By Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns.
DoctoRx, Rob Parenteau and Marshall Auerback have each written articles here to bring clarity to some issues I first raised at the beginning of the month in my post, “The recession is over but the depression has just begun.”
As I see it, the issue we are debating has to do with how the government responds when large debts in the private sector constrain demand for credit in the face of a severe economic shock and fall in aggregate demand. In short, if private sector debt levels are so high that a recession precipitates private sector credit revulsion, how should government respond?
Frankly, this question is as much philosophical and political as it is economic. So I want to wait to answer it and first frame the monetary system in a way which reveals the political nature of the question. Afterwards, I hope it is apparent that there is no one answer to this question and that any society’s answer depends on and reveals its priorities as a people. I will try to make some concluding marks about government debts and taxes in a fiat currency system given the analysis Marshall’s post.
Money and the sectors of the economy
Money is a tool, a medium of exchange, which derives its value from its utility in allowing individuals in an economy to trade goods and services. It eliminates the need to barter and make direct exchanges of goods and services in order to trade. Think of any economy as a collection of individuals or groups which trade goods and services with each other and with the outside world in exchange for a money-value of those goods and services. Each transaction is an exchange of a good or service for a equivalent value amount of money.
So, in any country, the flow of goods and services should be a one for one mirror image of the money flows. Now, if you break an economy down into sectors like the government sector, the private sector, and the foreign sector, the same is also true. Two accounting identities flow from this.
- In any particular time period, the changes in both money value of goods and the changes in the financial balances must sum to zero. As Rob, illustrated: Household FB + Business FB + Government FB + Foreign FB = 0
- One sector’s deficit is another sector’s surplus. Think of it this way, if you and I are the only ones in the economy. If I spend more than I earn in, say, one particular month to buy your goods and services, you must have spent less than you earned in that same month to buy my goods and services.
If you take Rob’s formula and combine the two sectors of households and businesses into one sector, the private sector, you are left with Private FB + Government FB + Foreign FB = 0. What this means is that in any given time period, the private sector financial balance is offset by the government and foreign sectors’ balance such that they all sum to zero.
Private sector debts and credit revulsion
Given the framework above, it should be clear that when the private sector has a net surplus, the government and foreign sectors must have a combined net deficit.
So what happens when the economy lapses into recession because of a financial crisis caused in large part by excessive leverage and debt?
The answer is credit revulsion, also known as deleveraging. And this is what we have just seen in the U.S. economy. Credit revulsion means that the private sector (businesses and households) reduce or are forced to reduce their debt burdens. This change in behavior induces a net surplus in the private sector; the private sector increases savings.
I’m sure you know where this is going. If the private sector moves to a net surplus, the combined government/foreign sectors must axiomatically move to a deficit.
A foreign sector deficit means that we are net exporting i.e. foreigners are buying more stuff from us than we are from them. We are talking money flows here not goods and service: more money coming in than going out (FB deficit) means fewer goods coming in than going out (current account surplus). Since the U.S. is not going to run a current account surplus, I am going to leave this out of the discussion to focus on the real issue: Government.
We can try and reduce private sector savings
So, the result for the U.S. of a private sector which is net saving is government deficits – this what naturally flows from a credit-revulsion induced private sector deleveraging. By saying this, I am stating fact, I am not making a political argument for or against deficit spending.
However, this is where the political/philosophical discussion starts. Two questions come to mind.
- Do we want the private sector to net save at this point in time?
- If so, do we want this savings to occur in an environment of more aggregate demand or less?
Policymakers today have answered no to the first question. They have said, “we do not like credit revulsion and our preferred policy choice is to work against it by reducing private-sector savings.” How do they do this? They lower interest rates in such a way that there is less incentive to save. Policymakers are in effect voting to continue the asset-based economic model.
But, there are several problems with this policy decision: it rewards debtors over savers, it prevents deleveraging from occurring, it creates asset bubbles, it keeps zombie companies and overcapacity alive, and it misallocates resources by artificially lengthening time preferences for money. In short, it is poor policy and it will end poorly as well.
Or we can maintain it and decide to either increase or decrease aggregate demand?
If you reject this policy path, you then have two options. In one, aggregate demand is reduced. In the other aggregate demand is increased. Which option we choose, again, depends on politics.
In a July post, I outlined the choices. (Note the labels ‘surplus’ and ‘deficit’ should really be labeled ‘financial balance.’ For simplification the foreign sector isn’t depicted but one could assume it is aggregated with the government sector.):
In the Minsky world, the increase in net savings in the private sector and reduction of the current account deficit is axiomatic when the government is increasing deficits. The point is that the private sector net saving and current account deficit must equal the government deficit. So, when the combined private savings and current account deficit increases, the government’s financial balance must become more negative.
What this implies is this (diagram from Paul Krugman’s post with the unfortunate title “Deficits saved the world”):
To make the graph easier to follow we start with sector balances at zero i.e. where sector surplus/deficit equals zero for both the private sector including the current account deficit and for the government sector. And just to be clear, points above the line show private sector savings or public sector deficit.
- We start where the red circle is.
- When an economic shock hits which precipitates a massive deleveraging, the entire demand curve shifts to the left to a new lower GDP level, everything else being equal. Thus, deleveraging equals recession. And we now see the private sector curve hitting the public sector curve where the blue circle is. The private sector is now saving and the public sector is in deficit. That is where we are today.
- However, to bring things back to neutral i.e. where sector surplus/deficit equals zero for both sectors, one could cut government spending dramatically. That shifts the entire government curve to the red line on the left, leaving us where the green circle is: in a deep, deep depression. Krugman calls this the Great Depression outcome.
The cult of zero imbalances
In the depression post which kicked off this debate, I said “I must admit to having a preternatural disaffection for large deficits and big government which is what Koo and Minsky advise respectively.” Consider me a card-carrying member of the cult of zero imbalances. My preference is to see a neutral state where the sectors are balanced as the average long-term outcome. We may deviate from a zero imbalance state over the short-term, but we should be working toward it over the longer-term.
However, in the interim, what we want is to get back to that red circle in the chart and higher GDP and stay away from the green circle and lower GDP – also known as depression. The difference between these two is government deficit spending.
Depressions are downward economic spirals. And when I invoke the term spiral, you should not be thinking of some stable equilibrium like the Great Moderation, Goldilocks economy, Nash equilibrium or some other close facsimile of economic Nirvana. You should be thinking war, famine and pestilence because those are the events which are historically associated with periods of high deflation and depression.
For me, the choice is clear.
The key is liquidation of overcapacity
While the picture I presented above represents a single point in time, what we want to know is how we get back to the green circle over time. In the depressionary example, we contract immediately and violently as aggregate demand is reduced in both the public and private sectors. The result is a liquidation of overcapacity and a depression. In the pro-growth example, aggregate demand is boosted by government spending whilst the private sector deleverages. In this scenario, liquidation of overcapacity also occurs if the government allows it to do so.
And this is the key: to the degree that government deficit spending is used as a vehicle for channeling funds to so-called systemically important businesses to prevent them from failing, we are merely kicking the can down the road. With the deleveraging, malinvestment must be purged for the economy to right itself on a sustainable growth path.
Government’s hidden debt?
That brings me to the last point: government debt. The first issue I want to address is unfunded liabilities. This is something of great concern to many (including myself). However, when we are talking about debt and credit, it is not particularly relevant. I mention this because of my statement in the original post:
The government plays a crucial role here because of the huge private sector indebtedness. In the U.S. and the U.K., the public sector is not nearly as indebted.
A lot of people want to bolt the unfunded liabilities onto government debt to make the government’s debts appear larger than they actually are. But when talking about the credit system, we have to be careful and distinguish between obligations and actual debt – related but different terms.
In a period of credit revulsion, the key issue is the overall credit in the system. At issue is a debtor’s inability to meet large existing obligations such that the debtor defaults, the obligation is written down, and the overall credit in the system contracts by the amount of capital that has been allocated to that writedown. The issue is credit writedowns and how they suck capital out of the system, reducing credit and leading to a potential deflationary spiral. It has absolutely nothing to do with unfunded obligations.
The governments unfunded liabilities for social security and healthcare are akin to General Motors’ unfunded pension liabilities. GM’s unfunded liabilities are germane to a credit crisis only to the degree they flow through the income statement and, thus, require credit financing in real time.
Government and its money
The difference between GM and the federal government is vast, however. General Motors is a private organization which must fund its obligations by selling products. To quote Ben Bernanke’s now infamous words:
the U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or, today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost.
The U.S. government has monopoly control of the currency and no other entity can print money as a medium of exchange in the United States (see my post “The origin of the U.S. dollar as legal tender and its link to Depression” for how this came to be.) When anyone else attempts to print money, it is called counterfeiting. In saying this, I am stating fact, I am not making a political argument for or against legal tender laws.
This is a problem for states – which cannot print their own money – and for Eurozone countries – which also cannot print their own money (as I laid out in my post, “Depressionary bust in Ireland is echoed in California”) – but it is not a problem for the U.S. government. If the U.S. government so chooses, it can ‘fund’ any purchase with additional money it prints. It is not constrained in the same way private sector actors or even states and local municipalities are.
It is disingenuous for economic pundits like Marc Faber to suggest the U.S. is going to go bust. The United States will not literally be declared insolvent as long as it issues debt in its own currency. Countries that have gone bust, Russia, Mexico, and Argentina were borrowing in foreign currency because of interest rate differentials. No sovereign nation which prints and issues debt in its own fiat currency can ever involuntarily be made insolvent.
Inflation is another issue altogether. When the economy is operating at potential, money printing leads to consumer price inflation. But this is not the case right now, there is an enormous output gap that is not going to be closed anytime soon. So the government can print all the money it wants and buy all the Treasuries it wants; none of this will lead to consumer price inflation in the short run except via dollar depreciation and import prices. Again, I have to remind you that in saying this, I am stating fact, I am not making a political argument for or against quantitative easing.
I should point out that the output gap is why money printing is leading to an asset price bubble both in the U.S. and globally and one reason we should reject QE even in the absence of consumer price inflation (this line was added because the initial comments suggested readers thought I am advocating quantitative easing when I am not).
I hope this post adds to the debate Marshall, Rob, and DoctoRx have taken on.