Monday, 21 August 2017

Random charts - 35.

Text in pink on charts below was added by me.

Government borrowing is near pointless.

Milton Friedman in his 1948 paper “A Monetary and Fiscal Framework…” claimed government borrowing made no sense apart possibly during war-time - see section II: “Operation of the proposal”, 2nd para.  However, he did not give very convincing reasons. Here are my attempts at a reason.

Any government can fund itself just via tax: i.e. not engage in any borrowing, as indeed Friedman said. As to borrowing, what that does is to enable some citizens to make more than the normal contribution to government spending and get paid interest on that “more than normal” chunk of money, meanwhile another lot of people can make less than their fair contribution to government spending, but they have to pay taxes to fund interest on their “less than fair share”.

So in effect, all government borrowing does is to enable the former lot of people to lend to the latter lot. But people are free to borrow from and lend to each other anyway! People lend for example when they put money into a bank term account, and people borrow when they get a mortgage for example. So does government borrowing achieve anything that is not taking place anyway, or couldn’t take place anyway?

Well government certainly seems to be an EFFICIENT intermediary between lender and borrower. Governments have draconian powers when it comes to extracting interest: that is, if you’re one of the above mentioned people who pays less than their fair share of tax and has to pay extra tax to fund interest on what you have effectively borrowed, then government can simply demand payment from you and send you to prison if you don’t pay. And in the case of a government which issues its own currency, it always has the option of printing the money needed to pay those it has borrowed from.

Those draconian powers of government explain why government debt, at least in the case of any moderately responsible government, yields such a low rate of interest: lend to government, and your money is safer than when lending to anyone else.

However, those draconian powers of government are not a normal free market phenomenon: commercial banks, non-bank corporations, and individual people when lending or borrowing do not have those powers. And if GDP is to be maximised, the only loans taking place should be loans done in accordance with normal commercial criteria.

Ergo there is no case for government borrowing. QED.

However, I wouldn’t rule out government borrowing (or borrowing by the central bank) altogether in an emergency. Indeed, to repeat, Friedman cited one “emergency” namely war. However another possible emergency is a sudden and excessive rise in demand caused for example by an outbreak of Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance”. In that case it might be difficult to effect enough deflation just via fiscal means, so having government (maybe in the form of the central bank) wade into the market and borrow at above the going rate of interest might make sense.

But to repeat, the case for government borrowing in normal circumstances seems thoroughly weak.


Endnote.  I have actually argued against government borrowing before, e.g. on this blog, but I think the above is a “clincher” argument I haven’t set out before.


Saturday, 19 August 2017

The flaws in negative interest rates.


While negative interest rates probably raise demand, they are not an efficient or “GDP maximising” way of doing so: it’s better to simply have the state create more base money and spend that into the economy and/or cut taxes, while interest is left at a zero or slightly positive level. Two of the reasons negative rates are not efficient are thus.

First, negative rates in theory make negative output viable: not what we need. At the very least, they make “very low return on capital” forms of activity viable.

Second, governments or “states” in effect offer a service to everyone, namely what amounts to a savings bank for those who want a stock of base money (or, much the same thing, government debt). GDP is maximised where goods and services are offered at a price which is close to the cost of supplying those goods and services. And the cost of offering the latter “savings bank” service is near zero. Ergo to maximise GDP, there should be little or no positive or negative interest paid to / charged to those with accounts at the “savings bank”.


The reason normally given for negative rates is that rates are now so low that central banks do not have much scope for cutting rates come a recession, without going for negative rates. There is actually no need for negative rates because, as pointed out by MMTers, government of a country that issues its own currency is master of all it surveys: it can implement any level of stimulus it likes and combine that with any rate of interest it likes.

The latter “MMT” policy DOES require cooperation between fiscal authorities (i.e. politicians) and the central bank. But it’s hard to see anything wrong with two arms of government cooperating. Plus Bernanke backs the “cooperation” idea in this Bloomberg article. As for the idea that that cooperation might result in politicians getting too near the printing press, politicians can actually be kept away from the press under a “cooperative” system. Reasons are below.

Do negative rates actually work?

One problem with negative rates is that they may not actually be an effective anti-recessionary tool at all. Reason is thus.

The main idea behind negative rates is that if people are charged in proportion to their stock of cash, they’ll try to spend away that stock, which in turn should boost demand. But there’s another possibility: people may have some target amount of cash they want to hold, so if X% of that target is taken away from them, they’ll respond by saving so as to return their stock of cash to their target. And the effect of saving is to REDUCE demand!

Maximising GDP.

But a more fundamental problem with negative rates is that they may not maximise GDP. Reason is thus.

It is widely accepted in economics that GDP is maximised where products are available at a price which is near the cost of production. It makes sense to have the price of gold hundreds of times higher per kg than the price of steel: reason is it costs far more per kg to produce gold. Obviously each firm aims to make a profit, but competitive forces keep those profits down to acceptable levels normally, which results in the price of most products being near the cost of production.

Now what’s the cost to the state (i.e. government and/or central bank) of maintaining a stock of cash for each household, firm, etc? It’s almost nothing!

Incidentally I’m assuming that the state does actually make savings accounts available for all. That’s not quite the reality, but it very nearly is. E.g. in the UK there’s a state run savings bank “National Savings and Investments”. NSI provides some of the services available from a regular bank but certainly not all of those services. Plus most people in most countries are free to buy government debt, which amounts to much the same thing as putting money into a term account at a state run savings bank. (NSI actually invests only in UK government debt).

As Warren Mosler and Martin Wolf (chief economics commentator at the Financial  Times) said, government debt is almost the same thing as base money.

So to keep things simple, let’s just assume the state has a savings bank for anyone wanting to keep a stock of base money. It would clearly be OK for such a bank to charge for ADMINISTRATION COSTS, as indeed existing commercial banks do.

But there is no obvious reason to charge interest on the money in such accounts, i.e. charge negative interest, if the price of the product is to be close to the cost of making the product available. Moreover, and as regards positive rates (i.e. paying interest to those holding state liabilities) Milton Friedman and Warren Mosler argued that the natural rate of interest is zero: that is, they argued that there is no reason for government to issue interest yielding liabilities. So to summarise, if we ignore administration costs, there are good reasons for thinking that neither positive nor negative interst should be paid on state run savings accounts, i.e. on “state liabilities”.


But assuming the latter “zero interest” policy is adopted, how then do we implement stimulus? Well that’s easy: have the state print money and spend it (and/or cut taxes). That way the private sector ends up with a bigger stock of cash (base money to be exact), which induces the private sector to spend more. And that’s the form of stimulus Friedman advocated in his 1948 paper ”A Monetary and Fiscal Framework…”. Though he advocated the same unvarying amount of stimulus per year, an idea not widely accepted nowadays.

And if we particularly want to raise interest rates at some given level of demand (e.g. the “full employment” level of demand), that is also easily done: just “print and spend” as above but to an excessive extent, and then deal with the resulting excess demand by raising interest rates (which can be done by having government or central bank, i.e. “the state”, borrow more). That of course is not consistent with the Friedman / Mosler claim that government should pay no interest on it’s liabilities. But never mind: the point is that if a government PARTICULARLY WANTS raise interest rates, it has the power to do so. And indeed there could well be an argument for doing that in an emergency: e.g. if there was a serious outbreak of Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance”, then demand might have to be reined in in a hurry, and an interest rate hike would be one way of doing that.

Dispose of interest rate adjustments?

It was implied just above that interest rate adjustments should be abandoned (except perhaps in emergencies) and that stimulus should be done by adjusting the amount of new money created and spent. That certainly conflicts with the conventional wisdom, but it actually makes sense for the following reasons.

First, come a recession, there is no obvious reason why a fall in borrowing and lending is necessarily the cause of the problem: the cause could be a fall in some other element of aggregate demand, e.g. consumer confidence or exports. And second, even if borrowing and lending HAVE FALLEN, that could be for perfectly good reasons.

Indeed, a classic example of that was the bank crisis ten years ago: that was sparked off by excessive and irresponsible lending, followed by a sudden realization by banks that they’d lent to too many no hopers (e.g. NINJA mortgagors). So the sensible thing for them to do was rein in loans. But that caused a recession. So what did central banks do? They cut interest rates so as to encourage more lending: exactly what wasn’t needed! Might as well try curing an alcoholic by giving him crates of free whiskey!

A free market would boost the monetary base in a recession.

Another point in favor of largely abandoning interest rate adjustments and implementing base money adjustments instead is that that is what would happen in a perfectly functioning free market. That is in such a market, the price of goods, services and labor would fall in a recession. That in turn would mean a rise in the real value of the monetary base, which in turn would encourage spending.

That phenomenon does not work too well in the real world because as Keyes put it, “wages are sticky downwards”. But never mind: instead of raising the value of each dollar making up the base, the NUMBER OF dollars making up the base can be increased instead.

Negative output.

Having claimed above that GDP is not maximised where employers make a charge for a product which is not related to costs, it should be possible to point to exactly how that failure to maximise GDP comes about where the state makes an unwarranted charge to those holding state liabilities, i.e. charges negative interest. Well here goes.

Say I can borrow at minus 4%. I could then buy 100 houses, keep them for a year, burn down two of them just for fun, sell the remaining 96, and come away with a 2% profit! Crazy: that amounts to what might be called “negative output”.

Of course that’s a silly example. But there is a serious point there: under a negative interest rate regime, forms of negative output or “wealth destroying” output then become viable. At the very least, forms of output become viable which would not be viable at the Friedman / Mosler zero rate, or a higher rate.

Politicians and the printing press.

Having suggested it  can be an idea for the state to simply print money and spend it and/or cut taxes, there is an obvious problem there namely that that requires cooperation between the central bank and politicians, thus politicians get closer to the printing press. Does that matter?

Well the evidence seems to be that in most countries the degree of independence of the central bank (i.e. how close it is to politicians) does not influence inflation – see chart below which is taken from an article by Bill Mitchell.

However, like most people I suspect, I’d rather keep politicians away from the press. And doing that under a regime where it is possible to “print and spend” is not difficult. All that needs to be done is to give the responsibility for determining the amount to be printed to the central bank (or some independent committee of economists), while politicians retain the right to determine what proportion of GDP goes to public spending. Indeed, that’s not vastly different from the existing system in that an independent central bank has the last word on how much stimulus there shall be: e.g. under the existing system, if the central bank thinks politicians have implemented too much fiscal stimulus, the central bank well negate that by raising interest rates.

Under a system where the central bank determines the amount of stimulus, but stimulus is effected simply by creating and spending new base money (or cutting taxes), the central bank might say “public spending needs to exceed tax by 2% of GDP this year and here’s the money that enables that to be done”. Politicians would then have the choice as to whether to effect that by having public spending equal to 30% of GDP and tax equal to 28% of GDP. Or they could go for 40% and 38%, etc.

And what do you know? That’s exactly the system advocated by Positive Money, the New Economics Foundation and Prof Richard Werner in this work. Bernanke also expressed sympathy with that sort of system. To be exact, in this Fortune article, Bernanke suggested the central bank should determine the AMOUNT of money to be created and spent, while (as suggested above) politicians take the essentially POLITICAL decisions: whether to distribute the largess in the form of more public spending or tax cuts, and if the former, how much goes to education, health, defence, etc. See para starting “A possible arrangement…” halfway down.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

A not very clever article on banking by Tim Congdon.

It’s this recent article in the Telegraph entitled “Our zeal to punish the bankers only stoked the Great Recession”.

Tim Congdon has the impressive sounding title of: “Chairman of the Institute of International Monetary Research at the University of Buckingham”. Unfortunately his ideas have never been equally impressive, as I’ve explain in earlier articles on this blog.

The basic point he has banged on about for many years (and in his Telegraph article) is that GDP is related to the money supply, ergo (so his argument goes) if the money supply is expanded, GDP rises. Ergo it is essential for commercial banks to be encouraged to lend more (as the title of the above article implies).

The flaws in that idea should be obvious enough to anyone with a decent grasp of economics, but for the benefit of readers not sure what the flaw is, I’ll run through it.

Two sorts of money.

The problem with Congdon’s argument is that there are two very different forms of money: central bank issued money and private bank issued money. The former is a net asset as far as the private sector is concerned. To illustrate, one way of expanding the private sector’s stock of CB money would be for the CB to print dollar bills or pound notes and to have government hand them out in the form of extra unemployment benefit or increased state pensions.

That would induce pensioners etc to spend more.

In contrast, there is commercial bank issued money. That money comes into being when a commercial bank grants a loan. But note that while it’s nice for the borrower to have $X at their disposal as a result of the loan, the borrower is of course indebted to the bank. So on balance the borrower is no better off (unlike the above mentioned pensioners.) Or to quote a commonly used phrase (which Congdon has presumably not caught up with), commercial bank issued money “nets to nothing”. Certainly there is no mention of the two basic forms of money in Congdon’s article.

Congdon is correct to suggest that increasing either form will increase demand. The reason why pensioners etc spend more when they find more pound notes in their wallets is obvious enough. As to how and why increased loans by commercial banks raises demand, that should be equally obvious: if I borrow $Y with a view to having a house built, that will increase demand for bricks, timber, bricklayers, plumbers and so on.

For more details on how, why and the extent to which increased bank loans increases demand, Steve Keen’s short and very readable book “Can we avoid another financial crisis” is a good source.

To summarise so far, if we want to increase demand, that is easily done EITHER by expanding the stock of central bank money or the stock of commercial bank money. And the way governments normally induce commercial banks to lend more to their customers is to cut interest rates.

Why expand the amount of dodgy private money?

There is however a glaring problem with privately issued money: the private banks which issue it, not to put too fine a point on it, are big time criminals. To be more exact, total fines and out of court settlements paid by US banks in recent years in the US comes to a staggering $200bn or so. And then there’s the small matter of the risky practices they indulged in which caused the worst recession since World War II.

So, contrary to Congdon’s suggestions, there are EXTREMELY GOOD reasons for clamping down on various commercial bank practices. And as for Congdon’s complaint that that exacerbates recessions, the simple answer to that is to expand the private sector’s stock of CENTRAL bank money: exactly what various governments have actually done in recent years.

It could be argued that the WAY in which the private sector’s stock of central bank money has been expanded, namely QE, has not been very effective because QE is just an asset swap. That is, the central bank prints $Z worth money and buys up $Z of government debt. And from that you might concluded that private sector net assets have remained about constant.

Actually that’s a bit misleading. Reason is that prior to QE and during the initial stages of QE there was a much larger than normal government deficit. And a deficit consists of: “government borrows $A and gives lenders $A of government bonds and spends $A back into the private sector. Lo and behold the private sector’s stock of paper assets rises by $A! Then comes QE, which consists of “central bank prints $A and buys back $A of bonds. Net result: the private sector has $A more cash (just like the above mentioned pensioners).

And finally, for anyone interested in delving a bit further into Congdon’s ideas, there is a transcript of a discussion between him and Prof Robert Skidelsky here in which Skidelsky tries to explain to Congdon the error of his ways.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Random charts - 34.

Text in pink on the charts below was added by me.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Random charts - 33.

Text in pink on the charts below was added by me.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

My Job Guarantee theory proves correct, unfortunately.

Job Guarantee (JG) is a name for what are sometimes called “make work” schemes. “The Job Creation Programme” which operated in the UK about 40 years ago was one of many examples. And the WPA in the US in the 1930s was another example.

I’ve been arguing for twenty years that if Job Guarantee schemes take the form that they did under the WPA, namely having large numbers of unemployed people work on specially set up schemes, there is a danger that the ratio of unskilled to skilled employees is too high, with disastrously low levels of productivity being the result. For example I argued that point quite recently here.

The fact that productivity was not too bad on many WPA schemes in the 1930s proves nothing. Reason is that given VERY HIGH levels of unemployment (as existed in the 1930s), there is a decent availability of skilled labour from the ranks of the unemployed. But JG is not a good solution for VERY HIGH unemployment levels: the best solution there is simply to run a bigger deficit, as Keynes explained. Ergo where JG performs the role for which it is ideally suited (reducing unemployment even further where unemployment is relatively low) the latter “skilled / unskilled” danger exists. (Unfortunately that point is too subtle for many of the windbags inside and outside academia who witter on about JG).

Anyway, some local government people turned up in my neighbourhood recently and said they were going to employ some youths on probation to fill potholes in a road near where I live (see picture below which was taken after the holes had been filled).

For the benefit of non-Brits, probation is a system in the UK for dealing with miscreant youths: they are given supervised work, and so on. So it’s SIMILAR to JG but clearly not EXACTLY the same.

Now this road has a slight slope on it (left to right in the picture) which means that excess rainwater runs down the right hand side, out of the way of vehicles. That’s desirable because if water stands in the middle of a hardcore or dirt-track road, car tyres force water out of the pot-holes at high velocity, which forces hardcore out of the holes and makes them worse.

So I told one of the men in charge that that slope needs to be retained. And what d’yer know? They ended up giving parts of the road a slope the wrong way or giving it no slope at all, with the result that water will accumulate in the middle of the road. Least that’s what my spirit level says – see second picture.

The ratio of “unskilled miscreant youths” to “normal intelligent adults” looked to me to be about two to one.

The moral is that, as explained in the economic text books, if the amount of skilled labour in any economic activity, including JG, declines to much below normal levels, productivity falls dramatically, even where a simple job like filling pot-holes is involved.

Ergo JG people should be subsidised into work with EXISTING EMPLOYERS, not concentrated on specially set up schemes which involve high levels of unskilled, low IQ labour.

Unfortunately, and to repeat, that’s all a mile above the heads of most of those who witter on about the potential wonders of JG.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

New Zealand proves Brexit isn’t such a bad idea.

Those who want the UK to stay in the UK, i.e. “remainers”, often argue that it is important to be able to trade with countries which are geographically close. As I pointed out here recently, that idea looks a bit silly in light of the fact that the average distance travelled by Australia’s exports and imports is around 6,000 miles. Same goes for New Zealand.

Further significant characteristics of NZ in this connection, are that it has a similar land mass to the UK, it speaks the same language, it has a similar culture plus it is slightly better off than the UK: at least GDP per head is a bit higher. And its population is a mere five million.

Now that all rather blows a hole in the idea that the UK needs a constant flow of immigrants from the EU or indeed from elsewhere. That is, if there was significant net EMIGRATION from the UK for the next twenty years, such that its population declined to five million, it would then be very similar to New Zealand: better off than it is now!!

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Random charts - 32.

Text in pink on these charts was added by me.