WaPo Covers MMT, But Does Its Usual Bad Job: Part Two, Inflation/Hyperinflation
This post continues the critical evaluation of Dylan Matthews's, post published on Ezra Klein's blog called “You know the deficit hawks. Now meet the deficit owls.”
The Inflation/Hyperinflation Bogeyman
“And while Modern Monetary Theory’s proponents take Keynes as their starting point and advocate aggressive deficit spending during recessions, they’re not that type of Keynesians. Even mainstream economists who argue for more deficit spending are reluctant to accept the central tenets of Modern Monetary Theory. Take Krugman, who regularly engages economists across the spectrum in spirited debate. He has argued that pursuing large budget deficits during boom times can lead to hyperinflation. Mankiw concedes the theory’s point that the government can never run out of money but doesn’t think this means what its proponents think it does.
“Technically it’s true, he says, that the government could print streams of money and never default. The risk is that it could trigger a very high rate of inflation. This would “bankrupt much of the banking system,” he says. “Default, painful as it would be, might be a better option.”
Well, Krugman has argued there is a danger of hyperinflation where deficit spending lasts for many years, but in a really balanced piece, the counter-arguments of MMT economists to his conjecture would at least be mentioned. Dylan doesn't say what these counter-arguments are.
And as for Dylan's reference to Mankiw, it's easy to wave off MMT by saying there is a risk of inflation in using deficit spending to create full employment, but it is entirely another matter to say what the level of risk is, and to provide compelling arguments about why that risk is appreciable, and more costly than the effects of chronic unemployment in a stagnating economy. This Mankiw doesn't begin to do. I think Dylan should have pointed this out, rather than just mentioning Mankiw's opinion. Who cares about his opinion? It's his arguments, his theories, for expecting inflation that we care about. So, why doesn't Dylan outline what these are and critically evaluate them?
When Mankiw tells us that default might be a better option than risking inflation by printing money, he is going way beyond his claimed area of expertise in economics. The 14th Amendment to the US constitution prohibits even questioning Government debt, much less defaulting on it. Mankiw in his capacity as an economist is unqualified to say whether a violation of the US constitution is a better option than taking the risk of triggering hyperinflation by “printing money.”
“Mankiw’s critique goes to the heart of the debate about Modern Monetary Theory —?and about how, when and even whether to eliminate our current deficits.
“When the government deficit spends, it issues bonds to be bought on the open market. If its debt load grows too large, mainstream economists say, bond purchasers will demand higher interest rates, and the government will have to pay more in interest payments, which in turn adds to the debt load.”
Well, this is what the mainstream says. But what do MMT economists say in return? Why doesn't Dylan mention that?
What MMT replies is that bond issuance isn't an inevitability, but a result of choices made by the US Congress and the Executive Branch of Government. The Congress could place the Fed under the authority of the Treasury Secretary in the Executive Branch, and then no debt would have to be issued to deficit spend, since the Fed could just mark up the Treasury General Account (TGA) under orders from the Secretary.
MMT also points out that the Fed controls the Federal Funds Rate which, in turn, heavily influences all bond rates. If the Fed targets a near zero FFR, and the Treasury issues no bonds longer than say, three months in duration, then bond interest rates can be kept near zero no matter how much debt is issued. Japan has proved this is the case since its debt-to-GDP ratio is now in excess of 200% while its interest rates are very near zero on short-term debt instruments.
Finally, Mankiw seems not to know that even if neither of these alternatives is pursued, the Executive Branch still has options to avoid further borrowing and paying higher interest rates and ro repay debt without either cutting spending or raising taxes. Here, I refer to Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PPCS).
As I've outlined in numerous posts including this one, the President at his option could require the Treasury and the US Mint to create a coin of arbitrary face value and deposit it at the Fed. The coin's value is limited only by the President's specification. For example, a $60 T coin might be minted. The Fed must provide $60 T in electronic credits in return for the US Mint deposit of the coin in its Public Enterprise Fund (PEF) account. The Treasury can then “sweep” the PEF for the difference between the Mint's cost in producing the coin and its face value, and place that difference in the Treasury General Account (TGA). Treasury could then use this “seigniorage” to repay all US debts as they fall due, and to implement all spending in excess of tax revenues appropriated by Congress. Using the PPCS option would require no new legislation. The President can use it at will to fill the public purse awaiting Congress's appropriations providing authority to spend the electronic credits already in it to secure goods and services from the non-Government sector. Of course, there's no possible inflationary effect of purse filling as long as Congress's appropriations and the ensuing deficit spending aren't inflationary.
Next, Dylan says:
“To get out of this cycle, the Fed?— which manages the nation’s money supply and credit and sits at the center of its financial system — could buy the bonds at lower rates, bypassing the private market. The Fed is prohibited from buying bonds directly from the Treasury — a legal rather than economic constraint. But the Fed would buy the bonds with money it prints, which means the money supply would increase. With it, inflation would rise, and so would the prospects of hyperinflation.”
Again, Dylan only tells the mainstream side of the story and not the MMT reply to it. If the Fed buys bonds with money it prints, this will increase reserves in the private sector, but it won't increase Net Financial Assets (NFA), because buying the bonds is just an asset swap. So with no new NFA being added to the private sector by the Government, this sort of Fed operation won't be inflationary, as its massive QE programs have just demonstrated empirically. In fact, by removing the payment of interest on bonds from the private sector, and given that most of the Fed profits are returned to the Treasury, some MMT economists say that the end result of such operations may well be deflationary.
“Economists in the Modern Monetary camp concede that deficits can sometimes lead to inflation. But they argue that this can only happen when the economy is at full employment — when all who are able and willing to work are employed and no resources (labor, capital, etc.) are idle. No modern example of this problem comes to mind, Galbraith says.
“The last time we had what could be plausibly called a demand-driven, serious inflation problem was probably World War I,” Galbraith says. “It’s been a long time since this hypothetical possibility has actually been observed, and it was observed only under conditions that will never be repeated.”
Note, that Jamie refers to demand-driven inflation above. He doesn't say that cost-push inflation can't happen as the economy approaches full employment. MMT economists recognize this possibility, and consider that the 1970s inflation was of this type, but point out that cost-push inflation has little to do with Government deficit spending per se, and must be combated with anti-speculation law enforcement, price controls, targeted taxation, and sometimes even de-regulation (See: [01:03:29] and [01:03:47]) in the effected or related sectors, rather than by raising taxes or cutting spending.