Where is the pandemic stimulus money coming from?

The Economist / Otto Dettmer
CREATING MONEY OUT OF NOTHING

Governments around the world are spending up a storm. They have loosened their purse strings and are shovelling truckloads of cash into their respective economies. Collectively, it represents the biggest relief package in history – in excess of US$10 trillion globally. For most nations, every penny of their mind-boggling spendathon is borrowed.

In doing “whatever it takes” to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, governments have shown that they can sustain levels of debt far greater than previously thought. Consequently, the coronavirus has challenged orthodox economics in just a few weeks. The belief in balanced budgets has been thrown out the window. Public debt is no longer seen as a drag on economies but a critical lifeline.

Proponents of an unconventional economic framework – Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – welcome the ramp-up in government spending. MMT posits that countries which issue their own currencies can’t go bankrupt as they can never run out of money in the way businesses and households can. That’s because governments with their own sovereign currency are able to “print” (or more precisely “create” with a few keystrokes) as much money as they need to pay creditors.

Not surprisingly, traditional economic thinking warns that such spending is fiscally irresponsible as the debt balloons and inflation skyrockets. Critics of MMT cite Hungary in the 1940’s, Brazil in the 80’s and Mexico in the 90’s as examples where easy money policies (governments creating piles of cash) led not just to inflation but hyperinflation.

But this has not deterred MMT advocates who argue that increased government spending will not generate inflation as long as there is unused economic capacity or unemployed labour. It is only when an economy hits physical or natural constraints on its productivity that inflation happens, because that is when supply fails to meet demand, jacking up prices.

This is what occurred in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s and mid-2000s. The economy collapsed, but not because Robert Mugabe printed ever-more Zimbabwean dollars. Rather, the economy nosedived when farming production plummeted by 60 per cent as Mugabe forced experienced white farmers off their land and gave it to inexperienced soldiers to farm.

The resultant decline in output caused a shortage of goods. At the same time, demand rose as Zimbabweans had more paper money. The combination of more money chasing fewer goods – the classic definition of inflation – caused a supersonic rise in prices. Wallets were replaced with wheelbarrows as hyperinflation peaked in the African nation in November 2008 at an estimated 89.7 sextillion per cent – an eye-watering number with 21 zeros after it.

Of course, Robert Mugabe’s gross economic mismanagement of Zimbabwe cannot be compared to Shinzo Abe’s savvy stewardship of the Japanese economy. A basket full of groceries in Japan in 2020 does not cost a bucket full of money as it did in Zimbabwe in 2008. That’s because Japan’s expansionary monetary policy has not been inflationary – spending has not exceeded the economy’s capacity to produce.

Despite having the highest public debt in the developed world, Japan has not experienced runaway inflation (in fact, it has been battling deflation for two decades!) and remains an economic powerhouse. Supporters of MMT cite Japan’s success as proof that their unorthodox ideas work. But critics – including world renowned economist and Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman – strongly disagree.

Both sides of this debate were outlined in a 2019 article published in The New York TimesModern Monetary Theory’s Reluctant Poster Child: Japan. Notwithstanding Japan’s hesitance to be labelled an MMT practitioner, proponents of the theory insist that Japan has been a testing ground. As explained in the article:

The country (Japan) is their (MMT’s) equivalent of Charles Darwin’s Galápagos Islands: a natural experiment that reveals a fundamental truth about the way the world really works. Since the country’s boom ended in the early 1990s, Japan has borrowed deeply. Currently, its debt level is approaching 250 percent of its annual economic output. Critics say it is an economic basket case. Despite all that, Japanese inflation and lending rates remain low. In fact, some bond rates are negative, meaning Japan can profit when it borrows money. Its standard of living remains competitive with those of the United States and other developed countries.

Bill Mitchell is a professor of economics at the University of Newcastle in Australia and one of the founders of Modern Monetary Theory. He has been closely studying Japan since the 1990s. “It is my laboratory,” he explains, calling the country “a really good demonstration of why mainstream macroeconomics is wrong”. He argues that Japan has established “the principles of MMT and the consequences of different fiscal and monetary policy initiatives”.

Japan has blurred the lines that traditionally divide fiscal and monetary policy. Other nations, including Australia, are currently doing likewise with their pandemic stimulus packages. Historically, governments have raised money to fund spending by issuing bonds which are bought by a range of investors. But some nations are now self-funding their stimulus packages by issuing and then buying their own bonds, thereby creating money out of thin air.

This funding mechanism bypasses the need to pay interest to investors on newly issued money and is at the heart of MMT – the fusion of fiscal and monetary policy. MMT links fiscal policy to monetary policy by using the central bank to buy the debt (bonds) issued by its government. If all of that sounds double Dutch, then let me share with you another explanation.

In a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Don’t add government debt to your list of things to worry about, economics writer, Jessica Irvine, quite rightly points out that the Reserve Bank of Australia (our central bank which is responsible for monetary policy) has exhausted its traditional method of stimulating our economy (lowering interest rates). So, the RBA is helping the federal government (which has responsibility for fiscal policy) stimulate the economy by buying Australian government bonds.

In answering the question: Where does the stimulus money come from?, Irvine writes:

A large part of (it) … will come from the Reserve Bank. Weird, you might be thinking. Does that mean that one arm of government – albeit a statutory independent agency – is now lending to another arm of government, the executive branch? To whom, in such a situation, do taxpayers ultimately owe the money? Themselves? The answer is: well, yes. … And if we only owe the money to ourselves, what’s to stop us spending as much as we like? Another very good question, and one to keep in mind in the strange debates to come.

Irvine underscores that MMTers would prefer that the government simply print the money, rather than borrow it from the private sector in a money-go-round they decry as “corporate welfare”. According to MMT, government issued bonds aren’t strictly necessary. Instead of issuing $1 in bonds for every $1 in deficit spending, the Australian government could just create the money directly without issuing bonds.

The belief that governments do not need to issue public debt is supported by Dr Steve Hail, a lecturer in economics at the University of Adelaide and an MMT proponent. He sees no need to match public deficits with debt issuance for a currency issuing government. Such governments should gain the necessary political approval for additional spending and then be able to do it. “Spending is self-financing,” he asserts and “does not have to be funded”.

In a recent article Dr Hail wrote for the news and opinion website, Independent Australia, he stated:

… central governments like those of Australia, New Zealand, the USA, the UK and Japan face no purely financial constraints at all. Never mind a “money tree”, they have a money computer. They can create limitless amounts of their currencies when they need to do so. They are not dependent on the goodwill of the bond market, or of credit ratings agencies. They are monetary sovereign currency issuers.

It’s clear that MMT is a controversial idea that has detractors and admirers worldwide. The coronavirus pandemic has moved MMT from the fringes of economic debate to centre stage. It is receiving unprecedented attention now that policymakers are (knowingly or unknowingly) implementing some of its basic tenets. This is MMT’s moment in the sun and only time will tell if it works as advertised.

For the record, I do not believe that government deficits are inherently bad. Nor do I believe that government budgets, like household budgets, should always be in the black. So, my belief is that MMT should not be dismissed out-of-hand nor should it be approached with a pre-existing economic ideological bias.

Remember, the economics profession (it is jokingly said) is the only field where two people can win a Nobel prize for saying the exact opposite thing!

PS. Professor Stephanie Kelton is the public face of MMT and its foremost evangelist. Her recently released book, The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and How to Build a Better Economy, provides a comprehensive and lucid explanation of MMT.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

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