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 promises by the newly elected Conservative government to increase investment expenditure on health, education, innovation and infrastructure, it was expected that Rishi Sunak’s first Budget would be strongly expansionary. In fact, it turned out to be two Budgets in one – both giving a massive fiscal boost.
An emergency Budget
The first part of the Budget was a short-term emergency response to the explosive spread of the coronavirus. An extra £12 billion is to be spent on the NHS and other public services. Whether this will be anything like enough to cope with the effects of the pandemic as businesses fail and people lose their jobs remains to be seen. (See the blog A global supply-side shock: the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.)
A key issue is just how quickly the money can be spent. How quickly can you train health professionals or produce more ventilators or provide extra hospital beds?
This emergency part of the Budget was co-ordinated with the Bank of England’s decision to cut Bank Rate from 0.75% to 0.25%.
This combined fiscal and monetary response to the crisis was further enhanced by the agreement of central banks on 15 March to boost world liquidity by increasing the supply of US dollars through large-scale quantitative easing. The US central bank, the Federal Reserve, also cut its main federal funds rate by one percentage point from 1–1.25% to 0–0.25%.
The planned Budget
The second part of the Budget is to raise government investment by 9% in real terms over the next four years, bringing overall government expenditure to 41% of GDP, financed largely by extra borrowing. As the IFS observes, “That is above its pre-crisis level and bigger than at any point between the mid 1980s and the start of the financial crisis.”
But despite this rise in the proportion of government spending to GDP, in other respects the spending plans are less expansionary than they may appear. Increases in current spending on health, education and defence had already been promised. This leaves other departments, such as social security, facing cuts, or at least no increase. And when compared with 2010/11 levels, if you exclude health, government current spending per head of the population will around 14% lower, or 19% lower once you account for spending that replaces EU funding.
The Chancellor’s hope is that, by focusing on investment, there will be a supply-side effect as well as a demand-side boost. If increases in aggregate demand are balanced by increases in aggregate supply, such a policy would not be inflationary in the long run. But in the light of the considerable uncertainty of the effects of the coronavirus, the plans may well require significant adjustment in the Autumn Budget – or earlier.
Podcasts and Videos
- To what extent is this Budget ‘Keynesian’?
- Is the extra government expenditure likely to crowd out private expenditure? Explain.
- Demonstrate the desired long-term economic effect of the infrastructure policy using either an AD/AS diagram or a DAD/DAS diagram.
- How is the coronavirus pandemic likely to affect potential GDP in (a) the short run (b) the long run?
- Why is public-sector debt likely to soar over the next four years while annual government debt interest payments are likely to continue their gentle decline?
- What is missing from the Budget that you feel ought to have been included? Explain why.
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?
The ‘Classical’ Treasury view of the 1920s and 30s was that extra government spending or tax cuts were not the solution to depression and mass unemployment. Instead, it would crowd out private expenditure if the money supply were not allowed to rise as it would drive up interest rates. But if money supply were allowed to rise, this would be inflationary. The solution was to reduce budget deficits to increase confidence in public finances and to encourage private investment. Greater price and wage flexibility were the answer to markets not clearing.
Keynes countered these arguments by arguing that the economy could settle in a state of mass unemployment, with low confidence leading to lower consumer expenditure, lower investment, lower incomes and lower employment. The situation would be made worse, not better, by cuts in public expenditure or tax rises in an attempt to reduce the budget deficit. The solution was higher public expenditure to stimulate aggregate demand. This could be achieved by fiscal and monetary policies. Monetary policy alone could, however, be made ineffective by the liquidity trap. Extra money might simply be held rather than spent.
This old debate has been reborn since the financial crisis of 2007/8 and the subsequent deep recession and, more recently, the lack of recovery. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The articles below consider the current situation. Many economists, but certainly not all, take a Keynesian line that austerity policies to reduce public-sector deficits have been counter-productive. By dampening demand, such policies have reduced national income and slowed the recovery in both investment and consumer demand. This has at best slowed the rate of deficit reduction or at worst even increased the deficit, with lower GDP leading to a reduction in tax receipts and higher unemployment leading to higher government social security expenditure.
Although monetary policy has been very loose, measures such as record low interest rates and quantitative easing have been largely ineffective in stimulating demand. Economies are stuck in a liquidity trap, with banks preferring to build their reserves rather than to increase lending. This is the result partly of a lack of confidence and partly of pressure on them to meet Basel II and III requirements of reducing their leverage.
But despite the call from many economists to use fiscal policy and more radical monetary policy to stimulate demand, most governments have been pre-occupied with reducing their deficits and ultimately their debt. Their fear is that rising deficits undermine growth – a fear that was given weight by, amongst others, the work of Reinhart and Rogoff (see the blog posts Reinhart and Rogoff: debt and growth and It could be you and see also Light at the end of the tunnel – or an oncoming train?.
But there is some movement by governments. The new Japanese government under Shinzo Abe is following an aggressive monetary policy to drive down the exchange rate and boost aggregate demand (see A J-curve for Japan?) and, more recently, the European Commission has agreed to slow the pace of austerity by giving the Netherlands, France, Spain, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia more time to bring their budget deficits below the 3% of GDP target.
Of course, whether or not expansionary fiscal and/or monetary policies should be used to tackle a lack of growth does not alter the argument that supply-side policies are also required in order to increase potential economic growth.
A Keynesian Victory, but Austerity Stands Firm The New York Times, Business Day, Eduardo Porter (21/5/13)
With Austerity Under Fire, Countries Seek a More Balanced Solution Knowledge@Wharton (22/5/13)
Keynes, Say’s Law and the Theory of the Business Cycle History of Economics Review 25.1-2, Steven Kates (1996)
Is Lord Keynes back in Brussels? The Conversation, Fabrizio Carmignani (31/5/13)
Keynes’s Biggest Mistake The New York Times, Business Day, Bruce Bartlett (7/5/13)
Keynes’s Not So Big Mistake The New York Times, The Conscience of a Liberal blog, Paul Krugman (7/5/13)
The Chutzpah Caucus The New York Times, The Conscience of a Liberal blog, Paul Krugman (5/5/13)
Keynes and Keynesianism The New York Times, Business Day, Bruce Bartlett (14/5/13)
Japan Is About To Prove Keynesian Economics Entirely Wrong Forbes, Tim Worstall (11/5/13)
The poverty of austerity exposed Aljazeera, Paul Rosenberg (24/5/13)
Britain is a lab rat for George Osborne’s austerity programme experiment The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/5/13)
Eurozone retreats from austerity – but only as far as ‘austerity lite’ The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/5/13)
Europe’s long night of uncertainty Daily Times (Pakistan), S P Seth (29/5/13)
Abenomics vs. bad economics The Japan Times Gregory Clark (29/5/13)
European countries to be allowed to ease austerity BBC News (29/5/13)
U.K. Should Restore Growth, Rebalance Economy IMF Survey (22/5/13)
Now everyone is a Keynesian again – except George Osborne The Observer, William Keegan (2/6/13)
Austerity Versus Growth (III): Fiscal Policy And Debt Sustainability Social Europe Journal, Stefan Collignon (30/5/13)
- Explain what is meant by Say’s Law and its implication for macroeconomic policy.
- Why have many governments, including the UK government, been reluctant to pursue expansionary fiscal policies?
- What is meant by the liquidity trap? What is the way out of this trap?
- In the first article above, Eduardo Porter argues that ‘moral views are getting in the way of reason’. What does he mean by this?
- Explain what are meant by the ‘paradox of thrift’ and the ‘fallacy of composition’. How are these two concepts relevant to the debate over austerity policies?
- What are the dangers in pursuing aggressive Keynesian policies?
- What are the dangers in not pursuing aggressive Keynesian policies?
The history of macroeconomic thought has been one of lively debate between different schools.
First there is debate between those who favour active government intervention (Keynesians) to manage aggregate demand and those who favour a rules-based approach of targeting some variable, such as the money supply (as advocated by monetarists) or the rate of inflation (as pursued by many central banks), or a hybrid rule, such as a Taylor rule that takes into account a weighted target of inflation and real output growth.
Second there is debate about the relative effectiveness of monetary and fiscal policy. Monetarists argue that monetary policy is relatively effective in determining aggregate demand, which in turn affects output in the short run but only prices in the long run. Keynesians argue that monetary policy can be weak in the short run if the economy is in recession. Quantitative easing may simply be accompanied by a decline in the velocity of circulation. It’s not enough to make more money available and keep interest rates close to zero; people must have the confidence to borrow and spend. Keynesians argue that in these circumstances fiscal policy is more effective.
Third there is the debate about the size of the state and the extent of government borrowing. Libertarians, following the views of economists such as Hayek, argue that reducing the size of the state and reducing government borrowing will create a more dynamic economy, where the private sector will expand to take up the slack created by a reduction in the size of the public sector. Their approach to policy involves a mixture of cutting deficits and market-orientated supply-side policy. Economists on the left, by contrast, argue that economic growth is best stimulated in the short term by increases in government spending and that supply-side policy needs to be interventionist, with the government investing in infrastructure, research and development, education and health. Such growth policies, they argue can be targeted on the poor and help to arrest the growing inequality in society.
These debates have been given added impetus by the global financial crisis in 2008 and the subsequent recession, slow recovery and possibility of a slide back into recession. The initial response of governments and central banks was to stimulate aggregate demand. Through combinations of expansionary fiscal policy, interest rates cut to virtually zero and programmes of quantitative easing, the world seemed set on a course for recovery. But one result of the policies was a massive expansion in government deficits and debt. This led to increasing criticisms from the right, and a move away from expansionary to austerity fiscal policies in order to contain debts that were increasingly being seen as unsustainable. And all the while the debates have raged.
The following podcast and articles look at the debates and how they have evolved. The picture painted is a more subtle and nuanced one than a stark ‘Keynes versus Hayek’, or ‘Keynesians versus monetarists’.
Keynes v Hayek: The debate continues BBC Today Programme, Nicholas Wapshott and Paul Ormerod (23/12/11)
Von Hayek Revisited – Warts and All CounterPunch, David Warsh (26/12/11)
Fed up with Bernanke Reuters, Nicholas Wapshott (20/12/11)
Paul Krugman Versus Milton Friedman Seeking Alpha, ‘Shareholders Unite’ (6/12/11)
Keynes Was Right New York Times, Paul Krugman (29/12/11)
Keynes, Krugman, and Austerity National Review Online, William Voegeli (3/1/12)
The Madness of Lord Keynes The American Spectator, Samuel Gregg (19/12/11)
Central Bankers vs. Natural Stock Market Cycles in 2012 The Market Oracle, David Knox Barker (28/12/11)
Now is the time to eat, drink and be merry Financial Times, Samuel Brittan (29/12/11)
- To what extent is quantitative easing consistent with (a) Keynesian and (b) monetarist approaches to macroeconomic policy?
- What is meant by the ‘liquidity trap’ and what are its implications for monetary policy? Have we witnessed a liquidity trap since the beginning of 2009?
- What are the arguments for and against an independent central bank?
- Explain Milton Friedman’s assertion ‘that it was the Fed’s failure in 1930 to pursue “open market operations” on the scale needed that deepened the slump’.
- What are the implications of growing government deficits and debt for policies to avoid a slide back into recession?