois Hollande Financial Times, Michael Stothard (8/11/13)
- What does a double A rating mean for the French economy?
- Which factors will be considered when a ratings agency decides to change a country’s credit rating?
- France’s unemployment rate is one of the key factors that S&P has considered. Why is France’s unemployment rate so high? Which type(s) of unemployment are increasing?
- Use a diagram to illustrate the unemployment that France is facing.
- If a country does see its credit rating downgraded, what might this mean for government borrowing costs? Explain why this might cause further problems for a country?
- Markets have been ‘unfazed’ by the downgrade. How do you think markets will react to over the coming weeks? Explain your answer.
- What action could the French government take to ensure that S&P is the only ratings agency that downgrades their credit rating?